If there’s one thing to be learned about studying the Ottomans, it’s that there are many strange stories to tell. What makes up “strange” depends upon one’s frame of reference. In his book on Palm Beach, Laurence Leamer characterised the town’s social system as madness, but for those of us who are a product of same, is there any other way to do it? That’s a stretch, but this last tale from the Sultan’s palace is in a league of its own.
A few years before the French Revolution, the Algerians, the pirates par excellence of the western Mediterranean, presented the Sultan with an unusual gift: a French noblewoman by the name of Aimée Dubcuq de Rivery, whom they had captured and made a slave. She went from the convent in France to the harem in Constantinople.
That culture shock was just the beginning of a wild ride, as only the Ottomans could offer.
Her stock went up soon when she gave birth to her son Mahmud by Sultan Abdul Hamid I, who was fond of her. The Sultan died in 1789, succeeded by his nephew Selim. Selim and Aimée were also fond of each other, but the world they were about to be catapulted into was anything but placid. Back home in France the Bastille was stormed in July, igniting the French Revolution. Faced with his own problems at home with the Janissaries, Selim organised a new army (Napoleon Bonaparte volunteered as a military adviser, but was turned down, going on to bigger things while marrying Aimée’s cousin Joséphine) and Aimée promoted things French in old Constantinople. But Napoleon invaded Ottoman Egypt, forcing Selim to turn to the British.
The Janissaries, true to form, overthrew Selim in 1807, putting Mahmud’s half-brother Mustafa on the throne. Bairactar Pasha revolted, and the result was that Aimée’s son Mahmud ended up as Sultan. The Janissaries extracted concessions out of Mahmud but mother and son were secure for the moment.
With his mother’s help, Mahmud turned out to be a reformer, bringing in Western (mostly French) institutions and people in trying to modernise the country. In the meanwhile there were successes and failures. Mahmud, with the help of a Turkish officer named “Black Hell” managed to massacre the Janissaries and end their meddling ways. On the other hand the Russians continued to nibble away at Ottoman territory, and Greece won its independence.
But the time came for Aimée to leave this life. She had lived at the power centre of Islam and exercised that power when she could as the consort, friend and mother of the Caliph, the leader of Islam (well, Sunni Islam at least). But with life slipping away, in spite of all of the Islam surrounding her (or perhaps because of it) she demanded of her son that she be given Christian last rites and die in the grace of Jesus Christ.
The highest Muslim he was, but Mahmud acceded to his mother’s request. He summoned a Greek Orthodox priest, who came to the palace and, in Mahmud’s presence he heard her confession, gave her absolution, and died in the Christian faith she was baptised in.
Today, in many of the same territories that Mahmud ruled over, we see Christians confess Jesus Christ and be martyred for that confession. The circumstances of their passing are far different than Aimée’s, and the new caliph is not in the same league as the Ottoman sultans. But the idea is the same: when the time for eternity comes, the real Christian wants to enter into the presence of his or her Lord and Saviour.
And this will fulfil my earnest expectation and hope that I shall have no cause for shame, but that, with unfailing courage, now as hitherto, Christ will be honored in my body, whether by my life or by my death, For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. But what if the life here in the body–if this brings me fruit from my labors? Then which to choose I cannot tell! I am sorely perplexed either way! My own desire is to depart and be with Christ, for this would be far better. But, for your sakes, it may be more needful that I should still remain here in the body. (Philippians 1:20-24)
So what about you? Where (and with whom) do you plan to step into eternity when the time comes?