One of the most profitable commodities in the Ottoman capital was humans

Constantinople was the center of a slave trade with supply lines starting in Poland, the Caucasus, and Sudan. The government levied a tax on each slave entering the city (four gold ducats a head in the 16th c.) and, like modern London auction houses, on both buyers and sellers.

Males, who could be exposed naked, were also sold in the Old Bazaar. In 1547, the French traveler Jean Chesneau saw dealers leading 3-year-old children through the bazaar, crying their prices in public.

Circassians were especially prized, followed by Poles, Abaza (from another Caucasus district), and Russians. The men from western Europe were thought too soft, and the women too hard. Blacks were also on sale: Pushkin’s great-grandfather was an Ethiopian, bought in Constantinople by the Russian ambassador.

Prospective purchases were tested like cattle. Buyers spat in their faces to see if make-up came off, and felt ‘teeth, legs, thighs, and the most secret parts. The poor things, men as well as women, let themselves be mistreated with lowered and expressionless eyes.’

The absence of teeth, beauty, or virginity lowered the price. In 1600 a young virgin cost a hundred ducats, women of 60 thirty-six. Before he bought a female, a purchaser could take her home for the night to see if she snored.

Until the 20th c., women were especially prominent in the slave trade, purchasing young girls, after the usual physical examination and financial bargaining, from independent female salve-dealers going from harem to harem. The girls were taught deportment, sewing, and singing, and then sold on at a profit.

Domestic slaves in Muslim households (in theory no Christian or Jews were allowed to own slaves) were relatively well treated – better than slaves in the Americas or many free servants in western Europe.

A 17th c. Ottoman called Latifi wrote:

Among them are girls and boys of such exceptional beauty that people lose all self-control and squander their whole fortune, declaring that money is of no importance compared with the soul and love… As the poem says: the most valuable thing in the world is union with beauty, otherwise what are people of love seeking in this bazaar?

Men who had spent all their money on slaves could not resist returning to the slave market, despite the pain of being able to see, but no longer buy, the beauties on sale. Including Sultan’s slaves of the Gates, slaves formed a large proportion of the population of Constantinople – up to 20%, according to Halil Inalcik, compared to about 3% of the population of Venice in 1600.

Philip Mansel

Taken from Mano Chil

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