The Imperial Procession: Recreating a world's order

Stephane Yerasimos

Festivals and the performances, processions, feats, and feasts that they incorporate are events common to every human society that has ever existed. For this reason, any attempt to identify the specific roots of the magnificent parades and festivities that were held among the Ottomans on the occasion of the circumcision of a sultan's sons or imperial weddings would be so difficult as to be impossible. In all the studies that have been done to date,[1] the roots have been sought, with other elements of Ottoman Turkish culture, in Central Asia, in Anatolia, in the among the Byzantines. The differences between these festivals, the most important of held between the 16th and the middle of the 19th centuries, with similar events taking contemporaneously in Renaissance and Baroque Europe are also pointed out. One of the most (with the exception of some parades marking ) were held for an elite group and within the confines of a palace such that the because they addressed such a privileged audience. Insofar as this is true, Ottoman festivals are closer in spirit to those of Medieval Europe though they were incomparably richer and more magnificent.

If we must set Ottoman festivals in a broader context, we believe it is necessary to consider them from two different aspects. The first of these is the divine aspect--which is to say the aspect of a society that lives within an established order that is, so far as that society is concerned, immutable and for which any change is considered tantamount to degeneration. The second is the imperial aspect--the aspect of a polity that claims to be a world power. Both of these were distinguishing features of Ottoman society.

As is the case in all traditional societies, among the Ottomans "innovation" meant "degeneration" because it was perceived as a deviation from the established order. There is a difficulty however in that the internal dynamics of a society give birth to contradictions and tensions. In that respect, spectacles in which everyone took part and festivals during which the accepted rules of discourse and behavior were violated and prohibitions were breached and skills were displayed that exceeded the bounds of the ordinary and customary act as a safety valve releasing tensions and allowing society to return to its path of normalcy. As a result of such spectacles society directly--or through those of its members who take part in them--"gets it out of its system" and is once again able to put up with the established order. This is why Ottoman festivals resemble medieval spectacles, which were also informed by the same attitude towards social order.

That said, Ottoman festivals were also held by a political authority that was intent on dominating the world. For this reason, Ottoman imperial processions were also an occasion on which to show off the might of the Ottoman state, to renew it, and to prove it to its own people and to everyone else. In the course of a festival foreign envoys, government officials, the heads of guilds, and men of accomplishment and talent marched before the sultan and presented him with gifts in a ceremony that implied a renewal of the whole world's allegiance to the sovereign. Indeed during the circumcision feast of 1582, the greatest of all these festivals, the fact that the procession included representations of farmers plowing their fields, of fishermen catching fish, and of tradesmen and craftsmen of every kind plying their respective trades and crafts needs to be considered as a proof and a sign that the sovereign was the caretaker of the established order that was marching before him.

Under the circumstances, we should think of Ottoman imperial processions as events staged to alleviate social tensions and also to replenish political power and authority. The festival of 1720, the subject of this book, marked the beginning of the so-called "Age of the Tulip" in Ottoman history, a reaction to the demonstration--in the form of the empire's loss of Hungary, under the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699 after a sixteen-year war, and its loss of Belgrade, under the Treaty of Passarowitz after another defeat in a four-year war (1715-1718) that was supposed to have been revenge for the previous humiliation--that the empire's decline was irreversible and unavoidable. The great festival of 1582 heralded a period of irresolution--which would later be recognized by historians as the onset of the empire's decline--that began with the assassination of Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha in 1579. The festival of 1530 was held immediately after the unsuccessful siege of Vienna. The festivals held in the 18th century to celebrate the births of imperial offspring were events that were staged to assuage fears that the Ottoman house, the "pillar of the state" whose members ascended the throne relatively late in life, might not be perpetuated. The fears were not entirely groundless. Both Mahmud I (r 1730-1754) and Osman III (r 1754-1757) died without a direct heir with the result that the birth of a daughter to Mustafa III (in 1759) was the occasion for an important festival. The birth of Princess Hatice, the first-born child of Abdülhamid I in 1776, was also celebrated in this way.

If we conceive of Ottoman festivals as events in which an empire demonstrated and also renewed its own might as much in the eyes of its own subjects and officials as in those of foreign ambassadors, then the nature of the problem of identifying the roots of the spectacles and activities making up the festival becomes changed. It is changed because the problem is not so much one of roots as it is one of synthesis--a synthesis on the part of a state that regards anything that works to its own benefit as being proof that it is indeed a world power. For the festival that he held in Edirne in 1675, Mehmed IV asked the Venetian ambassador for an opera company; acrobatic horsemen were recruited mostly from Egypt; Greek, Jewish, and Armenian troupes performed their national dances:--all in an effort on the part of a world-power Ottoman state to muster all cultures into its service and demonstrate that it could employ them to exalt itself.

Ottoman festivals in fact consist of two distinct elements that do not completely agree with one another. The first is the imperial procession (sur-i hümayun) itself; the second is a literary work (surname, "book of the procession") that ostensibly describes the event. Far more than being an account of a festival however, a surname employs overwrought and adulatory phrasing to highlight (or gloss over) events so as to ensure that they are recorded for history in the most favorable light. For the more important festivals there exists more than one account and, in the case of the festivals of 1530, 1582, and 1675, we also have the accounts written by foreign observers; the differences among the accounts of the same festival are such as to confirm the assertion made in the previous sentence. The authors of surnames no less than those of şahnames (accounts of a sultan's deeds and exploits) or official chroniclers had the duty of recording the sultan and the mechanisms of state for history and they did so by filling up pages with the most splendid moments of the Ottoman imperium employing the most splendiferous phrasing they could concoct. In the introduction to the surname of 1720, the author Vehbi tells us that he was awarded the duty as the result of a competition, the winners of which were himself and Rasid, who was then a court chronicler. Clearly an element of deliberation is involved here. As a consequence of his position, Rasid employed a less elaborate style and recorded events in his own way whereas Vehbi was charged with creating a masterpiece that would be an account of the 1720 festival for future generations, a task for which a second person's contributions--those of Levni, the court artist--would also be required. Indeed what makes the account of the 1720 festival an enduring work of art is Levni's miniatures. A similar approach was taken for the festival of 1582, the bombastic text of whose surname was composed by an author employing the pen-name of "İntizami" and to which 435 double-page miniatures prepared by artists of the court studios were added as illustrations. In the Seyyid Lokman Şehinsahname, a work in the şahname genre, there are also 42 miniatures depicting the same festival.

In addition to the magnificent surnames that were composed for the court and were retained by it, there also exist written accounts that were written by or for a festival's officers. Much plainer in style, these are texts of great documentary value. Hacı Halil Efendi, the master of the 1720 procession and also the chief of the imperial kitchens, had a surname of 168 leaves composed by an author named Mehmed Hazin that describes events much more simply but also much more informatively. For the Edirne festival of 1675, the chief black eunuch, Yusuf Agha, had an account written by a scribe named Abdi.

The substantial number of surnames, the differences among them, and the absence to date of a comprehensive study of them all prevent us not only from grasping the contradictions between what their texts relate and what really transpired but also from tracing the development of Ottoman imperial processions in the course of their 400-year history. For this reason, we are going to limit what we say here to a few observations.

In the established order of the Ottomans, continuity was essential and for that reason, efforts were made to adhere to precedents. For the feast held in 1582, examples of old invitations were to be used to write the new ones. Feridun Bey's set of model letters was searched for but could not be located. Gelibolulu Mustafa Ali Bey, who composed the versified surname for this festival, disliked the texts of the letters that were composed and criticized them. Before the festivities of 1720 were begun, old books of protocol and cadis' records were examined in order to determine the nature and value of the gifts that each professional guild would have to present to the sultan. Despite such devotion to precedent however, the nature and duration of these festivals changed over the course of time in response to the conditions of the day.

The earliest festivals of which we have detailed knowledge are the ones held on the occasion of the marriage of Princess Hatice (a sister of Süleyman I) to Grand Vizier İbrahim Pasha in 1524 and of the circumcision feast held for Suleyman's sons Mustafa, Mehmed, and Selim in 1530. At the time, the empire was waging war on most of its neighbors (which naturally imposed certain limits on its foreign relations) with the result that few invitations were sent abroad. The only official foreign embassy to attend the 1524 festival was Pietro Bragadino, the Venetian ambassador resident in İstanbul, and Pietro Zeno, an extraordinary envoy from the Serene Republic.[2] For the 1530 festival, Toma Mocenigo,[3] another Venetian envoy, was specially dispatched and he was accompanied by the Venetian ambassador Francesco Bernardo and his entourage.[4] Another foreign witness to the event was Hieronymus Laski, the representative for Jan Zapolya, whom Süleyman had installed as the Hungarian king. On both occasions, an attempt was made to show off the military successes of the Ottoman house. Among the tents erected at the Hippodrome to serve as pavilions from which dignitaries could observe the proceedings was the tent of Uzun Hasan that Mehmed II had captured at the Battle of Otlukbeli, the tent of Shah Ismail that Selim I had captured at the Battle of Çaldıran, and the tent of the Mamluk sultan Kansuh Gavri that Selim had captured at the Battle of Merc-i Dabik.

The festival of 1582 on the other hand was conceived of from the outset as an international event and invitations were sent out to all the countries that were known or at least to which importance was given. Invitations sent westward were addressed to the rulers of France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Papal States, Venice, Poland, and Russia; those going eastward were addressed to the rulers of Persia, Uzbekistan, and Hindustan; the sultan of Morocco in North Africa received an invitation; from the Ottoman domains, the sheriff of Mecca, the Tatar khan, the Georgian kings, the vaivodes (governors) of Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania, and the head of the Dubrovnik republic were all summoned. Most of those invited sent envoys to attend the festival while those, such as France, Germany, and Venice which already had permanent representatives in İstanbul, charged their envoys with the duty. For the foreign dignitaries, a grandstand with private boxes was erected along the Hippodrome but this immediately ran into protocol problems. The original plan was to install the envoy of the Persian shah in the first box but when the envoy of the German emperor heard of this, he went to the sheikulislam and protested saying "You have declared that killing a single Kızılbaş ("Red-head", a disparaging term for Alevi Muslims) is more meritorious than killing seventy infidels. How is it then that you are assigning first place to them?" Thus "They approached the Envoy of the Vermilion Apexes and separated their tables, creating for them another vantage from which they might observe the proceedings without becoming involved with the aforementioned persons."[5]

Because it was held at a time when the Ottoman empire was at the pinnacle of its power, the 1582 festival really was an event of world-class importance. For the festivals that were held after this, no invitations of this sort seem to have been sent out. There were a number of foreign spectators at the Edirne festival of 1675, but they were there in a private capacity and not even the foreign ambassadors resident in İstanbul were invited to attend. At the 1720 festival, a number of foreign ambassadors were specially hosted. On the eleventh day when the guildsmen's parades were held, the French and Russian ambassadors attended; the Hungarian and Flemish ambassadors showed up the following day; and on the thirteenth day, when the attack on the mockup citadel was staged, the Venetian and Austrian ambassadors were hosted. In the days that followed, the representative of the Republic of Dubrovnik and the Wallachian vaivode made an appearance to present their gifts.

On the basis of the material available to us, it is impossible to come to the conclusion that there were any predetermined or invariable rules governing the conduct of imperial processions of this kind. Nevertheless we can identify a number of basic elements to which various degrees of importance were attached according to circumstances. These basic elements can be summed up as gifts, feasts, guild parades, performances, and a circumcision or wedding procession.

The gift-giving phase of a festival was a materially as well as symbolically important one: in addition to being a ceremony in which everyone of every rank from the mightiest to the humblest displayed his homage to the sultan, it also helped defray at least part of the expenses of the festival since these goods went into the treasury. Furthermore the presentation, in a great public spectacle, of gifts to the Ottoman sultan by all the constituents of his state and country and by all the sovereigns of the world was clear evidence of the sultan's power. This is why gifts were presented by everyone from grand vizier to the lowliest clerk and by all the guilds and why pages of surname texts are devoted to descriptions of them. Lists of the gifts including detailed descriptions and values were recorded in protocol registers and these served as precedents for the things that might have to be submitted by others in future festivals.

At the festival of 1530, İbrahim Pasha presented 160.gifts with a total value of between 35-40 thousand gold pieces. Five hundred janissaries were required to carry in the gifts given by İbrahim Pasha and two other viziers, Ayas Pasha and Kasım Pasha. For the most part, everyone tried to come forth with the best, the most expensive, or the most impressive of whatever things were the distinctive features of his particular country or province. For the 1582 festival, the Polish ambassador showed up with two mastiffs and six bundles of sable furs, each containing forty skins apiece; the Venetian ambassador presented jewelry and precious fabrics; the Crimean khan, slaves and furs; the Mecca emir, aloe wood and amber; the German ambassador, jewelry worth forty thousand ducats; the Persian ambassador, manuscripts and miniature-illustrated books and Persian carpets. The most frequently recurring gifts were fabrics and garments, precious stones and jewelry articles, horses and their trappings, manuscript books, furs, scents, and slaves. Members of the Ulema typically presented copies of Qurans and other religious books while guildsmen brought examples of their own handiwork or vessels of silver or gold.

In return for these gifts, the sultans held feasts during which they distributed gold coins or dressed designated individuals in robes of honor. The details of the feasts however changed in the course of time. On the first day of the 1530 festival for example, there was a public feast that must have been attended by tens of thousands; the second day's feast was for the janissaries, numbering seven to eight thousand. On the third day, about 2,000 cavalrymen from the sultan's personal guard were entertained; on the fourth, the same number of knights and regular guards; and on the fifth, the same number of corpsmen from various other cavalry units. On the sixth day, it was the turn of the artillerymen's corps, the armorers' corps, and the palace servants; on the seventh, that of the military justices, the cadis, and the headmasters of schools. On the eighth day, the masters of the exchequer, the chief doorman, the sergeant-major and sergeants, and leaders of the troops showed up; and on the ninth, the pashas. What we observe here is clearly a pyramidal order of protocol. Yet the feasts at the 1720 festival were held in exactly the reverse order, from the top down as it were: on the first day, the grand vizier, the three top-ranking pashas, the two chief military justices, and the three masters of the exchequer; on the second, the sheikulislam, the remaining military justices, and all the cadis who happened to be in İstanbul at the time were invited making up a guest list of about sixty who took part in discussions on religious matters as they feasted. The following day, 238 medrese headmasters were invited--although they too were members of the Ulema, they were clearly of lesser rank. On the fourth day, the guests consisted of the sheiks and preachers of thirty-eight mosques and on the fifth, a hundred thirty-eight persons who were descendants of Prophet Muhammad. The sixth day was reserved for the members of the sultan's personal cavalry corps and master armorers and the seventh for the janissary grandmaster and other high-ranking officers; the eighth day for palace servants, doormen, tasters, and court scribes; the ninth day for the bostanji grandmaster and officers, the masters of the horse and stablemen corps, and servants responsible for the palace pantry, hunts, and boats; the tenth day for members of the civil service; the eleventh day for the personnel of the arsenals; the twelfth day for the sheiks of dervish lodges; the thirteenth day for the governors-general and provincial cadis; and the fourteenth for the general public. One thing that this ordering clearly shows is how important the religious class had become in the Ottoman Empire in the course of two and a half centuries: in 1530, only a single feast was held for members of the Ulema; in 1720, there were six.

An interesting and important feature of these feasts was the public "scramble" for the remaining food and for all the tableware and coverings after the official guests had eaten and withdrawn. This episode is one of the best indicators that these festivals were affairs in which the boundaries separating rulers from ruled and disorder from order were drawn and in which the controlled breach of those boundaries was permitted. A sovereign who deliberately and willingly agreed to suffer loss and allow his property to be looted was displaying his munificence and, at the same time, by permitting disorder in a context that was of his own choosing and under his own control, he was also seeking to entrench his authority by commanding obedience at other times. It was a dangerous balance however. In 1582, when the empire was strong, it could afford to allow every feast to end in a "scramble" in which commoners made off with thousands of utensils in tumultuous melees, one of which took twenty-five lives. By the 18th century, when janissary mutinies had become commonplace, the after-feast "scramble" was reduced to a merely symbolic level.

The festival of 1582 lasted 55 days, during which time nearly 200 different guilds showed off their accomplishments and presented their sovereign with gifts. In no other festival was so much importance given to the guild processions and the reason is that, at this one, the objective was to present a living panorama of the society of the day and to demonstrate its relationship with its state and its sovereign. In the 1582 festival, Ottoman society paraded before the throne of a sultan who stood standing as it passed. Yet there seems to have been no clear arrangement in the way the different professions, trades, and crafts were mustered. At the very least, the various sources that give an account of this festival all differ in the details of which guilds took part and in the order in which they appeared. In the 1720 festival on the other hand, far fewer guilds took part but there was clearly an effort to present them in some kind of order. The guild parades began on the sixth day of the festival and started with the farmers, who were followed by the millers and the bakers. The vital importance of the production chain of bread-flour-wheat and the tradition of regarding Adam as the patron saint of farmers are what made such a beginning meaningful. In 1582, the farmers marched on the 18th day of the festival, being preceded by the manufacturers of musk-scented soap and followed by axe-making blacksmiths. In 1720, the bread-bakers were followed by mutton-butchers and they in turn by beef-butchers, who were followed by cooks and kebab-makers, slaughterers, and tanners. Up to this point, the chain of logic being followed seems to be clear but it is much harder to identify a relationship in the sequence of candlemakers, barbers, saddlers, and Grand Bazaar merchants who followed them on the same day. On the seventh day there were no guild parades; and on the eighth, tentmakers, shoemakers, grocers, fruiterers, turban-makers, skullcap-makers, quilt-makers, bazaar merchants, slave-dealers, and cotton-fluffers marched. On the ninth day, thirteen guilds made their appearance; on the eleventh, only six showed up because of rain. Thereafter there were no more guild parades.

Guildsmen were not the only people who marched in parades. In the 1582 festival, there were contingents of Christians employed in the arsenals, dervishes from Eyüp, veterans from Rumelia, and "Franks" (ie Western Europeans) from Galata. The last group was unusual because it was the only group whose members marched as couples dressed in men's and women's garb.

Performances consisted generally of displays of skill on the part of guildsmen as they marched by or sometimes between the departure of one guild and the arrival of the next. The performers themselves might be individuals seeking some sort of reward, a slave or captive seeking freedom, members of military units, or people with unusual talents who had been specially sent by provincial governors. In such performances the focus was on activities that demanded great strength or dexterity. In addition to them, there were also sports-like activities between competing teams or individuals such as horse races, jereed, and wrestling. (These were common in earlier festivals; in the 1720 festival, there were very few of such events.) An invariable element of every festival was a siege and battle over a mockup of a fortress built of wood and paper. The painter Matrakci Nasuh is known to have created such a fortress for the 1530 festival. In the 1720 festival, there were repeated instances of such events though, because part of the festival was held along the Golden Horn, the introduction of ships in the performance was an innovation. Some of these ships were real and others were fake. They took part in set battles, moved across the water and on land, and one even "walked" a tightrope.

Another feature common to all festivals was fireworks displays. The artists who staged these shows took advantage of discoveries in pyrotechnics in other countries and made innovative developments of their own. Indeed, foreign spectators at Ottoman festivals are consistent in their admiration for the fireworks displays that they saw. About seventy different types of fireworks can be identified in the corpus of surname literature. Edward Webbe, who had been taken a prisoner of war by the Turks and lived among them for about ten years, prepared a huge fireworks show for the 1582 festival.[6] For the 1675 festival, some 300 pyrotechnists were brought to Edirne from İstanbul and Egypt. They were in the charge of two renegades, one Flemish the other Venetian.

The last stage of a festival was the circumcision or wedding procession of which the most important element was an artificial tree resembling a wax palm or cypress tree. Called a nahıl, it was decorated with flowers, fruits, and the figures of animals and even human beings all fashioned from beeswax or colored paper. In his description of the 1524 festival, Celalzade Mustafa tells us that these trees were decorated with figures of camels and camel-drovers, Arabian horses with saddles encrusted with precious stones, storks, monkeys, lions, tigers, hawks, falcons, goshawks, fortresses (with their own moats, towers, and cannons and guns within the towers), ships, marines, and pirates. As a representation of the tree of life and a symbol of fertility, these trees were a sign of the host's power and for that reason, the ones prepared for imperial processions were constructed to be as big and as magnificent as possible. For the 1582 festival there were four huge trees, each one of which was moved by a hundred janissaries. At the Edirne festival of 1675, there were two trees each more than 20 meters high and requiring nearly two hundred galley slaves to move it. For the 1720 festival, the trees were so big that breeches had to be opened in the walls of the Old Palace, where they had been constructed, to get them outside and some of the roofs of houses on their route to the festival ground had to be dismantled so that they could pass.

In addition to the artificial trees, artificial gardens and the figures of plants and animals fashioned from sugar by confectioners were also a feature of these festivals. 170 quintals (more than 9 tons) of sugar were used to make the figures in the 1582 festival. "Candy gardens" were an innovation that was introduced at the 1675 festival and was further developed for the 1720 one.

The 1582 festival lasted nearly two months; the 1720 festival on the other hand was over and done in just two weeks. During that time however, "society's headband was undone" to use a phrase repeatedly employed by Vehbi. The prohibitions under which society labored were lifted to a substantial degree and that which was forbidden--or which at least had to be done furtively--could be done openly and end up being reported in a surname. The nahıls could be decorated with three-dimensional figures of human beings (at the 1582 festival, craftsmen brought forth statues of human beings so realistic as to appear to be alive and they were rewarded for their efforts by the sultan); raki and even wine could be drunk at the feasts hosted by the sovereign; and a women (albeit dressed as a man) could appear before an audience riding a horse. At the 1675 festival, erotic dances were performed. And in all the miniatures in which the folk of the city are depicted we find men and women intermixed in the crowds. The result is that the imperial processions and the surnames that describe them present us with a living cross-section of Ottoman society of their day in which the elements of magnificence and marvel and the temporary liberty that they brought for their society are revealed for all to see.

Notes

1. See especially Metin And, Kırk Gun Kırk Gecestanbul: 1959) and Osmanlı Şenliklerinde Türk Sanatları (Ankara: 1982).

2. Brief descriptions exist of both. See Marino Sanudo, I diarii, vol xxxvi, col 443-446 (Zeno) and col 505-507 (Bragadino).

3. Mocenigo’s appointment as an extraordinary envoy on 30 December 1529 is an indication that preparations for the festival (which began on 27 June 1530) must have begun at least as early as the previous fall, probably after Süleyman’s return from his Vienna campaign.

4. For descriptions of Mocenigo, Bernardo, and those accompanying them see Sanudo vol liii col 447-459.

5. Intizami, Surname-i Humayun (Vienna manuscript, leaf 8a) in Gisela Prochazka-Eisl, Das Surname-i Humayun, Die Wiener Handschrift in Transkription, mit Kommentar und Indices versehen (İstanbul: Isis, 1995), 77.

6. Edward Webbe, The rare and most wonderful thinges which Edward Webbe, an Englishman borne, hath sene and passed in his troublesome travailes... (London: 1590).

 


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