EL-HAJJ BESHIR AGHA – Book Sample
CONTENTS – EL-HAJJ BESHIR AGHA
- Acknowledgments x
- Note on transliteration xi
- Introduction xii
- PRELIMINARIES: ELITE SLAVERY AND
- HOUSEHOLD MEMBERSHIP 1
- Elite slavery in Islamic societies 1
- Household politics and patron–client ties 4
- EUNUCHS IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE 7
- Eunuchs in antiquity 7
- Eunuchs in medieval Islamic empires 8 Eunuchs under the Mamluk sultanate 9 Eunuchs under the Ottomans 11
- BESHIR AGHA’S ORIGINS 17
- Ottoman Abyssinia 17 Enslavement and castration 18 Post-castration conditions 21 Sale in Cairo 23
- The political culture of Ottoman Egypt 23
- Ismail Bey 25
- EARLY YEARS IN THE PALACE 29
- Sultan’s companion 30
- The sultan’s mother 31
- The “Edirne Incident” (1703) 34
- Harem treasurer 35
- EXILE IN CYPRUS AND EGYPT 39
- Cyprus 39
- Egypt 40
- CHIEF OF THE TOMB EUNUCHS IN MEDINA 45
- Shi‘ism 45
- Medina 47
- The mosque of the Prophet 48 The tomb of the Prophet 49 The tomb eunuchs 51
- Relations with Medina’s and Egypt’s notables 57
- CHIEF EUNUCH OF THE TOPKAPI PALACE HAREM 59
- Return to Istanbul 59 Return to the harem 60 Vizier maker 63
- Nevshehirli Ibrahim Pasha 63
- The Tulip Era 64
- The Book of Festivals 65
- BESHIR AGHA DURING THE REIGN OF MAHMUD I 69
- The Patrona Halil rebellion, 1730 69
- Mahmud I (r. 1730–54) 71
- BESHIR AGHA AND THE ARAB PROVINCES 75
- The pilgrimage caravan and the governorship of Damascus 75
- Beshir Agha and Egypt’s grandees 78
- BESHIR AGHA’S LIBRARIES AND PIOUS FOUNDATIONS 85
- Libraries 85
- Holdings of Beshir Agha’s library outside the palace 88
- Other libraries 94
- Foundations 95
- Conclusion 102
- BESHIR AGHA’S DEATH AND BURIAL 103
- Funeral and burial 103
- Beshir Agha’s tomb 105
- BESHIR AGHA’S LEGACY THROUGH THE LENS OF OTTOMAN “DECLINE” 107
- Moralı Beshir Agha 107
- Chief harem eunuchs and grand viziers in the post-Beshir era 108
- Beshir Agha and the question of Ottoman “decline” 109
- Conclusion 113
- SOURCES ON BESHIR AGHA 115
- Primary sources 115
- Secondary sources 118
- Works cited 123
- Index 125
- · x
This is a biography of el-Hajj Beshir Agha, who held the post of chief eunuch of the imperial harem of the Ottoman Empire from 1717 to 1746 and was arguably the most powerful occupant of that office in Ottoman history.
Although he was not a warrior for Islam, a great theologian or jurist, or a mystic-saint, Beshir Agha left his mark on the Ottoman brand of orthodox Sunni Islam of the Hanafi legal rite. In so doing, he epitomized the religious and intellectual role of the chief harem eunuch, who, so far from presiding over a den of iniquity, as outmoded Orientalist stereotypes would have it, functioned as a proponent of Sunni Muslim tenets and values.
THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE
Starting as a tiny Turkish principality in northwestern Anatolia (the peninsula comprising the bulk of modern-day Turkey), the Ottoman Empire expanded dramatically during the fourteenth and early fif- teenth centuries, conquering the Balkans from the Byzantine Empire and the rest of Anatolia from rival Turkish principalities before finally taking the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 1453, thus bringing the ancient Byzantine Empire to an end. In the early sixteenth century, the Ottomans added most of the Arab lands to their domains.
At its height, during the reign of the legendary sultan Süleyman I (r. 1520–66, known in Western Europe as “the Magnificent”), the Otto- man Empire stretched from Hungary in the north to Ethiopia in the south and from the borders of Morocco in the west to the borders of Iran in the east.
By Beshir Agha’s time, the empire had begun to lose territory in the west and north to the Habsburg emperors of Austria and Central Europe, as well as to a newly expansionist Russia. Nonetheless, the Ottoman Empire remained a power to be reckoned with.
The Islam that the Ottomans espoused was Sunni, as distinct from the Shi‘ism of the rival Safavid Empire, which took over Iran in 1501. (The differences between the two sects will be discussed in more detail in chapter 6.) Sunni Islam recognizes four schools, or “rites,” of legal interpretation; these evolved during the eighth and ninth centuries, and break down largely along regional lines.
They differ chiefly over rituals, such as washing before prayer, and personal status matters, such as divorce and inheritance.
The Ottomans adhered to the Hanafi school and were virtually unique among Islamic empires in making it their official imperial rite. While they did not attempt to impose Hanafism on all their Muslim subjects, they did appoint chief judges and other key religious officials of the Hanafi rite throughout their empire.
At the same time, the Ottoman brand of Sunni, Hanafi Islam was historically tolerant of, and even favorably disposed toward, the Muslim mystical, or sufi, orders, which had become widespread during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Virtually since the empire’s inception, certain orders had been close to the Ottoman court. Beshir Agha, as we shall see, espoused and promoted both Hanafism and sufism.
THE CHIEF HAREM EUNUCH’S INFLUENCE
By the end of the sixteenth century, the chief harem eunuch had become one of the most influential figures in the Ottoman Empire, at some times second only to the sultan and the grand vizier (a prime minister equivalent), at others second to none for all practical purposes.
He oversaw the early education of the crown princes within the harem precinct of the imperial palace, and was thus able to mold the religious and intellectual predispositions of future sultans.
He himself received a thorough-going Islamic education in the palace; this would constitute the foundation of his future intel- lectual and religious development just as the books he studied in the palace school would constitute the foundation of his future library or libraries.
Chief harem eunuchs were legendary book-collectors, and Beshir Agha was perhaps the most legendary of them all.The several librar- ies that he founded during his lifetime boasted astonishing collections of Qur’ans, hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), and hadith commentaries, as well as theological and legal works.
Because of his active role in founding libraries and theological colleges, these books were disseminated to various parts of the Ottoman Empire, reinforcing the presence of the Hanafi legal rite and of the Ottoman brand of Sunni orthodoxy in general. At the same time, the schools he founded helped to ensure that boys and young men in far-flung Ottoman provinces would be trained in the official Ottoman ver- sion of Islam.
Like most chief harem eunuchs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Beshir Agha cultivated a link to Egypt, where he had been castrated following his enslavement in his native Ethiopia and where he was later exiled for approximately two years shortly before he was appointed chief eunuch.
His connections to the provincial notables of Egypt helped to promote the Hanafi legal rite in a province in which this rite was not dominant.
At the same time, these connections served as a channel of influence over the annual pilgrimage caravan sent from Cairo to Islam’s Holy Cities, Mecca and Medina. (Islam was first revealed at Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthplace and the site of the cubical stone structure known as the Ka‘ba, to which all Muslims are enjoined to make a pilgrimage at least once in their lifetimes.
Muhammad established the first Muslim community at Medina, to which he fled in 622 C.E. following years of harassment in Mecca; he is buried there, as well.)
The Holy Cities were a key preoccupation of the chief harem eunuch, who oversaw a massive network of pious endowments that
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