From 1604 to 1607 Ottavio Bon was the Venetian representative in Istanbul, where he recorded every aspect of life at the Topkapı palace.
His The Sultan’s Seraglio provides a fascinating and lively account of the period of Ahmet I, covering topics as diverse as life in the harem; the exchange of gifts between Turkish and Western dignitaries; the menu at official state banquets; the buying of slaves in the weekly slave market; and the great religious festivals and circumcision ceremonies.
The various Ottoman officials are all introduced to us, including the viziers, the aghas and the ‘itchoglans’ (Christian recruits), with their long years of harsh training until the best of them were admitted into the sultan’s personal service. We meet the buffoons and mutes who were the sultan’s constant companions and accompanied him on boat trips down the Bosphorus to his palaces and pleasure gardens.
The book is of particular value not only as the best and most reliable of the contemporary accounts, but also because it is not romanticized or ‘orientalist’. The author observes with a detached eye, at times comparing Turkish customs with Western ones, but always concerned to leave an objective picture.
This is not simply a facsimile edition, although it preserves all the charm of the original. It has been annotated throughout by Godfrey Goodwin, the leading historian of the Ottoman period.