Venetian Sultanas in the Harem, Venice, Italy

…And so, there I was, keeping him company in his room, sitting next to him in an armchair that was brought up from the little lounge – and I’ m quite sure Lady was looking upon us happily from her seat in Paradise. For days there was no Venice or, rather, it had been erased from my sight as I didn’t go on my walks.However, while we spoke, I kept sketching and showing him my work, which was no longer gondolas and arched windows, but turbans and caftans. It was he who influenced me because he kept asking me to tell him stories of the East in order to forget the red colour of Venetian art that, as he said, was the reason he had fallen. We said no more of that, but I thought to myself that it was far better that he had broken his leg rather than his heart. You can dance in the fog only when you are open to the world, not when you look out with caution. 

“Tell me a story,” he told me, and I immediately wandered off to my beloved Orient.

I spoke to him of Nûr Banû, the sultana whose name meant ‘lady of light’ and who was not a myth, but the daughter of the Venetian governor of Corfu. When Hayreddin Barbarossa invaded the island, he kidnapped her and sent her to the Sultan as a present.

The Topkapi Harem, Istanbul, Turkey

The Topkapi Harem, Istanbul, Turkey

Sir Henry raised his eyebrows upon hearing this but, before he had time to ask how the very Venetian Nûr Banû had become sultana, I told him that there were other women of gentle Venetian birth in residence at the Imperial Harem, because pirates freely roamed the Mediterranean then.  “But they were not the Sultan’ s slaves,” I explained, and added, “that is a myth.”

“Are you sure?” he asked in disbelief.

“Yes, quite sure,” I replied, “it’ s all written down in the archives of Venice.”

And I told him about a Venetian woman who had been abducted by pirates on the banks of the Friuli and had been sent to the harem but, because the Sultan did not so much as take a look at her, was returned to Venice after nine years, free and endowed with jewellery to take care of her for the rest of her life. Her husband, thinking she was dead, had remarried.

“And what happened to her?” he asked, full of curiosity and moving his bandaged leg to ease the numbness.

“I really don’t know,” I replied, with a shrug of my shoulders, “the archives only write of her return. I guess she remarried, too.”

I continued to speak of Nûr Banû, who was beautiful, smart, ready to convert her faith, had learned to speak exquisite Turkish and mastered the etiquette of the Ottoman court, become a virtuoso at playing the lute and serving coffee. All these ensured her meeting the Sultan in his mother’s quarters, as she had become a ‘favourite’. Saying all this, I let Sir Henry dream about the harem at the Topkapi, where he had never been, and I let him envisage the kiosk of the Sultan Murat III, amongst the most beautiful of the Seraglio, with its enameled tiles and gorgeous fountain built into the wall, where the water gurgled cheerfully in order to drown out all other whispers…

An excerpt from the book MY VENICE

The Topkapi Harem, Istanbul, Turkey

The Topkapi Harem, Istanbul, Turkey

Barbara Athanassiadis