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A Forbidden Pleasure - Wine Drinking in Ottoman Turkey

Priscilla Mary Işın

In light of the uncompromising ban on wine imposed by Islam - only interpreted by the hypocritical as not applying to other forms of alcohol - how is it that so many Turks have gone on drinking since they were converted to Islam in the 9th and 10th centuries? Practising the utmost discretion, drinkers regarded the spirit rather than the letter of the law. Not only had times changed since Prophet Muhammed addressed his people, but Turks came from an entirely different cultural background. In the 19th century drinking houses were known euphemistically as ‘sherbet houses’, in ironic libel of the ubiquitous sherbet, made of fruit juice, fragrant spices and honey.

Prophet Muhammed banned wine-drinking after seeing a happy group of youths in a garden quarrel and come to blows once they were drunk. The moral deduced from this was that, misused, drink is the root of evil, but well used? A man of breeding and dignity who knows when to stop, and does not get involved in embarrassing scandals has nothing to fear. This tolerant viewpoint surprised Lady Wortley Montague, wife of the British ambassador, in 1717, during one of her tête-à-têtes with Ahmet Bay, an Ottoman gentleman:

‘Ahmet Bey made no scruple of deviating from some part of Mahomet's law by drinking wine with the same freedom that we did. When I asked him how he came to allow himself that liberty, he made answer that all the creatures of God are good, and designed for the use of man; however, that the prohibition of wine was a very wise maxim, and meant for the common people, being the source of all disorders amongst them; but that the Prophet never designed to confine those that knew how to use it with moderation. Nevertheless, he said that the scandal ought to be avoided, and that he never drank it in public.’
Even the majority of sultans, so erroneously viewed as living in dissipated self-indulgence, enjoyed little gaiety and revelry of anything like European proportions. Luxury, yes, but in the straitjacket of palace etiquette and protocol. The exceptions, therefore, were notorious and departed this world with blackened reputations. Selim II (1566-1574) was the most unrepentant hedon, with a plethora of concubines and the palace abustle with troupes of dancers and musicians. While still heir to the throne, his friend Celal Bey warned him that his love of pleasure was eroding his authority and esteem. Draining his glass of wine, Selim replied, ‘I live for today, and think not of tomorrow.’ One of his first acts as sultan was to repeal the ban on wine imposed by his father, Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. For the rest of his reign, drinking, in Istanbul at least, was entirely free of restraint. Selim's attitude may have been a reaction to the excessive puritanism of his father, who at the instigation of an elderly adviser not only banned wine-drinking to Muslims, but dismissed the palace dancers and musicians, replaced silver plates with earthenware and ordered musical instruments set with gold and precious stones to be burned. He brought his wine-drinking subjects to heel by legislating that drunks were to be punished by having melted lead poured down their throats.

Sultan Bayezid I drank wine until he was shamed into repentance in later life by his son-in-law Emir Seyyid, who when asked to admire the new Bayezid Mosque in Bursa replied: ‘It has one defect. I consider that a drinking house should be built at each corner so that my sultan can come and enjoy himself here with his friends.’

When the Sultan rounded on him angrily, Seyyid replied: ‘If a man sullies his heart, which is the house of God, with wine and other sins, then there can be nothing wrong with building drinking houses at the corner of the mosque, which after all is only of stone and mortar.’* [DİPNOT Mouradja D’Ohsson, 18. Yüzyıl Türkiyesinde Örf ve Adetler (Tableau General de l’Empire Ottoman), Tercüman 1001 Temel Eser 3, s. 42-43]

Three generations on, Ahmed I reinstated the ban lifted by Selim II, and in 1613 ordered all the drinking houses in Istanbul to be demolished and kegs of all liquors smashed.

Murad IV (1623-1640), himself a heavy drinker, went to the greatest extreme of all, walking around the streets of Istanbul in disguise, seeking out drunkards and having them executed on the spot.

From that time on, however, none of the Ottoman sultans are known to have drunk to excess. In the palace, as all over the empire, water, sherbet and coffee were the only approved beverages for Muslims and the only ones served to visitors or consumed publicly.

Where Christians were concerned, however, the Ottomans were almost universally tolerant. Apart from a brief attempt by Sultan Süleyman to totally prevent the sale of wine in Istanbul, Christians and Jews were always free to make, sell and drink wine and rakı (an aniseed-flavoured spirit). When in 1562 Süleyman imposed his ban, the Austrian ambassador Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq pleaded to the pashas that if his retinue were denied wine they would fall sick and perhaps die. Although the pashas argued that if the neighbours saw wine being brought to the embassy it would arouse discontent to see Christians enjoying a privilege they themselves were denied, they finally gave into Busbecq's request for special dispensation. Şânî, a contemporary Turkish poet, voiced his objection to the ban in the following words:

The jars are broken, the goblet is empty, wine is no more,
We are enslaved to coffee, oh what times these are.

The Turkish conviction that Christians could not do without wine was such that it was even allowed to Christian prisoners. The Austrian-Hungarian diplomat Baron Wenceslas Wratislaw, who was imprisoned with the rest of his mission in 1591 after the ambassador was caught spying, writes that the prisoners received kegs of wine and rakı, and that when some of his mission fell sick, the prison warden provided them with a keg of brandy and garlic on their doctor's recommendation.

In the 19th century when Ubicini visited the house of Osman Aga, a middle-class Istanbul gentleman, he reports, ‘Courteously Osman Aga offered me a bottle of Bordeaux wine on a tray. Although he was strictly devout himself, he was not disturbed by the sight of wine. If I had refused to drink unless he did, I do not think he would have been able to refuse. The obligations of hospitality are as strict as those of religion.’

The dervishes of the mystic Bektaşi sect epitomised the tolerant Turkish interpretation of Islam's more exacting tenets. In the innumerable stories told about their unorthodox behaviour, the Bektashi often has his joke at the expense of a bigoted adversary:

One day a Bektaşi dervish went to the mosque and prayed to God to provide the money for a bottle of wine. The man beside him prayed for faith. After the prayers the man turned accusingly on the dervish: ‘You heretic! Are you not ashamed to ask God for money for wine?’ Quite unmoved by this outburst the dervish replied, ‘Everyone asks God for what he does not have. You have no faith, so you asked for that. Thanks be to God my faith is intact. All I lack is money for wine, so that is what I asked for.’

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