My thanks to BooksgoSocial and NetGalley for a review copy of the book.
Imagine living in an opulent place, with rich furnishings, delicious, decadent dishes to eat, beautiful tailored clothes in the best of fabrics to wear, your every want satisfied, a retinue of people to attend you at all hours. But also imagine, never being permitted to set foot outside that beautiful palace, being able to have next to no contact with people or life outside, even your own family. And not just for a day or a month or even a year, but for 28 long years.
This was how Murad V, the 33rd Ottoman Sultan lived, imprisoned in a gilded cage, Çırağan Palace, with his children, grandchildren, and a great-grandchild. Murad was crowned after his predecessor Abdulaziz was deposed in a coup by some ministers—since he was not personally involved in the coup, Murad was deeply affected by the fate of his uncle, and suffered a nervous breakdown after the latter’s death. Taking advantage of this, his brother, Abdul Hamid II took over the throne. After just a few months on the throne, Murad and his family were imprisoned in Çırağan, and his ideas of introducing a constitutional monarchy remained a dream.
The Gilded Cage on the Bosphorus is written by Ayşe Gülnev Osmanoğlu, a member of the Ottoman family, in fact a descendant of Murad, and also a historian by training, holding a degree in Ottoman history. She tells the story of life in Çırağan Palace, where Murad and his family try to live as ‘normally’ as possible, despite all the hardships they are facing, keep abreast with all the developments in the world outside from the little news they can gather, and support each other through everything they go through. The book begins with the birth of Murad’s great-grandson Ali Vâsib, and the accompanying celebrations, at a time when Murad has spent nearly three decades in captivity. It takes us through a scandal that affected the family, Murad’s death, and the life of his family thereafter, when Abdul Hamid II permitted the family to return to the outside world (though still with restrictions), and into court life once again.
Reading the book, one can’t but feel both appalled and very very sad at what the family had to go through—especially the younger members—in particular, Nihad, the author’s great-grandfather was born, grew up, got married and had a child without ever stepping out of the Palace, while his son too was born in the palace. But after the latter’s birth, before Ali Vâsib would really know what was going on, the family had been permitted to go out again. One can only imagine what it would have been like to never see any people (other than one’s family) or to never speak to anyone except the few permitted in the Palace, or never know what life beyond your own is like. Yet Nihad was a compassionate man, and also one very skilled in music, architecture and mechanics, encouraged by his family. The girls of the family too were encouraged to take their studies seriously, with a view to them participating in society.
Locked away in the Palace, the family manage to keep their spirits up, taking pleasure from every occasion that afforded it. A fair bit of the first section of the book is devoted to the celebrations in the family at Ali Vâsib’s birth, and through her very vivid and lovely descriptions, the author takes us into those celebrations, watching the ceremonies take place, enjoying the food and sweetmeats, and observing the gorgeous costumes the ladies of the family wore—always the latest French fashions—even the music (Western classical and opera) that they enjoyed. And it wasn’t just festive occasions, but also the smaller pleasures, like picnicking in their garden or enjoying snowman-making or a snowball fight, that they enjoyed to the fullest.
We also get an understanding of the family—the thoughts of the different members, an idea of their history, and also their relationships with each other. With only each other to interact with and rely on, the bonds between the various members were strong and they supported each other always. Murad’s daughters had been allowed to leave Çırağan to be married, but once they left were never permitted to visit their family or keep contact. But when one of them, Hadice Sultan, found herself facing a scandal, the entire family in the Palace stood by her and lent every support. I really liked that the author, while focusing on the strengths and qualities of each of the family, presents them as real people, not devoid of their flaws.
Alongside we are also given a look into the political situation and developments of the day. In Turkey, the removal of Murad V meant that his ideas on Constitutional Monarchy were never given effect to, and autocratic rule continued. But at the time, in other parts of the world, there was unrest among the people and greater opposition to autocracy—the unrest was also impacting developments in the Ottoman empire. Russia, Persia and even Turkey saw the effects including in the form of an assassination attempt on the Sultan. Murad, his son Selaheddin and even Nihad understood the need for change but the chance to introduce it sadly did not come for them.
Other developments at the time like the first flight by the Wright brothers were keenly followed by the family, and once visitors were allowed, bicycles (new at the time) were brought in, while Nihad built a model aeroplane. They also took great interest in matters of philosophy and religion and we get an idea of their views and discussions through the conversations they have—each of them being encouraged to develop their own views (some of the discussions are a little protracted, though).
Before I wrap up, I must mention that I also enjoyed noticing in the book some similarities in words we use in Hindi/Hindustani and Turkish, like ‘damad’–‘bridegroom’ in Turkish, used for sons-in-law in Hindi, and helva/halwa for a sweet dish (though I think the actual dishes are different); revani is a semolina cake in Turkey, and rava is one of the words we use for semolina (also though not in the book Peynir is cheese as is paneer in hindi, one type at least).
The book gave me some insight into Turkish history (which I knew very little about, though I have had the pleasure of visiting Istanbul. I did have the chance to see some of the sacred relics in Topkapi the author mentions in the story, though which made reading about them all the more real for me), and into Ottoman rule at a time when there was much turbulence in the world. But more than that, I especially enjoyed getting to know the family themselves—a warm, closely-knit and very likeable set of people. So this turned out to be a really wonderful read.