Circumcision Ceremonies at the Ottoman Palace

Circumcision is widely practiced in all Islamic countries. Festivities pertaining to circumcision vary according to the regions and civilizations. In this report, circumcision festivities at the Ottoman Palace and the socioeconomic importance of the tradition are presented. The Ottoman circumcision technique is discussed, as are the miniature paintings, in manuscripts, written on the occasion of the circumcision of the sons of the Sultans. Because these festivities involved the participation of all classes of the society and all professions, they contributed to social and technical progress and led to developments in art, music, sports, and ideas.

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By Nil Sari*, S.N. Cenk Büyükünal**, and Bedizel Zulfikar***

This paper was first presented at the 39th Annual international Congress of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons, July 22-24, 1992, Leeds, UK and published in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery, XXXI, 7 (1996), pp. 920-924. We are grateful to Prof. Nil Sari for allowing the republishing this article.

* * *

Circumcision, practiced in all Islamic countries, is a traditional act, but not obligatory. Although it is often mentioned in the tradition of the Prophet, there is no mention of it in the Quran. With respect to a child's age and the type of festivities, there are wide variations among the Islamic regions [1].

Figure 1: Princes Mustafa and Mehmed, attended by a crowded procession, are driven in an ornate carriage to the Topkapi Palace to be circumcised. Surname-i Vehbi, Topkapi Palace Museum Library in Istanbul, Collection Ahmed III, MS 3593.

Herein we discuss circumcision festivities at the Ottoman Palace and the socioeconomic importance of the tradition. We describe the Ottoman circumcision technique from the perspective of paediatric surgery. Also discussed are the miniature paintings, in manuscript, written on the occasion of the circumcision of the sons of the Sultans, as well as the book of surgery by Sabuncuoglu.

Figure 2: Three of the princes to be circumcised are accompanied by high-ranking officials in the Topkapi Palace, where they are marched from the third courtyard forward the royal ward. The chief black eunuch marches in front. Surname-i Vehbi, Topkapi Palace Museum Library in Istanbul, Collection Ahmed III, MS 3593.

Historical Literature

The following illustrated historical works (in Ottoman Turkish) were studied: the surgical work Jarrahiya Ilhaniye by Sabuncuoglu [2]; Shahinshahname [3] which was written during the reign of Sultan Murat III and records the important events of the time and the circumcision festivities of the Sultan's son Mehmet in 1582; and Surnames, which describe the circumcision of the sons of the Sultans; Surname-i Vehbi [4], which pertains to the circumcision of the four sons of Ahmed III (princes Suleyman. Mehmet, Mustafa, and Beyazid) in 1720 [5]. Several printed works were studied as well. The existing sections of the Topkapi and Dolmabahce palaces that had been used for circumcision, which are not open to visitors, were studied and photographed for this report (Fig. 3, 5).

Figure 3: Circumcision of a boy, assisted by two men (Castumi orientali, XVII. Century Bologna, Biblioteca Comunale dell Archiginnasia). The illustration is published by kind permission of Nil Sari and Ulker Erke. Source: 38th International Congress on History of Medicine, Turkish Medical History Through Miniature Pictures Exhibition (Drawn by U. Erke, Organizer and Editor Nil Sari), Istanbul 2002.

Discussion

The following can be inferred from this study. After the 15th century, all festivities, except the one in 1675, were held in Istanbul [6]. The most popular palaces for these festivities were the Topkapi Palace, Kagithane, Sultanahmed Square, Golden Horn; Aynalikavak Palace, and later, the Dolmabahce Palace. The festivities for celebrating the circumcision of princes, referred to as "Sur-i hümayun," usually lasted 10 to 15 days, although some were as long as 50 to 55 days [7].

 

Figure 4a-b: One of the specially designed musical fountains that are mounted on both sides of the windows of the circumcision room at the Topkapi Palace. This style is a specific feature of Turkish architecture. It can be assumed that the sound of the running water was used for two purposes: contributing to the psychotherapy and suppressing the crying of the circumcised princes. (© Salim Aydüz).

During these festivities, between 3,000 and 10,000 boys of poor families also were circumcised by the surgeons. Clothing, gold coins, underwear, and toys were given to these children as gifts (Fig. 8). Throughout the festivities, a number of these boys were circumcised each day. At the end of the festivities, the chief surgeon circumcised the princes. High-ranking officials escorted the princes to the room prepared especially for circumcision (Figs 1 and 2). The circumcised princes were given a separate floor; their mothers and sisters were the only women permitted to enter this floor (Fig. 3-5). The surgeon who circumcised the prince was given precious presents and a great deal of gold coins.

Figure 5: Circumcision. (Taeshner Album; Alt Stambuler Hof-Und Volksleben. Ein Türkisches Miniaturenalbum Aus Dem 17. Jahrhundert, Veroffentlicht Von Franz Taeschner. Hannover 1925, figure 35. Beschneidung.) © Nil Sari and Ulker Erke.

Common citizens also took part in the festivities at the Ottoman palace. Large tents were pitched and their floors were covered with carpets to accommodate the spectators. The festivities were not enclosed within the walls of the palace; the Sultan, statesman, and common people were entertained together. Dishes were laid out for the common people as well. The circumcision festivities in the Ottoman Empire were enlivened with rituals, hunting, sporting events, illuminations, fireworks, dramas, and songs, reflecting life in Ottoman community [8].

Figure 6: After circumcision, the princes lay on beds on the marble terrace between the porches of the Baghdad Pavilion. In the foreground are the personnel of the royal ward rushing to snatch the gold pieces scattered by the Sultan. The photo of the Bagdad Pavilion. (© Salim Aydüz).

During these activities, every individual guild displayed its skills and merits, parading in front of the Sultan and the public. Hundreds of people performed plays, adding to the merriment. Janissaries and cavalry soldiers played war games while fireworks masters, poets, and artists displayed their talents (Fig. 7). In short, the skilled in the society took part in the show.

Figure 7: Daytime at the Golden Horn. The Sultan, his two princes, and retinue are seen at the Aynalikavak Palace, with open shutters. A play is being performed on the raft that is decorated with artificial cypress trees and Mühr-I Süleyman. On the raft below are puppets, swings, and a merry-go-round. Surname-i Vehbi, Topkapi Palace Museum Library in Istanbul, Collection Ahmed III, MS 3593.

One of the most interesting activities that characterized these festivities was the parade in which 'nahils" of various sizes, in the form of trees decorated with animal figures, fruits, flowers, and shiny material, were carried (Fig. 9). Resembling huge Christmas trees, the nahils were symbols of the 'Sultan's or the patron's power and authority in the society. They varied in size and sometimes were as large as 15 m high and 6 m wide [9]. During this parade, artificial gardens and pools, and animals made of sugar candy that later were distributed to the people, also were presented.

Figure 8: A circumcised boy lying in bed (Castumi orientali, XVII. Century Bologna, Biblioteca Comunale dell Archiginnasia).The illustration is published by kind permission of Nil Sari and Ulker Erke. Source: 38th International Congress on History of Medicine, Turkish Medical History Through Miniature Pictures Exhibition (Drawn by U. Erke, Organizer and Editor Nil Sari), Istanbul 2002.

After the circumcision of the Sultan's sons, as well as the weddings of his daughters, works called Surname, some in prose and others in verse, were written. This literary genre exists only in the Ottoman literature. These books describe the entertainment that continued ceaselessly, night and day, the skills displayed during these events, the competitions, the prizes given to winners, the tables laid out for the people, the banquets, and the gifts presented to the Sultan. The masters of the miniature paintings of the period illustrated some of these books. The work Surname-i Vehbi, which describes the circumcision of the four sons of Ahmed III, was illustrated by the famous 18th century Turkish miniature painter Levni [10]. The book contains 137 miniatures produced on double pages and depicts Turkish life and customs in 18th century Istanbul. Another important source, the Shahinshahname [11], written in Persian, records of the important events of the reign of Sultan Murat III, as well as the circumcision festivities of the Sultan's son Mehmed in 1582.

Figure 9: Preparations (called nahil) for circumcision festivities in the garden of the old palace. The procession of the nahils involved the display of decorated palm trees and model gardens. Surname-i Vehbi, Topkapi Palace Museum Library in Istanbul, Collection Ahmed III, MS 3593.

Techniques of Circumcision

The celebrated 15th century Ottoman surgeon Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu's famous work Jarrahiya Ilhaniye (Royal Surgery, written in 1465), which is a translation of Al-Tasrif by Zahravi, with original contributions, describes in detail the techniques of circumcision and contains original illustrations depicting the operation and the instruments used [12]. Of the three copies of this work, the one at the Fatih Millet Library, registered as no. 79, was studied. Sabuncuoglu illustrates and describes the special scissors with slightly curved blade tips. He recommends two ligations for the practice of healthy and safe circumcision: "The surgeon should cut the perpetual skin between the ligatures, so that there will be no flow of blood and the glans won't be wounded." During the procedure, wads, tampons (plugs), and dressings were used. Ashes of dried gourds or fine white flour were used as remedies on the wound. As wound treatment, egg yolk cooked in rosewater and ground with the oil of roses was applied and kept on until the following day. The wound was then dressed with other medicaments until it healed.

Figure 10: Circumcision room outside wall beautifully decorated with Iznik tiles. (© Salim Aydüz).

Sabuncuoglu also discussed a complication that often occurs during circumcision: "If a part or whole inner layer of the foreskin slips from your hand and is inverted during the operation, draw it out immediately with a hook or a crotchet and make your incision before the place swells. If you fail to do this, let it be. Allow the swollen part to subside, and then gently peel the skin. Be careful not to cut the tip of the penis, but if it is cut there is no harm done. Dress the wound with flesh-regenerating powders. Should the foreskin be cut away more than needed and the skin is wrinkled up that will do no great harm either."

Figure 11: The well-decorated and gilded door of the circumcision room. (© Salim Aydüz).

Conclusion

The circumcision festivities at the Ottoman Palace were important social events rather than simple religious rituals. During the festivities, many poor children, as well as princes and sons of statesmen were circumcised. Clothes and other gifts were given. Because the festivities involved the participation of people of all classes and all professions, they contributed to social and technical progress and led to developments in art, music, sports, and ideas.

Figure 12: A circumcision ceremony in modern Turkey.

Figure 13: Sultan Ahmed III gives tips to the Palace members after circumcision of his princes'.

References

  • Ataseven, A., "Circumcision in Turkish culture, history and medicine", Journal of Bezm-i Alem Valide Sultan Vakif Gureba Hospital, 12:82-89, 1985 (in Turkish).
  • Bayat, A.H., Circumcision in Turkish History and Circumcision Festivities in Turkish Folklore and History. Izmir. Turkey, 1979. Aegean University, unpublished thesis (in Turkish).
  • Muhammed, H., The prophet of Islam (ed 5), vol 2. Istanbul. Turkey. 1990, Irfan Publishing (translated by Tug S) (in Turkish).
  • Uzuncarsili, I.H., The Organization of the Palace in Ottoman Empire. Ankara. Turkey. TTK Publishing, series no. 8. no. 15.1945 (in Turkish).
  • Sabuncuoglu, S., Jarrahiya Ilhaniye, Istanbul. Turkey. Fatih National Library, no. Tib 79. 1465 (manuscript).
  • Buyukunal, S.N.C., Sari, N., "Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu, the author of the earliest paediatric surgical atlas", Cerrahiyye-i Ilhaniye. J Pediatr Surg 26:1148-1151,1991.
  • Buyukunal, S.N.C., Sari, N., "Sabuncuoglu Serafeddin (XVth century): An outstanding personality in the Turkish history of paediatric surgery". Presented at The 35th Annual International Congress of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons. Athens. Greece, September 20. 1988 (session of History of Paediatric Surgery).
  • Sehinsah-name, Istanbul, Turkey. Topkapi Palace Museum Library, no. Bagdat 200 (manuscript, 16th century).
  • Vehbi, S., Surname-i Vehbi. Istanbul, Turkey. Topkapi Palace Museum Library, no. Ahmed III, 3593 (manuscript, 18th century)
  • Danismend, I. H., The Chronology of Ottoman History, vol 2-3. Istanbul. Turkey, Türkiye Publishing, 1971-1972 (in Turkish).
  • Nutku, O., Festival of Edirne of Mehmet-IV. Ankara. Turkey, TTK Publishing, series no. VII, no. 61, 1971 (in Turkish).
  • Sari, N., Buyükünal S. N. C., Zülfikar, B., "Circumcision ceremonies in the Ottoman Palace". Presented at The 39th Annual International Congress of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons, Leeds, England, July 22-24, 1992 (session of History of Paediatric Surgery).

Footnotes

[1] Ataseven A: Circumcision in Turkish culture, history and medicine. Journal of Bezm-i Alem Valide Sultan Vakif Gureba Hospital, 12:82-89, 1985 (in Turkish); Bayat A.H: Circumcision in Turkish History and Circumcision Festivities in Turkish Folklore and History. Izmir. Turkey, 1979. Aegean University, unpublished thesis (in Turkish); Muhammed H: The prophet of Islam (ed 5), vol 2. Istanbul. Turkey. 1990, Irfan Publishing (translated by Tug S) (in Turkish);Uzuncarsili I.H.: The Organization of the Palace in Ottoman Empire. Ankara. Turkey. TTK Publishing, series no. 8. no. 15.1945 (in Turkish).

[2] Sabuncuoglu S: Jarrahiya Ilhaniye, Istanbul. Turkey. Fatih National Library, no. Tib 79. 1465 (manuscript); Buyukunal S.N.C., Sari, N.: Sabuncuoglu Serafeddin (XVth century) An outstanding personality in the Turkish history of paediatric surgery. Presented at the 35th Annual International Congress of the British Association of Paedtatric Surgeons. Athens. Greece, September 20. 1988 (session of History of Paediatric Surgery).

[3] Sehinsah-name. Istanbul, Turkey. Topkapi Palace Museum Library, no. Bagdat 200 (manuscript, 16th century).

[4] Vehbi S: Surname-i Vehbi. Istanbul, Turkey. Topkapi Palace Museum Library, no. Ahmed III, 3593 (manuscript, 18th century).

[5] Bayat A. H: Circumcision in Turkish History and Circumcision Festivities in Turkish Folklore and History. Izmir. Turkey, 1979. Aegean University, unpublished thesis (in Turkish); Uzuncarsili I.H.: The Organization of the Palace in Ottoman Empire. Ankara. Turkey. TTK Publishing, series no. 8. no. 15.1945 (in Turkish).

[6] Danismend I.H.: The Chronology of Ottoman History, vol 2-3. Istanbul. Turkey, Türkiye Publishing, 1971-1972 (in Turkish); Nutku O: Festival of Edirne of Mehmet-IV. Ankara. Turkey, TTK Publishing, series no. VII, no. 61, 1971 (in Turkish).

[7] Ataseven A: Circumcision in Turkish culture, history and medicine. Journal of Bezm-i Alem Valide Sultan Vakif Gureba Hospital, 12:82-89, 1985 (in Turkish); Bayat A.H: Circumcision in Turkish History and Circumcision Festivities in Turkish Folklore and History. Izmir. Turkey, 1979. Aegean University, unpublished thesis (in Turkish); Muhammed H: The prophet of Islam (ed 5), vol 2. Istanbul. Turkey. 1990, Irfan Publishing (translated by Tug S) (in Turkish); Uzuncarsili I.H.: The Organization of the Palace in Ottoman Empire. Ankara. Turkey. TTK Publishing, series no. 8. no. 15.1945 (in Turkish); Danismend I.H.: The Chronology of Ottoman History, vol 2-3. Istanbul. Turkey, Türkiye Publishing, 1971-1972 (in Turkish); Nutku O: Festival of Edirne of Mehmet-IV. Ankara. Turkey, TTK Publishing, series no. VII, no. 61, 1971 (in Turkish).

[8] Ataseven A: Circumcision in Turkish culture, history and medicine. Journal of Bezm-i Alem Valide Sultan Vakif Gureba Hospital, 12:82-89, 1985 (in Turkish); Bayat A.H: Circumcision in Turkish History and Circumcision Festivities in Turkish Folklore and History. Izmir. Turkey, 1979. Aegean University, unpublished thesis (in Turkish); Vehbi S: Surname-i Vehbi. Istanbul, Turkey. Topkapi Palace Museum Library, no. Ahmed III, 3593 (manuscript, 18th century); Danismend I.H.: The Chronology of Ottoman History, vol 2-3. Istanbul. Turkey, Türkiye Publishing, 1971-1972 (in Turkish); Sari N, Buyükünal S.N.C., Zülfikar B: Circumcision ceremonies in the Ottoman Palace. Presented at the 39th Annual International Congress of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons, Leeds, England, July 22-24, 1992 (session of History of Paediatric Surgery).

[9] Ataseven A: Circumcision in Turkish culture, history and medicine. Journal of Bezm-i Alem Valide Sultan Vakif Gureba Hospital, 12:82-89, 1985 (in Turkish); Bayat A.H: Circumcision in Turkish History and Circumcision Festivities in Turkish Folklore and History. Izmir. Turkey, 1979. Aegean University, unpublished thesis (in Turkish); Vehbi S: Surname-i Vehbi. Istanbul, Turkey. Topkapi Palace Museum Library, no. Ahmed III, 3593 (manuscript, 18th century).

[10] Vehbi S: Surname-i Vehbi. Istanbul, Turkey. Topkapi Palace Museum Library, no. Ahmed III, 3593 (manuscript, 18th century).

[11] Sehinsah-name. Istanbul, Turkey. Topkapi Palace Museum Library, no. Bagdat 200 (manuscript, 16th century).

[12] Sabuncuoglu S: Jarrahiya Ilhaniye, Istanbul. Turkey. Fatih National Library, no. Tib 79. 1465 (manuscript); Buyukunal S.N.C., Sari, N.: Sabuncuoglu Serafeddin (XVth century) An outstanding personality in the Turkish history of paediatric surgery. Presented at the 35th Annual International Congress of the British Association of Paedtatric Surgeons. Athens. Greece, September 20. 1988 (session of History of Paediatric Surgery).

* Professor Nil Sari, Ph. D., from Istanbul University Cerrahpasa Medicine Faculty, Department of Deontology and History of Medicine, is a world expert scholar in the history of medicine, Islamic medicine and culture and Ottoman science and medicine. Professor Sari is also a key FSTC associate. Presently Professor Nil Sari is Head of the Medical Ethics and History Department, Istanbul University, Cerrahpasa Medical School.

** The head of Pediatric Surgery and Urology Department of Cerrahpasa Medical Faculty.

*** Department of Medical History & Ethics, Cerrahpasa Medical Faculty, University of Istanbul, Istanbul, Turkey.

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