Monday, December 19, 2011

Harem and Seraglio by Colin Falconer

History's most notorious woman

A gripping tale about one of the world's most wicked woman and the man who loved her.

Reprinted from Colin Falconer's Looking for Mr Goodstory Blog

Haseki Huerrem Sultan Roxelane

When  people think of bad, bad women they perhaps think of Isabella the First - the woman who commissioned Torquemada - or Bloody Queen Mary, the scourge of Protestant England. Few people have heard of Hürrem Haseki Sultan, or Roxelana, as she is better known in Europe. Yet she made Anne Boleyn, one of her contemporaries, look like a milquetoast. Anne, after all, fell out of favour with her king and ended up with her head on the block.  Roxelana married the Sultan of the Ottomans, had him throw out his entire harem, and kept him in her thrall the rest of her life.

By fair means or foul.

Roxelana was born in the Ukraine and at some time in her  teens found herself a concubine in the harem of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman,  Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Possessor of Men's Necks. Her portraits suggest  classical features and blazing red hair. Her history reveals a woman of ruthless  ambition with the strategic intelligence of a chessmaster.

What was a harem like?  Victorian paintings depict dream-like canvases of half naked young women soaping  each other in what look like Asiatic day spas. In reality the old harem of  Suleiman's time was a grim and twilight maze of dark panelled rooms where the  sun seldom penetrated. It was a snake pit; imagine, if you will, a cross between  a Miss World contest and a reality show, where the winner becomes an Empress and  the other three finalists are drowned in a sack. Oh, and all the runners-up  never ever get to leave the house.

Which leads us to the story of Suleiman the  Magnificent and Roxelana. Her influence over him from moment she replaced his  long term favourite, Gulbehar, was pervasive. Yet she would have known that his  throne would pass to the oldest male heir, and the Osmanli Code of Laws allowed  the Sultan elect to execute all his brothers to secure it. In other words she  knew that she, and all her children, were just a heartbeat away from  catastrophe.

Then three things happened that historians cannot  rationally explain. First, the harem conveniently burned down, which meant that  Roxelana and her entire entourage had to move into Suleiman's palace, until a  new harem could be built. But it never was, and Roxelana stayed right where she  was.

The second occurrence was no coincidence; it was, quite  simply, astonishing. The Sultan married her. A Sultan had not taken a queen  since the Ottomans lived as nomads on the plains. Then, to compound the  amazement of all Stamboul, he resigned his entire harem. 

To this point it reads like a Hollywood screenplay; a  powerful and potent man giving up everything for the woman he loves. Pretty  Woman with sherbets and turbans. But Roxelana had another agenda entirely, and  it had nothing to do with love. Historians can only speculate why and how she  did what she did next. But as a novelist, it's not that hard to imagine.

It resulted in one of her  sons, Selim the Sot, a drunkard and a lecher and the least able man in  Suleiman's entire circle, inheriting the Sultanate. It happened because, like a  great Shakespearian tragedy, all the other candidates had been murdered.

But Roxelana herself never reached absolute power, though  her scheming was to affect the Ottoman empire for centuries to come. She died  before Selim's moment of glory. Suleiman himself mourned her until his own death  eight years later.

Money, power, conquests; it seems none of it guarantees  happiness in the end. What happened after Suleiman married Roxelana is one of  the most tragic stories of any prince, from east or west. They now share a tomb   in the garden of the Suleimaniye mosque in Istanbul. A  grapevine of blood-red amaranthus flowers straggles over the the tomb. The  flower is known locally as 'love lies  bleeding.'

Go there on a quiet summer's  day and I swear you'll hear him whisper the words of one of his poems:

"What men call empire is  worldwide strife and ceaseless war. 

In all the world the only joy lies in a  hermit's rest."

Photograph: Giovanni dall'Orto

There has been much written  about the Tudors and their scheming. But Roxelana made the Boleyn sisters look  like the Sisters of Charity. Henry and Suleiman were contemporaries but Henry  VIII was lucky. He only had six wives to contend with. Suleiman had three  hundred - and picked out the worst of the lot.

HAREM is available on 

Harem Overview

He had everything a man might dream of; wealth, power and the choice of hundreds of the most beautiful women in his Empire. Why then did he forsake his harem for the love of just one woman, and marry her in defiance of the centuries-old code of the Osmanlis?

This is the astonishing story of Suleiman, the one they called the Magnificent, and the woman he loved. From medieval Venice to the slave markets of Algiers, from the mountains of Persia to the forbidden seraglio of the Ottoman's greatest sultan, this is a tale of passion and intrigue in a world where nothing is really as it seems.

Suleiman controlled an empire of thirty million people, encompassing twenty different languages. As a man, he was an enigma; he conquered all who stood against him with one of the world's first full time professional armies - yet he liked to write poetry; he ravaged half of Europe but he rebuilt Istanbul in marble; he had teams of torturers and assassins ready to unleash at a whim - yet history remembers him as a great lawmaker.

''Harem' literally means 'Forbidden': Forbidden to men. Once the Sultan was the only man - the only complete man - who could pass through its iron-studded doors. But what was that world really like? For a woman living in the Harem the only way out was to somehow find her way into the Sultan's bed and bear him a son. But the young Sultan was often away at war and when he did return he neglected his harem for just one favourite wife. But one young Russian concubine inside his seraglio was not content to allow fate decide the course of her life. She was clever and she was ruthless. And she had a plan.

Into this world are drawn two unforgettable characters; a beautiful young Italian noblewoman, captured by corsairs and brought to the Harem as a concubine; and the eunuch who loved her once, long ago, in Venice.

Loved her? He still stopped loving her. Far from the imagined world of steamy baths and languorous sensuality, the real Harem was a world of intrigue and despair. This is a story of a man who has everything, striving to find a measure of happiness; it is also about a slave who had nothing, but wants only to be a better man.

Seraglio Overview

Suleiman has the world at his feet; he has an Empire to rival that of any Caesar, and now his Vizier even wants to take his armies against the great infidel, the Pope, in Rome.

But the Sultan is a man in conflict with himself; he has the soul of a poet but the responsibility for jihad; he has a dream of building a great city while his advisers want him to tear cities down; his generals urge him to war when he wants only to spend his summers with Hurrem, the love of his life.

He is the most envied man in the world, yet he can no find peace. History itself records how Suleiman resolved all these dilemmas; but what he did in the end defies rational explanation. So what really happened behind the doors of the Sublime Porte?

Suleiman is still a young man when he is forced to face the circumstances of his own death. The law of the Osmanlis says that when his eldest son, Mustapha, succeeds to the throne he has the right to execute the three boys Suleiman has fathered with the woman he adores. Mustapha says he will never invoke the law. But can he trust him?

Meanwhile his army of wardogs strains at the leash. His lifelong friend and Vizier urges him to march on Rome. He is sick of war but has a duty to God to conquer in His name. His favoured wife, Hurrem, argues for love over his faith.

Has the most powerful man in the world no power over his own life?

But there are wheels within wheels; in the Italian colony, two men and a woman inextricably enmeshed in the politics of the Harem struggle with similar questions of life and the passions of the heart; how far should we go to make someone love us?

Can they find the peace that eludes Suleiman, the man they call the Lord of Life?

This is the astonishing conclusion to the story begun in HAREM; from the shadowed cloister of the seraglio to the mountain fastnesses of Persia; from the private steam baths of pashas to the dusty battlefields of the steppe; from the Sultan's palace to the midnight docks at Galata this is a tale of vengeance and devotion, ruthlessness and compassion, as astounding as it is true. 

My Review

If you haven’t read one of Colin Falconer’s novels, then I promise you are in for a real roller-coaster ride of never ending intrigue with both these novels.

Set in the 16th century, Harem, and its sequel Seraglio, weave a spectacular, haunting tale of malice, obsession, and zeal set in the magnificent Harem of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, Lord of Lords of this World, Possessor of Men’s Necks, Allah’s Deputy, and absolute ruler of the mighty Ottoman Empire.

Based on the true-life story of Roxelana (called Hürrem in the novels) and Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, Colin Falconer lends his interpretation to the machinations of a most vile villainess who strives to gain power while captive in the sultan’s harem. Ruthless, manipulative, vengeful, clever, and power hungry, Hürrem stops at nothing to gain the upper hand in a violent world where women and slaves are worth little. With one nod, the Sultan can brutally take a life and danger is rampant around every corner.

Bestselling author Colin Falconer writes with succinct prose. Each chapter ends with a gripping cliff-hanger that makes the book irresistible and unputdownable. Although both books can stand alone, I strongly recommend you read both books to enjoy the full impact of the story. He delves deep into the thoughts and motivations of his characters, truly making them seem larger than life.

As the story unfolds in both novels, the reader will immerse themselves in a world ripe with an abundance of historical details, atrocities, brutality, dissension, forbidden love, ambition, and love and hate. The plot twists are plentiful and the story draws one in. Entertaining and shocking, Harem and Seraglio are intense and truly bring to life a turbulent period in the 
Ottomon Empire.

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