The Gilded Cage on the Bosphorus by Ayse Osmanoglu – life in a Palace in the early twentieth century well realised in a special book

The Gilded Cage on the Bosphorus by Ayse Osmanoglu

The subtitle of the book is “The Ottomans: The Story of a Family”, and it fulfils that promise in terms of covering the very early years of the twentieth century in the life of a family. The author is actually a descendent of the people who feature in this immense book; she says in her Preface that it is “neither an historical novel, nor an academic study – it seems to me to sit somewhere in between!”. It is an account of the complex family of the former Sultan Murad V, a man who only reigned for a matter of months before being deposed by his far stricter brother Sultan Abdulhamid II. At the beginning of the book he has spent many years inside a beautiful palace, with his consorts, favourites and his immediate descendents. They have servants, food, jewels and clothes, but limited access to the outside world either physically or newspapers, letters or visits. Partly because of the multiple wives that are on the scene, there are complex family connections, and there are family trees in the front of the book which can help in establishing which person is which, though the narration actually reminds the reader frequently of the most important relationships.

This book takes a powerful and sometimes intense look at what was supposedly going on in the palace at a significant point in world history. It carefully introduces characters as real people as well as historical figures. The relationships between the people are realistically drawn, as well as the personalities such as the gentle, the intense, the shy and the confident. This is a big book, a satisfying one, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.  

The book opens with a birth in 1903, to Murad’s grandson Nihad and his teenage bride Safiru. A healthy boy is a strong addition to the family, and everyone rejoices. A faithful midwife claims her traditional reward after her long term service to the family, as she is one who helps to alleviate their isolation by sometimes underhand means. As part of the narrative there are many details about the birth, naming and other ceremonies practiced by Muslims at the time. Murad is pleased that his son Selahaddin has a grandson, and that his line is to continue. It does go to the heart of his biggest problem and reason for sorrow; yet another boy will grow up in a beautiful, luxurious prison with no prospect of release. Even those family members who have left the palace, such as two of Murad’s daughters, do not find it easy to   cope given their position in relation to the ruler of the state. Emotions are strong, feelings are high, and the situations are complex. Another element of this book is the way that Murad, Selahaddin and Nihad read what newspapers and other reading matter that they can get hold of to discover and comment on political issues throughout Europe. They have no illusions about British and French territorial ambitions, they are aware of the tensions between Russia and Japan, they know that while their dynasty is so long established the world is changing fast and nothing is secure. When there are political assassinations in other countries, the Sultan becomes extra anxious and therefore vigilant over his effective prisoners.

The author has undoubtedly completed immense amounts of research for this book, as well as writing down her own memories of family stories and the grandparents who she had spent time with in her own childhood. She combines her sources seamlessly so that the people she writes about are not just historical characters but real people. She has included a useful Glossary and Bibliography for those who wish to investigate further, as well as building tremendous passages of geopolitical analysis that the men of the family discuss as events unfold around Europe and the world. This is a memorable book for all the right reasons, and it gives a unique perspective of life in early twentieth century Istanbul in a very readable form.