The Sultan’s Storyteller
By Matt Hanson
The year is not 1840 east of Thrace. It is 1250 under the crescent and the star that had lit the plains of Anatolia since descending from Persia and Arabia. And it was the year that Emre realized that for nearly his entire adult life, he had served the empire as musician and storyteller in the court of his sultan, Abdulmejid I.
When he returned home everyday from the palace grounds, reeking of tobacco and musk, he bathed first, and then sat with his family and sang. He began to pluck a mandolin, and then put it down to spoon out a thick, nourishing broth from a plain ceramic bowl. He wrapped an arm around his kid sister and began to tell her stories of the forest.
He loved those stories most, for it was there where the human imagination was set free from the market and street, where innocent debauchery could unfold unconstrained by social law, and all without the slightest hint of hypocrisy. And then before the dawn light crept over the coals, he pulled his tongue back into his mouth to rest after one last lullaby, silent as peace.
He slept until the gleaming sun shone over Sea of Marmara and onto the marble floors and turquoise tiles of Topkapı Palace, his illustrious place of work across the Golden Horn inlet, where he served the throne of the sultan atop the first of the seven hills of Constantinople.
Under the shrieking cries of seagulls, stepping over a dead cat, he sauntered from his home in Pera across the wooden Galata bridge, looking out to sea, admiring the faded outline of Kınalıada island on the calm, misty horizon.
He wore a heavy and rough coat to camouflage the ostentatious floral ensemble he wore by necessity for his daily appearance in the palace. Yet, his ceremonial clothing did not stop there, for it was in a variety of such garb that he was to assume as musical entertainer and eloquent storyteller.
After a habitual greeting at the gate, simply revealing his face, the guards ushered him through varying arenas of guard after guard, only to strip him in a lavish backroom under the unwavering eyes of sable-skinned and egg-white eunuchs, dressing him in the manner of the court wardrobe of the day.
The bitter cold stone of the court made for a cavernous atmosphere, the life in the air starved by perpetual armed defence and all of the maddening silent repressions of absolute power. Within the bowels of the imperial fortification stood the throne of the sultan, as coveted and protected as the gem of a mountain, yet as basic and potent as the seed of a fruit.
Emre straightened his back, as erect and level as the throne, although a step below under the glutted eye of the overseer, the sultan himself. He began to sing a soft Circassian hymn, adapted into the Turkish language from what he had heard from stealthy sources that the mother of his sultan loved to whisper to her future emperor to endure the long palace nights that were suffused with an inescapable emptiness, an intolerable loneliness as hard and true as the stone walls.
“Bayezid II was unsung in his elegance,” Emre began his predawn story, as Abdulmejid I delighted in his deep voice ascending like the slowed hoots of a night owl over the airs of his calming oud lute. “He was born to Greek soil, and there, in our sister city of Salonica, he sheltered the Jewish refugees of Spain.”
Emre followed the opening to his story with a soft improvisation on his oud, as its silken strings buzzed with a euphoric and soul-replenishing grace. Almost synchronously with the instrumental harmonies, the first rays of light broke through the interstices of the barred court windows.
The cold fiery blaze of the heavens reflected over the polished stone. The sun brightened anew every minute over the tops of the surrounding mosque domes that reverberated to acoustic exhaustion with the call to prayer echoing between the minaret spires of Sultanahmet square beyond the palace gate.
“It was to the Greek island of Euboea where Bayezid II sent his conscription for Kemal Reis, the only naval officer in the empire then worthy enough to defend the westernmost Muslim stronghold in the world. He sailed to Spain, to bombard the ports of Elche, Almeria, and Málaga, where he seized villages, took prisoners, and saved the Muslims, and Jews from the Reconquista, returning to our Sultan with them aboard ship as a new citizenry prized to become expert traders.”
The oud resonated with a calming, low vibration from its bass string. The deep tone stilled the air into an unearthly quiet, as the sultan dreamed of the entire Mediterranean becoming waveless, smooth as polished glass. And then, Emre played a Sephardic air, a moody, though light breath of his tongue conjured the nostalgia of a five-century marriage between the Spanish and Hebrew peoples and their artful linguistic fusions. Its historic resonances distilled to a sound as authentic as that from his Iberian Jewish heart.
It was from such memories of the court, before the day of business and luxuries had begun, when Abdulmejid I could regain his sanity following bleak nights in the stone walls of Topkapı to simply bathe in the musical and theatrical light of a hopeful dawn.
Only after he had felt that spiritual harmony at the hand and from the tongue of Emre, his court storyteller and musician, could he muster the will to maintain the borders of his empire, to walk the tight rope of power over which so many sultans fell into the trap of aggressive expansionism without a mind for the heart and soul of an inner life within his reign. Emre played on in his consummate and paramount role, to reclaim the integrity of the imperial soul armed with no more than words and notes.
Matt Hanson is a writer and journalist living in Istanbul, and New York, where he works as an arts and culture reporter for various internationally-distributed newspapers and magazines. His piece, “Modern Romaniote Odyssey” was excerpted to introduce his forthcoming photobook, The Clouds of Ioannina, featuring oral histories with one of Europe’s oldest and vanishing minority communities. He is currently producing an anthology of Romaniote Literature to forward an English readers’ appreciation for the Greek-speaking Jewish literary contribution from antiquity through the medieval era to the contemporary.