Professor K and the Stolen Recipes of Suleiman
“JOURNEY of the BOOK” 2
In my previous blog I told you about an extraordinary event that occurred in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul on 16 January 1595, the night the sultan, Murad III died. You will remember that is was the story behind this shocking event that inspired the writing of the book.
It would appear that this gripping saga has affected you just as it has affected me, and the many comments and questions I have received from you have made it clear that you would like to find out more about it. I have therefore decided to release the Prologue of Professor K and the Stolen Recipes of Suleiman which deals with this event as part of this blog and several others to follow soon. It’s quite a story. I’m sure you’ll find it interesting. Enjoy!
Topkapi Palace, Constantinople; 16 January 1595
I. 2 a.m.
Fear and terror spread through the silent corridors of Topkapi Palace during the night like a deadly poison. Murad III, grandson of Suleiman the Magnificent, Caliph of Islam, Amir al-Mu-minim, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques was dying.
Safiye Sultan, Murad’s favourite consort and mother of Mehmed, his oldest son and heir, knew it was time. To secure her son’s accession, all possible rivals had to be silenced; swiftly and permanently. Her own future and position at the palace depended on it. Upon Murad’s death she would become valide sultan, and Safiye was determined to make sure that nothing stood in her way.
Safiye summonsed Gazanfer Ağa, chief of the white eunuchs and head of the enderun—the Imperial Seraglio—to her chambers. ‘Murad will not see the sun come up,’ she said. ‘As soon as he ascends to paradise you must act; without mercy. You know what to do.’ Gazanfer Ağa smiled, bowed, and took his leave. He knew that once he had carried out Safiye’s deadly orders, she would be forever in his debt. This would not only consolidate his already considerable power, but elevate his position to dizzying heights. Gazanfer Ağa had carefully prepared for this moment. Everything was ready and in place. He knew the feared deaf-mutes were standing by and waiting for his orders.
Fatma Hatun, Murad’s youngest consort, lay awake in her bedchamber. Gripped by fear and worry for her only son, Osman, who had just turned 16, she realised the dreaded event she had feared since the boy’s birth, had arrived. Carefully, she removed the beautiful tile behind her bedding and reached into the hole in the wall. This was her secret hiding place which contained the precious gems—all gifts from a besotted Murad—that could save her son’s life. It also contained other treasures which she was about to give to him.
Legs crossed and looking tense, Osman sat on a cushion in front of his mother, watching. Blessed with striking good looks and an agile, inquisitive mind that thrived on curiosity and learning, Osman had been groomed for this moment all his life. He therefore knew exactly what he had to do. His mother had gone over every step a thousand times before, except one. ‘This is for you, my son,’ she said, and handed Osman a small silver cylinder. ‘Keep it on your person at all times and guard it with your life.’
‘What is it?’ asked Osman.
‘Your future; open it.’
Osman opened the container and emptied its contents onto the carpet. First, a heavy little leather pouch filled with a small fortune in gold coins and gems slid out and fell on the floor. Next, he pulled out a tightly rolled-up little canvas and several sheets of paper. When he unfurled the canvas, he saw that it was a stunning little portrait of his mother he had never seen before. Surprised, he pointed to the painting spread out on the carpet in front of him.
‘This was painted by Marco Vecellio, Titian’s pupil. Your father commissioned the painting soon after I was given to him as a present by one of his sisters. I was 16, the same age as you.’
‘And these?’ asked Osman, holding up a few sheets of paper covered in beautiful calligraphy and decorated with exquisite miniature paintings at the top.’
Fatma smiled as she remembered the passionate nights spent with Murad. She had succeeded where others had failed. She had managed to reignite the sultan’s appetite for carnal pleasures. ‘These are recipes of the sultan’s favourite dishes,’ she said. ‘I copied them myself from the originals that belonged to your great-grandfather, Suleiman the Magnificent, and are still kept here at the palace. These dishes are the best in the empire and the reason you exist. They are treasures—‘
‘I don’t understand,’ said Osman, looking puzzled.
‘You will. One day. Now, however, it is time; come.’
Fatma handed Osman a small porcelain cup and kissed him tenderly on the forehead. ‘Drink it,’ she said, tears in her eyes. ‘For a short while you will sink into a deep sleep. When you wake up, you will be safe … You know what to do?’
‘Yes,’ said Osman and drained the cup.
‘There is one more thing,’ said Fatma. She took off the beautiful signet ring she wore on her right index finger—her only remaining contact with a happier past—and handed it to Osman. ‘This was given to me by my father in Venice just before I was captured by pirates and became a slave. It now belongs to you. It will open many doors and show who you are, and where you come from. Keep it safe.’
‘I will,’ said Osman, his speech slurred from the powerful drug.
‘Goodbye, my son,’ whispered the distraught mother, ‘we shall never meet again in this life. Perhaps in heaven? Who knows …?’ Fatma, a Venetian Christian, fell to her knees and began to pray.
Murad looked for the last time at his favourite dwarfs and buffoons sitting on the carpet in front of his divan, their colourful costumes a cheerful reminder of the fun-times he had shared with them in the palace gardens. Then, with his eyesight fading, he turned his face slowly towards Mecca, and died. Gazanfer Ağa walked over to the divan to make sure that the sultan was dead. Satisfied, he gave the signal. The deaf-mute standing at the door nodded and quickly left the room.
The three Nubian deaf-mutes hurried through the corridors of the inner palace like black angels of death, their excited, sweat-covered faces glistening in the moonlight. Purchased as young, castrated boys, they had been brought to the palace as special slaves to be trained as eunuchs. Later, they had their tongues split to prevent them from speaking, and their eardrums burst with hot needles to make them deaf.
First, they dispatched the babies and toddlers. Strangling them quickly with silk chords used for executions was easy, and took only a few minutes. The teenagers were more difficult to deal with. The assassins had to work as a team to kill them swiftly, and calm their hysterical mothers.
Bribery and corruption in the palace were rife, and greed a powerful tool used by the ambitious and the ruthless to hatch conspiracies and forge alliances. Because Topkapi Palace was built like a fortress surrounded by high walls and guarded by an army of fierce janissaries, it had become a confined hotbed of power, where deadly rivals were often separated by only a corridor, a small courtyard or a thin wall. The eyes and ears of spies and traitors were therefore never far away, and trust was as precious and as rare as diamonds.
When the assassins entered Osman’s room, they saw Fatma standing in front of her drugged son lying on the carpet. This was a deliberate and prearranged ploy, making him appear lifeless and limp and therefore easier to handle without arousing suspicion.
One of the deaf-mutes pointed to Osman. Fatma nodded, handed him a fistful of precious gems wrapped in a silk handkerchief, and stepped aside. The tall Nubian stuffed the handkerchief into his pocket, lifted the boy off the floor and carried him outside.
It took the deaf-mutes less than an hour to kill all of Murad’s 19 other sons, put the bodies into sacks and have them removed from the Harem by trusted slaves before the household woke to the news that the sultan was dead, and had been succeeded by his eldest son, Mehmed. When the sacks containing the bodies were lined up in a row in a secret underground chamber, awaiting burial, no one appeared to have noticed that one of them wasn’t dead.
My friends, this is only part of what happened on that fateful night in December 1574. You want to know what happened next, don’t you? You will. In my next bog; promise!