Memories of a Harem

News reports of Turkey’s frantic attempts to protect relics of the Ottoman Empire in Syria evoke stories about Kaiser Wilhelm’s state visit, with his wife, the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, to Constantinople in 1898. The Kaiser was fascinated by Arabian Nights, a fascination that, in 1914, led to a determined effort, eventually successful, to woo the Turks to side with him rather than Winston Churchill, who also had made overtures.

But in the early raptures of at last becoming Kaiser, his visits to the capital of the Ottoman Empire became hugely important events, and the Ottomans spared no effort to please him and to celebrate the occasion. By then the Ottoman Empire was almost finished, no longer a functioning entity. For example, the collection of taxes was farmed out, as was the postal service.

The maintenance of ancestral institutions had become so neglected that even Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s harem was in a state of advanced decrepitude. When, on one hot afternoon, a senior vizier asked her majesty, a lady known for her humourless bigotry, if there was anything she wanted to see, she said yes, the harem, please.

All that observers recorded of her visit was that she was repelled by the unsanitary conditions of the facilities, and that a few fat, middle-aged ladies were on display, who were bored to tears. The only other thing historians recorded was that the Kaiserin on that suffocating afternoon was appalled by the flies.

Evidently, the tomb the Turks were hoping to protect is a reminder of happier days.


One response to “Memories of a Harem

  1. Elisabeth Ecker

    I noted that the postal service was farmed out by a no longer functioning Empire. Maybe this says something.