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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

Karina of Circassi Part II: Behind the Veil

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March 1, 2000

Berra spent her first few years in the harem taking classes and refining her skills. She excelled in the languages and could read and write within no time at all. She learned the arts of make-up, dress, embroidery, and music. She became known for her natural dancing abilities, and after just three years of living in the harem, she was already performing at some of the large, evening feasts.

After years of enjoying the life of a carefree youth in the harem, Berra's lessons were culminating. She had proven herself a very adept student and it was time for her to take on new responsibilities. This was a time of rites of passage for the young women in the harem. Among the two to three hundred women in the harem, duties were divided based on merit, as decided by the Queen Mother. Some women cooked and cleaned, while others played instruments and performed. Some became teachers, or embroidered new clothes. Some were ladies-in-waiting to the sultan's concubines, while others tended to the sultan's children. The luckiest were those who cared for the Queen Mother or the sultan himself...the mysterious ruler, whose great palace and empire this was, but whom Berra had yet to see.

A room with a view - the Queen Mother's Chambers

Click image for larger view
Intricate domed ceiling of the Queen Mother's private chambers
Because she was so talented and beautiful, Berra held a special place in the Queen Mother's heart, but she still was a bit timid around the powerful woman. Berra became one of the small group of dancers and musicians that performed for the Queen herself. For the first time during her stay in the harem, Berra was admitted into the valide sultan's private quarters. Every afternoon her troupe would come to the Queen to perform whatever the Queen wished to see. There they would find the Queen surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting, sitting on top of gold-embroidered pillows, surrounded by plush oriental rugs and scents of exotic incense.

One day when the group was performing a new dance, they heard the familiar tapping echoing through the halls headed towards the Queen's room. It was the sound of the silver soles of the sultan's royal slippers. The performers stopped immediately and started to run into the back room, for only those that had been granted permission by the Queen Mother could present themselves to the young sultan. All others would have to disappear when they heard the tapping of the silver soles approaching.

Berra gathered her scarves and started to run, but the Queen stopped her. "No dear, you needn't leave. You may stay and continue your dance," said the Queen with a smile on her face.

Berra and the Sultan make eye contact
Berra was incredibly nervous, but she tried to hide it and continue the dance along with the other few girls who had already been granted permission to be seen by the sultan. The door to the Queen's chambers opened, and the young ruler walked in assisted by his kizlara-asi, his personal representative and chief of the black eunuchs, thus manager of the entire harem. Berra was shocked at the sight of the sultan...he wasn't the large, caped, mean looking man she had always imagined him to be...instead, he was a handsome young man who greeted his mother with the utmost respect. He kissed his mother on the cheek and sat down beside her. As he scanned the room, his eyes met with Berra's and she quickly turned away in emBerrassment. As soon as the song finished, she rushed out of the room.

"How could you have been staring like that?" Berra thought to herself. "Now the sultan thinks you're an eager fool!"

On the contrary, the sultan was mesmerized by the young girl's eyes and asked his mother her name. "I see you've noticed my new dancing princess," his mother laughed in approval. "I knew it wouldn't take long for you to notice our fair Berra from Circassia. But my goodness! It has only been a matter of minutes!"

After that day, the sultan returned every day at the same time to join his mother and watch the young girl dance. "I see you have taken quite a liking to our little Berra, but I am not ready to make her one of your concubines yet, my son. She is still quite new," said the Queen. "We know she is beautiful and graceful, but let's see how fit she really is to be royalty."


harem - all of the women of a Muslim household; it can also mean the part of a Muslim palace where women live
culminating - reaching the highest point; also coming to a close
adept - skilled
rite of passage - an event or time in one's life marking a passage from one stage to another
concubine - a woman who cohabits with a man without being married timid - shy; lacking self-assurance
eunuchs - black African slaves that 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.
lucid - glowing with light

The next day the Queen Mother sent for Berra. "Good morning Berra, please do sit down," invited the Queen graciously. Berra had never been invited into the private quarters for anything other than dancing. She was a bit overwhelmed.

"I have enjoyed your dancing for the past few months. Instead of joining your troupe today though, I would like you to move to my quarters and become one of my personal maidens."

One of the Queen's most trusted maidens had been released from the harem that day. She was granted her freedom and was to go on to marry one of the empire's wealthiest nobles, so Berra took over in her place. As days went on, the Queen realized that the new maiden was quite skilled and too intelligent for trivial tasks like brushing her hair and helping her bathe. Instead, she found that the girl had a knack for reading and writing, and had incredibly beautiful handwriting. The Queen had Berra read her stories and poetry. Some days she would dictate letters for Berra to write in her flowery script. Berra enjoyed her new jobs, for she was learning much about stately affairs from the letters, and the stories and poetry let her imagination soar.

The sultan started joining his mother and Berra during their story time in the afternoons, for he enjoyed the soft voice of the young girl, and the chance glances when she looked up from the page. Berra would get timid whenever he entered the room, and it was hard for her to speak loud enough to be heard. All the great halls that the sultan visited in the harem had large fountains built into the walls, to obscure the sounds so that no one could eavesdrop on the ruler's conversations. The fountains that Berra used to admire for their lucid beauty now were now nothing more than an annoyance that made her job harder.

Click image for larger view
Velvet sofas, tilework, gold plated walls, Turkish carpets in the greeting rooms of Topkapi palace
By the end of the year, Berra had won the heart and respect of both the Queen and the sultan, and was selected to become one of the concubines of the sultan. This is one of the most prized achievements in the harem. For it is among the concubines that the next Queen Mother will rise. Sultans no longer officially marry women for wives. The last sultan to do that was Mehmet the Conqueror, who first built Topkapi Palace hundreds of years earlier. No, since then it is the favored of the concubines who becomes the next mother of the sultan.

Becoming a concubine is what every girl dreams of from the first day she is brought in to the great harem. It is the ultimate life....or is it?

To be continued...

Check the next update for the exciting conclusion!


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