The Lion House: The Coming of a King by By Christopher de Bellaigue - review by Jonathan Keates

Jonathan Keates

Secrets of the Seraglio

The Lion House: The Coming of a King


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After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II and the end of the Byzantine Empire, a mythical hate figure known generically as ‘the Turk’ haunted the imagination of Christian Europe. ‘The Turk’ was a species of ogre, one of those creatures with whom mothers were supposed to frighten their children into good behaviour. ‘The Turk’ did outlandish and indecent things, like sitting cross-legged on carpets and cushions, drinking coffee, sherbet and rosewater, having his siblings strangled with bowstrings and taking his pleasure, to a perfectly exhausting degree, among the assortment of captive females (and not a few males besides) whom his Janissaries had dragged home at scimitar point to stock his seraglio. Much, these days, is talked about ‘othering’, but where otherness goes, nobody was a patch on ‘the Turk’.

The allure of such fantastic monsters is their very transgressiveness. Even if it meant having to wear a turban, get yourself circumcised or live in a harem guarded by eunuchs, the prospect of ‘turning Turk’ retained a glamour among respectable Christians. Typical enough was the case of Alvise Gritti,

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