Researching Constantinople of 1555

A visit to Istanbul yielded a rich seam of research for my most recent in series The Familists. Here’s some highlights.

Mehmet II besieged and conquered Constantinople in 1453 and simply moved into what the Byzantines had vacated, re-purposing and repairing as he went. The stunning Hagia Sofia, built nine hundred years earlier in 537 , as the principle church of the Byzantine Empire, became a mosque

Ceiling of the Hagia Sofia Mosque

and the church within the Topkapi Palace grounds was used as an arsenal.

Hagia Eirene, a church in grounds of the Palace

My characters find themselves in Constantinople barely a hundred years later, or more accurately, living across the Golden Horn in an area known as Galata where the many Conversos (Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity) fleeing across Europe finally settled .

Map of Galata 1500s

Conversos were originally expelled from Spain and spoke a Judeo Spanish known as Ladino (the Greek Jews of Constantinople who’d been there long before the Spanish Jews arrived spoke a Judeo-Greek known as Romaniote). I was very interested to see a child’s Ladino textbook in the museum of Turkish Jews in Galata

Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) Text Book

Galata is dominated still by its watch tower built by the Genoese when they captured Galata in the 1300s.

Galata Tower built by Genoese

The area was famous for its fish market even then, which is well worth a visit.

Famous Fish Market of Galata

I had debated whether a trip to Istanbul was necessary since I had already done a lot of research for The Familists and of course it would have changed dramatically since 1555. But I’m glad we made the trip for, apart from being a magnificent city, there were at the very least the vistas which cannot be captured in the same way through looking at images. The view Bethia would have seen whenever she crossed the Golden Horn to take goods to the harem in the Topkapi Palace or visit the Grand Bazaar would have included the Süleymaniye Mosque rising behind the city walls.

Suleymaniye Mosque built 1550-7

The Grand Bazaar established during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II between 1451 and 1481, is one of the largest and oldest covered markets still in existence, with about four thousand shops.

One of the Entrances to the Grand Bazaar

What I could never have captured from research alone was the sheer noise of the place as voices of traders haggling with customers echoed off its high arched roofs – and we were there in the evening shortly before it closed. I can’t begin to imagine how loud it must be in the middle of the day.

I am a lover of castles as those who read my newsletter will know from its regular slot covering ‘Great Castles to Visit in Scotland’ but the Topkapi Palace is beyond any castle I’ve ever visited. We were there for five hours and I barely touched the sides. Above is husband pictured at the beginning of our visit …and below after five hours. In my defence he did spend the last hour sitting reading the book on his phone.

Most fascinating of all was the tour of the harem. My character Bethia ends up running a business selling goods to the concubines who, of course, could not leave its confines. The mostly Jewish women who provided this service, were known as kiras. The harem is inevitably a more confined area than the rest of the spacious palace, with a view only of the sky from its narrow courtyards.

Within the Harem

Even the Valide Sultan (the sultan’s mother) reception room was surprisingly small.

Valide Sultan’s Audience Room

The eunuchs quarters are attached to the harem and also a dormitory. Indeed there were lots of dormitories within the palace for both janissaries and all the administrators who worked and lived there – around three thousand people in all during the time of Suleiman.

Dormitory with sleeping patforms – one of the many

There were men who brought the women of the harem their food from the palace kitchens and went out onto the hillsides to chop wood for the fires – making them a strange combination of servers and loggers. These young men wore their fringes very long so their hair covered their eyes. They were never permitted in the harem proper and any young woman who found herself in the area where they left the trays of food would be in trouble, along with the server. The Chief Eunnuch held great power and controlled the finances of the harem, so the kira were paid by them.

Eunuch guarding the entrance to the Harem

There were lots of museums within the walls of the palace, including those displaying jewels (too long a queue to wait in), armoury, kitchen equipment as well as the courtyard where Suleiman liked to watch his menagerie of lions in action. The museum I found most fascinating was that displaying the clothes the sultans wore.

Kaftan worn by Suleiman circa 1550

The garments were found when the palace was restored in 1924 and remarkably both Mehmet II and Suleiman’s clothes had survived for over five hundred years because of the way they’d been stored. The undershirts were especially intricate with the text from the Koran painted on in the most tiny handwriting.

Clothes worn by the Princes circa 1500s

It was upsetting to look at the clothes on display once worn by the sultan’s children and know that only the son who succeeded would survive after the sultan’s death – virtually the first action taken by a new sultan on succession was to order his siblings strangled.

Delightful display ofTurkish Delight

A grim note to end upon, so I shall leave you with a picture of the amazing Turkish Delight to be found in Istanbul’s many, many confectionary shops.

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Slains Castle and Dracula

In my never-ending quest to feed my castle-visiting addiction I stumbled across Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire a few weeks ago and discovered Bram Stoker was said to have drawn inspiration from it for Dracula’s castle.

Slains Castle

Dracula, of course, was loosely based on a real prince connected with the Ottoman Empire, one period in whose history I’m currently researching for my next book. It’s always amazing how things tie up!

Inevitably Slains Castle had a long and chequered history prior to one Abraham (Bram) Stoker’s visits. The castle was owned by the Earl of Errol who reverted to Catholicism in 1587, as part of a plot supported by Spain. Not an especially wise decision since Scotland had been Protestant for nearly thirty years by then. Errol fled the country and James VI had Slains Castle destroyed. Yet when Errol returned to Protestantism in 1597, he found favour with the king and came home to rebuild his castle (although the family again shifted allegiance much later to support Bonnie Prince Charlie).

Massive windows into internal courtyard

Perched on a cliff top, with some deep gullies and long drops the remaining ruin is an atmospheric hotchpotch of towers and courtyards added at various times by various Errols over the centuries since.

Samuel Johnson and his companion James Boswell spent a night at the castle during their tour of Scotland in 1773, although Boswell had some complaints to make about his night’s sleep…

I had a most elegant room. But there was a fire in it which blazed, and the sea, to which my windows looked, roared, and the pillows were made of some sea-fowl’s feathers which had to me a disagreeable smell. So that by all these causes, I was kept awake a good time.

Drop from window to rocks below

The house was let as a summer home in early 1900s and both Lord Asquith, and Winston Churchill visited.  Bram Stoker never did stay in the castle but locally at the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel in nearby Cruden Bay. He came each summer for his annual month long holiday and this was where he started writing Dracula.

Cruden Bay

On my return home, coincidentally, the story of Vlad Dracula pops up on my video feed. It’s part of a Netflix drama documentary series called The Rise of Empires, and this season is focused on the war between the Ottoman Emperor Mehmed II and Vlad Dracula of Wallachia. My own next in series is partly set in Constantinople so I’m enjoying learning as much as I can about it, although 1462 is slightly earlier than my period. I settle down to find out more about the real Dracula.

Mehmed II from Netflix Series

The first thing is the name is not pronounced Dracula with the emphasis on the first syllable but Dracula, emphasis on the second syllable. Wallachia, a Christian country, was part of present day Romania, which was then expected to pay a tribute to the Ottoman Empire, who controlled it as a buffer zone between them and Hungary.

Ottoman Empire and showing Wallachia almost in the centre

As a boy Vlad Dracula and his brother Radu were held as hostages and surety of their father’s loyalty at the Ottoman court. They were educated alongside the future Mehmed II which meant Mehmed and Vlad knew one another’s strengths and weaknesses very well. Vlad and Radu would also have studied the Koran as part of their education, but only Radu converted to Islam.

In 1453 Mehmed took Constantinople bringing an end to the Byzantine Empire. His intention was to advance as far west as Alexander went east, and he adopted the title of Caesar of the Roman Empire. A remarkable tactician and a gifted engineer, Mehmed was a cunning man with a web of spies throughout Europe.

Vlad Dracula from Netflix Series

When Prince Vlad reclaimed the throne of Wallachia he resented paying the tithe Mehmed demanded and nailed Mehmed’s ambassadors’ turbans to their heads leaving Mehmed in no doubt of his intentions. Vlad tried to negotiate the support of his Hungarian neighbour to free him of the Ottoman yoke but Sultana Marija, Mehmed’s wily stepmother who was a former princess of Hungary and an Orthodox Christian, visited the Hungarian Court and used her influence to persuade the Hungarian king to prevaricate.

Sultana Marija from the Netflix Series

Mehmed was not a man to show weakness, and he crossed the Danube with a vast force determined to subdue Vlad. Outnumbered, yet very cunning, Vlad ran a campaign of guerrilla warfare and night attacks leaving a trail of death, destruction and scorched earth behind him. He even infiltrated lepers and sufferers of tuberculosis and the plague into Mehmed’s camp – a kind of germ warfare.

He was trying to free his country from the tyranny of the Turks however, even by medieval standards, Vlad Dracula was exceptionally cruel. The moniker impaler was ascribed for his particular skill, and fondness, for shoving a stake into his enemy and hammering it with a mallet until the point came out the other end. He was especially adept at  avoiding the vital organs which meant death was prolonged – and he had both women and men impaled.

Forest of Death

The terror culminated in The Forest of Death where 24,000 Moslems and Turkish soldiers were impaled and arrayed like a forest: a most gruesome art form.

Vlad came close to murdering Mehmed but in the end Mehmed’s superior numbers prevailed.  Vlad escaped and spent the rest of his life on the run.

Vlad’s younger brother Radu, known variously as Radu the Beautiful and Radu the Coward, remained loyal to Mehmed. There is some evidence he was sexually abused by Mehmed as a boy and ended up as Mehmed’s male concubine, although this isn’t directly referred to in the Netflix series.

Mehmed replaced Vlad with Radu. Those loyal to Vlad soon came over to Radu who was considerably less bloodthirsty and known for his quiet intelligence.

The series is beautifully shot. Although primarily a drama, the action is paused every so often while historians give us detail of the background story, the key players, the clever tactics and an insight into motivation. Well worth the watching.

And as for Slains Castle, it’s a most stunning walk along the old carriageway and then down to gorgeous Cruden Bay. Well worth the visit.

Paddling at Cruden Bay

References: The Historical Dracula: Monster or Machiavellian Prince? by John Akeroyd
Netflix Series: Rise of Empires Season 2
and lots of Wikipedia entries

Cruden Bay