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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

Karina of Circassia Part I: From Rags to Riches
March 1, 2000

Step in to the legendary halls fraught with intrigue and romance...a world of decadence and indulgence...enter the Harem...

Once upon a time, in a land of dramas and dynasties, a land where empires battled to become the most powerful of the world and where religions seemed to change with the coming of a new wind, there lived a young girl named Karina, high in the Caucus mountains of Russia. Her family was very poor, so they had to work hard every day, trying to make the most of their small plot of land and their three goats.

One day everything changed. Karina was out in the fields, when she heard the pounding. It was a pounding coming from the earth, louder than any noise she had ever heard before. It appeared as though a large army of men riding fierce horses had arrived to her small village; yet nobody panicked or ran. Her father and the other men of the village approached the men and actually seemed happy about their arrival. Karina ran closer and hid behind a fence to see what was going on. The strange men had dark features and were dressed in long capes, embroidered with pearls and gold. They produced engraved boxes full of strange spices and sparkling jewels. After speaking with the strangers for some time, Karina's father left to return to the house.

Karina ran back to the fields, so her father wouldn't notice that she had been watching, but her father didn't come to the fields. Instead he went to the house to speak with her mother. When they reappeared, her mother looked like she had been crying. Together they walked out to the fields to Karina.

"Karina, this evening you will go on a trip with these men that have come to visit us," her father told her.

Karina started to scream, "No!", but her mother held her and comforted her. "It will be alright dear. You will go to a beautiful place and grow up to have everything you ever want. You will be a queen one day."

Karina was terrified of the strange men, but it seemed it was what her parents wanted, so she had to trust that it was for the best. That evening she and six other 10 year-old girls from the village were brought by their parents to the strange men. She hugged her mother tightly only to be pulled away by one of the caped men and put up on one of the horses. He then got on the horse himself and within minutes the entire army was off. As she bobbed up and down on the back of the mighty horse, Karina turned around to wave goodbye. Through her teary eyes, she saw her brother running after the horses as if trying to match their great speed. As the horses started to scale the mountains, her village, the only world she had ever known, looked smaller and smaller, until finally it disappeared into nothingness, becoming one with the vast landscape below. That was the last time Karina would see her village or her family.

Karina cried all evening long, and when they stopped to eat dinner, she barely touched her food. "I know you are scared little one, but you have nothing to fear," said the man whose horse she was riding. He spoke with a strange accent. "In no time at all you will forget your family and that poor village you came from. You will have all the riches of the world at your fingertips, and you will be the envy of all the women in the empire."

Karina did not trust the man, or his friends with whom he spoke in a funny language. The other girls from the village remained quiet as well, sometimes huddling together for comfort in their fear.

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Within a few days, the group approached an enormous fortress unlike anything Karina had ever seen before. They passed into the first courtyard where young soldiers and tradespeople met and walked, and then were admitted past the large stone gate into a second, secluded courtyard. Before them stood an enormous palace, like the kind her mother had described to her in her old fairy tales. They were greeted at the massive carved doors by a group of even darker men, who the horsemen addressed as "eunuchs". The eunuchs helped the girls off the horses, bid the horsemen farewell, and brought the girls inside.

" girls must be from Circassia. I can tell from your beauty. Those from Circassia always end up amongst the Sultan's favorites!" said one of the Eunuchs as he lead the girls through the long hall. Karina wasn't listening though. She was mesmerized, staring up at the high marble archways, the gigantic gold framed mirrors, and the dazzling crystal chandeliers.

They were lead to another grand hallway. There, they were met by a young woman, who couldn't have been more than 15 years old. "Welcome to Topkapi Palace, the home of the sultan-the great ruler of the entire Ottoman Empire. You may not realize it now, but you are indeed very lucky to be the harem," She spoke without the strange accent that the others used to struggle with their. "Yes, I too came from Circassia, but that was a number of years ago. The harem is my home now. Tomorrow you will begin to learn the royal language, and we must no longer speak in this old tongue. For now, you will bathe and take rest." She led them into a large room made of white marble. The hot steam created a haze through which Karina could see a number of girls and women sitting and laughing together while they bathed. The soap lathered with a foam as thick as cream and a scent of fresh lemons. "If we had hot water like this back home, my mother would have had a much easier time getting me to bathe!" the girls laughed amongst themselves for the first time since they had left their village.

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larger view
That night, as she lay beside the other girls, on soft mattresses, under layers of cozy, thick blankets, Karina dreamed of her parents and her brother sleeping in their cold wooden cabin.....

The next morning she awoke, and was finally able to start getting an understanding for this large palace she was to call home. She followed the other girls to an immense hall that was full of light and laughter. There were plates overflowing with fresh fruits and breads, cheeses, olives, and eggs. There were girls playing instruments and others braiding each others' hair...there must have been over 100 girls gathered in that one room! It was amazing.

Day after day, Karina would attend classes and learn the new language that the rest all spoke. It was called Turkish. She would learn of their religion, Islam, and of their cultural traditions. At nights she would join all the other women at lavish meals, where some women would dance while others played instruments or served delicious foods.

One day while she was swimming in the large swimming pool with some of her new friends, she saw a bunch of girls rushing to clear the way, looking a bit nervous. An older woman wearing a gown that shimmered of pure gold and a necklace that must have held a thousand emeralds came walking in surrounded by 10 other girls who held her hand, brought her a chair, and took care that her gown did not touch the ground.

"Wow...who is that?" Karina asked one of her new friends who had been in the harem for a few years.

vWhy that is the Queen mother, the valide sultan!" said her friend surprised. "You must be on your best behavior around her and treat her with the utmost respect. Your fate is in her hands. She can make your life a happy dream or a living hell."

The queen started to walk around the swimming pool examining each and every girl below with her eagle's eye. As she approached the area where Karina was standing, Karina got nervous, she didn't know how to act around this powerful woman. She immediately started swimming the other way.

When she reached the other side, Karina heard the queen's voice booming, "YOU!" Karina slowly turned in fear only to have her worst nightmare realized...the queen was pointing directly at her.

"Come here right now!" the queen demanded.


harem - all of the women of a Muslim household; it can also mean the part of a Muslim palace where women live
mesmerized - fascinated, spellbound
lavish - extravagant, abundant
eunuchs - black African slaves who were given to the sultan as presents by the Ottoman governor of Egypt. There were as many as 200 eunuchs working in the harem at any given time, guarding the doors and waiting on the women and royal family.

Karina slowly raised herself from the pool and wrapped a towel around her. Trembling, she approached the mighty queen. "You're new here aren't you my child? What is your name?" the queen asked. "Oh it matters not what your name once was," she continued before Karina could even open her mouth. "You are no longer amongst those uncultured, illiterate mountain people. Forget your name, and your village. This is your home now, and you will have a Turkish name, fit for an Ottoman princess...How sweet you are, trembling with drops of water still covering your face...we will call you Berra, for you are as soft and pure as the morning dew."

From that moment on Berra knew that she would never return to her old life, that her future lied in a world of beautiful women, sensuous perfumes, and decadent feasts...a world her parents and her brother could never understand, a world that even she was only beginning to discover.

What will happen to Karina? Find out in Part II! Just click the link below.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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