Ottoman Empire

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The Ottoman Empire was a long-lived Islamic caliphate (state), whose capital was Istanbul, which is the most populous city in modern-day Turkey. The Ottoman Empire ruled over the Eastern Mediterranean, parts of Eastern Europe, and most of North Africa after the fall of Constantinople (the Christian name for Istanbul) in 1453, until its dissolution at the end of World War I (they unfortunately having chosen to side with the Germans).

The Ottoman Empire constituted the biggest threat to Europe. Turks turned the great St. Sophia church into a mosque. They conquered the Balkans and reached, but did not conquer, Vienna. Shipping or traveling by ship was, because of Ottoman piracy, quite dangerous.

Though the Ottoman Empire was "an Islamic threat" to Europe, the main issue was not religion, but security. In fact religion per se was not the issue at all. For over 200 years the Ottoman Empire was a military threat to Eastern Europe. It either openly endorsed or took no action against the pirates and coastal raiders, who stole shiploads of merchandise and sold off many captured Christians as slaves, holding the well-to-do ones for ransom.

Many of the biggest trouble spots of today's world -- the Balkans, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq -- are parts of the former Ottoman empire. Its dissolution, at the Sèvres Conference of 1920, could have, with hindsight, been better handled.

The Ottoman Empire should not be confused with modern Turkey. It did not view itself as Turkish (though Turkish was the language of empire, and it was definitely centered at its capital and largest city, Istanbul). It viewed itself as the Muslim state -- the true caliphate, ruled over by descendants of Mohammed.

Turkey has rejected its Ottoman past, moving its capital from Istanbul to a new capital it created at Ankara, and changing from the Arabic to the Roman alphabet (thus making all prior books published in Turkish unintelligible to modern readers without special training). Also, the Ottoman Empire was much larger than present-day Turkey.


At its peak, in the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was quite sophisticated and cosmopolitan. Many educated Spanish Jews chose to go to Istanbul, by way of Italy, after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. The sultan received them with open arms, commenting, with happy astonishment, that Spain was sending him "its best citizens".

The Empire was also sensual and hedonistic. As part of this, recreational drug use was perfectly acceptable. While avoiding the drinking of alcoholic beverages, which the Koran prohibited, hashish, opium, and coffee were freely indulged in. All of these products reached Christian Europe via the Ottoman Empire. (Coffee was highly controversial in Christian Europe when first introduced, in the seventeenth century; thus the current association of leftish, Bohemian, rebellious persons with coffeehouses. See Bach's Coffee Cantata.)

The Ottoman Empire was Europe's most important contact with the "East": it was the exotic "other". Their markets were full of merchandise -- spices, fabrics, etc. -- unavailable in Christian Europe. Their clothing was strikingly different and often ornately decorated. The modern descendants of this clothing are the traje de luces worn by Spanish bullfighters, and its American relative, the outfits and saddles of the Western cowboy.

Those running from the law in the Christian world, or from a wife and children, could safely take refuge in the Ottoman Empire.


Sex, in Islam, is viewed as a natural appetite, similar to hunger; if one is hungry, one needs to eat. As most of the Muslim world before it was influenced by colonizing, prudish Christians, usually no one cared about sexual behavior as long as it did not threaten public order. A man was expected to marry, and to produce and support children. Aside from that requirement, a man could sexually do pretty much whatever he wanted, and there wasn't even a need for secrecy. Prostitution was openly tolerated, though confined to designated areas, as it still is in the early twenty-first century. Nothing was considered to be wrong regarding men having sex with younger boys -- a "peccadillo" at worst [1] -- and there were houses for boy prostitution, and "peg houses" where boys' anuses were systematically stretched as they sat on wooden diodos attached to the seat (straight up) they used waiting for clients.[2]

The modern Western distinction between love (always good) and sex (only good when limited to specific relationships) did not exist. Things that we would today call "sex" (a modern, "scientific" term), they called "love".

One could not be a homosexual, at least as the term is currently understood in the West. A man willingly receiving the penis of another man was (at least publicly) inconceivable and disgusting, as it is today in, for example, Morocco (though the same source also says that in Morocco there is little or nothing wrong in taking the active or top role in sex with another man or boy). But having sex with whomever was never a real problem if it were done with a minimum of discretion. The elite openly indulged in many "exotic" sexual behaviors, and, as in all cultures, set the model for others to follow.

Marital sex

Christian Europe was, at the time, becoming more prudish -- making priests live up to their vows of chastity, for example. It astonished them to think that in Islam (and the Ottoman Empire was identified as the Islam) men could have up to four wives, as long as they were treated equally (which seldom happened, in practice). Even more important, a man could divorce any or all of his wives whenever he wanted to, and take new ones. Since Mohammed consummated his marriage when the girl was nine (this was Aisha, and it ended up being his most successful marriage), pre-pubescent girls were not off-limits at all.

Sexual slavery was common. Christian shipping on the Mediterranean was hazardous, as officially sponsored pirates would seize ships and sell as sex slaves all the boys and girls, and the pretty women (the "fate worse than death", as European women put it). Regular, forced imports of young slaves from eastern Europe were common, and an important difference between Ottoman slavery and that in the South of the U.S. is that "the Islamic market demand for children was much greater than the American one".[3] Muslims could not enslave other Muslims (as contemporaneous Christians could not enslave other Christians, only "heathens"). Using Non-Muslims for one's sexual pleasure was acceptable, and even viewed as "hotter" than sex with another Muslim.

The very first, and successful, mission of the newly-constituted U.S. Navy was to sail to Algiers (ruled loosely by the Ottomans), to stop pirate raids on American ships.

Boylove in the Ottoman empire

Boylove -- which was understood to mean sex with boys -- was seen in the Ottoman empire as especially enjoyable. "The Gauls and those living in the northern countries are [as seen by the Turks] insensible of pleasure; it is only them that have the true smack of voluptuousness" (i.e., from sex with boys).[4] In sixteenth-century Algiers, according to Spanish historian Diego de Haedo (our only source), "Sodomy is honorable, because he who supports more boys (garçones) has more status ("es más honrado"). Men like them more than their own wives and daughters. Many of the Turks and renegades [European Christians converted to Islam], even senior, influential men ("hombres grandes y viejos"), only want boys for wives, and boast of never having had sex with a women their whole lives. Rather, they despise females and don't want to set eyes on them."[5]

The Ottoman Empire (not modern Turkey) appears as a location for pedophile fiction, as in "The Sultan's Favorite Boy" (which starts with the boy-tax) and "Osman goes to Court. A Thousand and One Tales of Osman the Pedophile". Osman is a Turkish name.

The boy-tax

The boy-tax (devşirme, commonly written outside of Turkey devshirme; see the Wikipedia article) was a required tribute of boys imposed on the Christian communities of eastern Europe under Ottoman control, from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Every four or five years boys between 7 and 10 (though some were much younger) were taken by the hundreds to Istanbul, converted to Islam, and educated. The ostensible purpose was to create a caste of soldiers and servants who had no allegiance to anyone but the sultan, since they had no relatives save a very distant, inaccessible family. Some became janissaries. Handsome specimens served the sexual desires of the sultan and his friends.

Many of the boys, dressed as females, became köçek dancers.

See also

Further reading


  1. Khaled El-Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 7.
  2. Jonathan Drake, "'Le Vice' in Turkey", International Journal of Greek Love, vol. 1, no. 2, 1966, pp. 13-27,, consulted Jun 22, 2015
  3. From the Wikipedia article on Islamic views on slavery.
  4. Nicholas Chorier, The Dialogues of Luisa Sigea, trans. not specified, North Hollywood, Brandon House, 1965, p. 284 (paraphrased).
  5. "La sodomía se tiene...por honra, porque aquel es más honrado que sustenta más garçones y los celan más que las propias mujeres y hijas.... A muchos de los turcos y renegados, que con ser ya hombres s grandes y viejos, no sólo no se quieren casar con otras mujeres que estos garçones, pero se alaban no haber jamás en toda su vida conocido alguna hembra, antes las aborrecen y no quieren ver de los ojos." Quote from Diego de Haedo, Topografía e historia general de Argel, 3 vols., Madrid: Sociedad de Bibliófilos Españoles, 1927-29, vol. 1, pp. 176-177. The authorship of this work is disputed.