Patronage, Professionalism, and Slavery: The Lives of Musicians at the Ottoman Court
by Peter Tracy
A 1558 Ottoman miniature depicting an Ottoman official registering Christian boys for the devsirme
The Ottoman Empire lasted over six centuries, from the late 13th to the early 20th centuries. For much of that time, in a fashion similar to other rulers in the period we tend to refer to as “The Renaissance”, a court was kept in Istanbul at Topkapı palace that orbited around a single person, in this case the Ottoman Sultan. At its period of greatest importance between the 15th and 16th century, Topkapı palace was the place at which the economic, military, and administrative as well as cultural goals of the Ottoman elite were centered.
But this, a brief story about music, cannot be a story completely about the Sultan and his close advisors. If we are being as faithful as we can be to the history of the music we have at hand, often referred to as Ottoman classical music, we cannot simply discuss the histories of Ottoman rulers and elites, those people who were, in essence, this courtly music’s audience. The rulers and courtiers who brought music into their palaces were only part of a process that saw the development of a distinctly Ottoman musical tradition out of a broader Islamic and Central Asian musical and cultural sphere, and while the rulers often got to decide what music was made, why, and for whom, the many unnamed musicians who actually played this music are certainly deserving of some credit and attention. In my previous article about Ottoman classical music, I discussed the relationship between this time-honored musical tradition and the powerful people in the early Turkish government who wanted it to disappear. This time I’d like to talk about the powerful people and the musicians alike who had a hand in making it possible.
If we are going to talk about music during this period, we are all but required to talk about the idea of royal patronage. At the court in Topkapı palace, for instance, the Ottoman Sultan played the part of patron of the arts, surrounding himself with musicians whom he often kept among his stable of household servants. The Ottoman Sultan thus took part in a longstanding regional tradition practiced, before the Ottomans, by the Abbasid Caliphs and the rulers who succeeded the Mongol conquests. One only has to think of the analogous musical situation in Europe in order to get a sense of just how widespread the connection between formal musical practice and royal patronage was during this time: for instance, the 15th and 16th centuries also saw composers such as Josquin des Prez (1450/55 – 1521) in the service of royalty such as Louis XII of France. As in Europe, so too did musicians in the Ottoman makam tradition largely sink or swim based on their connections to royalty.
What we know as Ottoman classical music was essentially the makam-based music played at the Sultan’s court in Istanbul (and perhaps more tangentially at other important Ottoman cities). In this sense, Ottoman classical music was not an everyday music, and probably did not account for anywhere close to the majority of the music played across the Empire. The degree to which courtly culture interacted at all with the broader musical and artistic custom of Ottoman cities is even up for debate. It was a specific style for a specific purpose: courtly entertainment and, more tangentially, cultural prestige for the Ottoman elite. While the music cannot be boiled down to these factors, it is clear that the music as well as the lives of the musicians who played it were shaped by its social role from its earliest traceable origins.
In attempting to look back at the music of pre-Ottoman times, the waters are rather murky: as Walter Feldman points out in his book Music of the Ottoman Court, “the social history of the performers… of medieval Near Eastern courtly music is obscure in the extreme.”Yet the musical and courtly culture of the Islamic caliphates, who ruled much of the region that would become the Ottoman Empire from the middle of the 7th century, must have been of foundational importance for the Ottoman classical tradition, and there are a few aspects of this milieu that are relevant to the lives of Ottoman musicians. Feldman draws our attention to the fact that “by the Abbasid period [beginning roughly 750 C.E.] we meet with male professional musicians, usually both singers and instrumentalists, the most illustrious of whom were also composers and sometimes musical theorists” Master-student relationships”, he writes, were “maintained over a wide geographical area, linking Egypt, Syria and southern Anatolia in the West, with Iraq, Iran and Transoxiana in the East.” The instruments involved, such as the ubiquitous short-necked lute known as the oud, were also “very similar over a broad geographical area”, resulting in “a very high degree of systemic unity in the maqam music.”Thus we might be tempted to see in the musical life of Caliphal times an example of musicians who were highly trained, well paid, and widely revered, and to draw the conclusion that such a tradition of appreciation for complex and formalized musical practice must have had a real bearing on the lives of the Ottoman musicians to come.
Koceks who were young male cross dressing slave entertainers performing in front of the Sultan to musical accompaniment
Yet while a few musicians by the Abbasid period were able to gain widespread fame and prestige, this was certainly not the case for all of the many musical laborers of the time. Feldman also tells us that “singing slave-girls, often playing the harp, çeng” were a ubiquitous part of “the court music of Caliphal times, as they were of pre-Islamic Arabian music.” This suggests the existence of a perhaps even older tradition of musicians who were actively enslaved and forced to perform, a theme which will certainly warrant returning to in the Ottoman context.
In the wake of the Mongol conquests of the 13th and 14th centuries, another important precedent for the Ottoman musical tradition was the music of the Timurid court at Herât in modern day Afghanistan. Arguably the most important city in the web of Turco-Mongol cultural and ethnic synthesis that emerged as Mongol invaders assimilated into Turkic societies, Herât was, at the beginning of the 15th century, the center of a post-Mongol empire that spanned most of Central Asia, much of modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and even parts of Russia, Syria, Pakistan, and Turkey. One can imagine, then, a rather broad region within which the various Persian, Turkic, and Islamic influences that became a part of the Ottoman tradition might have developed further and reached ever more musicians and courts, even as the Timurid Empire fragmented in the second half of the 15th century.
Here, too, the receiving of patronage rears its head as a mark of professional musicianship. Feldman points us to the fact that the court at Herât was thought of by Ottoman elites as a shining example of the role royal patronage could play in the arts even as the Timurid Empire was on its last legs:
“It appears that the Ottomans viewed the Herâti court of Sultan Husein Bayqara (1469-1506) as a model of royal patronage for all the arts. The Turkic verse of Mir ‘Ali Sir Nava’i, Husein Bayqara’s leading poet, had achieved great fame in Istanbul, and in the later 16th century the relationship of the two was viewed as an ideal of poet and patron… in Cantemir’s “History of the Ottoman Empire”, this Timurid ruler appears as ‘Hiusein, The Moecenas of the Oriental Musicians’. In 17th and 18th century Turkey, Husein Bayqara was wrongly considered to be the patron of ‘Abd al-Qadri Maraghi, who was the mythical “founder” of Turkish music. Thus, to the Ottomans, Husein Bayqara became an idealized figure under whose patronage both the greatest Turkish poet and the greatest Turkish musician had flourished.”
There are, in fact, important similarities and differences between the musical life of the court at Herât and that of the Ottoman court. For our purposes, the most important among these are the fact that, in the Timurid Empire, “the royal (and lesser) courts functioned as the patronage-center and consumer for the finished product, both in the case of music and poetry.” Additionally, the music of Turco-Mongol courts was a form of art separated from popular music by distinct vocal and instrumental genres, some of which recur in the Ottoman repertoire (for example, the instrumental genre known as the peşrav). There are also important differences however: interestingly, despite the clear overlap between instrumentalists, singers, and composers during this period and the fact that, like their counterparts in Europe, many musicians were proficient in multiple musical skills, composition was highly valued at the Timurid court and was clearly thought of as a separate musical activity. There are even cases of composers being unable to perform music at a professional level.
Perhaps even more important is the fact that at the court in Herât, music was performed almost exclusively by free, professional male musicians as opposed to slaves or amateurs (such as bureaucrats or members of the religious classes).Thus, while it is probably untrue that musicians were a distinctly privileged class under Timurid rule, the court at Herât did seem to offer Ottoman observers a somewhat rosy picture of the intersection between royalty and the arts.
The Ottoman court centered at Istanbul absorbed influences from these and other places, but its courtly life (and thereby its music) had a distinctive flavor all its own. Over the course of centuries, life at the Ottoman court developed into a highly structured and elaborately organized system of roles and rules that governed the life of the Sultan’s household. And we can get some preliminary idea of the life of musicians within this system by turning to a somewhat later account written by Mourdgea d’Ohsson in 1788:
“Nearly all the Sultans have two corps of musicians, one among the… palace pages, and the other group among the slave girls of the harem… those among the Monarchs who had the strongest taste for this pleasant art… never dined or supped without the sound of instruments. Even today it is still a kind of protocol, whenever the Sultan dines in the Keoschks built among the palace gardens, that his orchestra must follow him and play different pieces of music, nearly every hour; frequently in addition to these are musicians from the city who enjoy a certain reputation.”
A 1789 painting of Sultan Selim III holding audience in front of the Gate of Felicity at Topkapi Palace
It seems based on the above that the fate of the hardworking musician of Istanbul was to be relegated to something of a personal, portable jukebox for the Sultan, a fate which might seem to contrast with that of the exalted composers of the Timurid era. Yet the situation begins to appear even more dire if we focus our attention on the last sentence of this account, which references the professional musicians of Istanbul proper. While this sentence does point to the viability of a life of musical freelancing in the Ottoman capital (and also, indirectly, to the participation of religious orders such as the Mevlevi in Ottoman court music), it also implies that such freelancers were something of an afterthought. A large part of the musicians at the court, it seems, were enslaved.
Slavery was not particularly uncommon during the period of Ottoman rule, either within or outside the empire, and was in fact a rather integral part of Ottoman social life. Scholar Ehud Toledano, for instance, writes that:
“From the rise of the Ottoman state in the thirteenth century, slavery was familiar to and widely accepted by all walks of Ottoman society, and several types of slaves were known to the sultan’s subjects. In fact, slavery gradually became a differentiated and broadly defined concept in many Islamic societies after the introduction of military slavery into the Abbasid Caliphate in the ninth century A.D. In the Ottoman Empire, military-administrative servitude, better known as the kul system, coexisted with other types of slavery: harem (quite different from male Western fantasy)/ domestic, agricultural, and even military (on a limited scale at the periphery).”
Thus Ottoman slavery was a more nuanced system of slavery than the harsh chattel slavery we generally associate with plantation agriculture: while agricultural slavery was likely about as unpleasant as one might expect, the lives of the technically enslaved within the kul and harem systems could be rather privileged in some aspects, particularly in the later centuries of the empire. The famous period known as the Sultanate of Women, for instance, saw the women of the harem, many of whom were enslaved concubines of Balkan origin, gain enormous power at the court from roughly the mid 16th to mid 17th centuries.For a time, many of the musicians involved at the court were of kul backgrounds, and thus were increasingly unlikely, as the Empire aged, to be treated particularly harshly. Administrators within the kul system might even gain great wealth and power within their nevertheless somewhat limited sphere of freedom, becoming high ranking officials and owning property. Slavery was also not typically hereditary within the empire; indeed, for certain populations sold into harem/domestic slavery it was seen as a means of social mobility due to the fact that enslaved concubines were regularly freed, converted to Islam, and marriedNevertheless, it seems to me that the fact that many of the compositions which make up the Ottoman classical repertoire were composed by people who were, in some form or another, property of the Sultan cannot be insignificant in terms of this music’s development.
A portrait of Sultan Husayn Bayqara
Let us take a closer look, then, at these musicians for what their lives tell us about Ottoman tradition. According to Feldman, “the unfree musicians were of four general categories: members of the devşirme selection (kul), captured foreign Muslim professional musicians, captured Christian musicians, and slave women of the palace.” The first of these categories, those of kul backgrounds, were part of a system in which Balkan Christian boys were conscripted, enslaved, and educated to become military administrators and bureaucrats within the Empire. Their education was often extensive and in some cases would have included a musical education; indeed, Feldman notes that the early Ottoman state, “apparently alone among the Muslim states, took the responsibility to train its own musicians within the palace”, and that these musicians were predominantly of kul origin. While the practice of devşirme declined into irrelevance and was abandoned by the mid 17th century,“the number of musicians of kul (devşirme) origin [was] still substantial” in this period.
Forming the early backbone of the Ottoman musical profession, the kul musicians were quickly joined by Muslim professional musicians captured from various courts following the West Asian conquests of Selim I (1512-1520). During these campaigns, “the Ottomans came to invade or occupy cities and courts in which musicians of the Muslim art tradition were to be found”, suggesting that, in other Muslim cities of the period, musicians were still deeply connected to the royal and lesser courts. Feldman also cites a payment record of court musicians from just after Selim I’s rule which includes forty musicians by name. Interestingly, some of these musicians are described as “emerging from the inside”, implying that they were of kul origin and had been trained at the palace, while others are described as having “come” or been “brought.”As Feldman points out, those who had “brought” were likely captured against their will, including all of those musicians of Tabriz (in modern day Iran) which had recently been captured from the Safavid Empire. On the other hand, those who had been “come”, such as a musician from Trabzon (in Northeastern Turkey), were likely free professionals seeking patronage at the royal court.
The Ottoman Empire expanded deeper into Southern and Eastern Europe during the 17th century, reaching its fullest extent just before the famous Battle of Vienna, in which the Empire was repulsed from Europe by a coalition of Christian nobles. During these campaigns, musicians of Christian origin were captured and trained at the palace school in Istanbul in a manner similar to musicians of kul origin. Indeed, one of these captured musicians deserves a closer look for his important contributions to the Ottoman repertoire:
“During the 17th century there was apparently a substantial number of captured European males with musical talent and training who functioned as slave musicians in the Court. One of the only slave musicians about whom anything concrete is known is the Pole Bobowski (Ali Ufki Bey), the compiler of the “Mecmu’a-i Saz u Soz” and author of several small books. Born Wojciech Bobowski in Lwow (Lemberg), he was captured by marauding Tatars in 1633 and sold as a slave in Istanbul. His musical talent was soon recognized, and he was bought by the Palace officials and assigned to the music school, probably in 1634.”
The “Mecmu’a-i Saz u Soz” which Feldman references here is one of the major sources of Ottoman music from this period, and the works compiled by Bobowski are still regularly performed to this day. After living roughly 20 years as a slave, converting to Islam, and taking the name Ali Ufki, Bobowski regained his freedom on a trip to Egypt and subsequently became an important dragoman, or diplomatic interpreter, at the Ottoman court, suggesting the pathways by which palace slaves might achieve a certain degree of social mobility.
Ali Ufki’s writings on the court at this period also deserve a closer look, if only because he “mentions the existence of other slave musicians of European origin” and gives us a glimpse into the sometimes odd scenarios in which Ottoman palace musicians were expected to perform. “The musicians of the chamber”, he tells us:
“normally go every Tuesday to play before the Sultan while his head is shaved. There are no other days in which they are required to present themselves before him. But he sometimes has them come to the apartments of the Sultanas where they are brought in blindfolded and constrained to sing in that state and play their instruments in order that they be unable to see the lovely Sultanes, and they always have the Eunuchs beside them who observe them to prevent them from raising their heads and give them a good whack if they budge even a little. I assure you that it is very tiresome and uncomfortable to be a musician at this price, and to be deprived in this situation of the pleasure of sight.”
The last group of unfree musicians, the slave women of the palace, are perhaps the most interesting at the same time as they are the least visible:
“By the 18th century there is very little mention of the male musicians of the chamber. However, the institution of the musical slave-girl continued throughout the next two centuries up until the end of the Empire… the slave women were of non-Muslim origin, selected from the slave-market… they practiced a variety of skills, such as sewing, embroidery, dancing, and music.”
A portrait of Wojciech Bobowski also known as Ali Ufki Bey
Thus it seems that this form of courtly domestic slavery was eventually responsible for most of the musical entertainment of the Seraglio, another word for the sequestered living quarters of women in the palace often simply referred to as the harem. Feldman highlights the fact that these women are “frequently depicted in a variety of Turkish and European paintings, engravings and (eventually) photographs as instrumentalists, dancers and singers who entertained themselves as well as the Sultan”, which should remind us of the degree to which the Ottoman court captured the imagination of Europeans during the 18th and 19th centuries. Mozart’s 1782 Opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, for instance, involves the hero Belmonte attempting to rescue his lover from the seraglio of a fictional Pasha Selim, thus participating in what was by then a thriving cottage industry in literature, art, and music that served a fantastical image of Ottoman culture to a European audience hungry for exoticism.
One of the women musicians of the Seraglio warrants further attention as an example of the limitations and opportunities of musical harem slavery at the Ottoman court:
“Dilhayat Hanım, or Hilhayat Kalfa (1710? – 1780) was the most important woman composer in the history of Ottoman music. According to the evidence… she had composed over a hundred items in both the vocal and instrumental genres, which was itself unusual. Twelve of these pieces are still known, and a few… are considered to be among the great classics.”
While Hanım was clearly a highly skilled and respected musician and composer, there is some evidence that her situation was both rather unusual and not entirely the prestigious existence which we might associate with such an important composer. For one thing, she “is the only woman composer whose name was recorded”, and it is not difficult to see how this might have occurred: according to Feldman “there is a tradition that she had been one of the music teachers of the young Prince Selim (1761 -1808), before his ascension to the throne in 1789, and so it may be assumed that the Mevlevi sheyk Abdulbaki credited the then reigning Sultan, rather than the humble slave-woman, with the invention of [a] very beautiful compound makam.” As I mentioned in my previous article on the Ottoman classical tradition, the recurring practice of ascribing compositions to a particularly musical Sultan rather than to a more likely author obscures the reality of the musical slavery practiced at the court. It also suggests that, despite the limited autonomy available to kul and harem slaves, their lives and their achievements were still in some significant way thought of as mere extensions of the Sultan himself.
I have focused here on Ottoman musical slavery in its various forms not in attempt to imply that this music is entirely invalidated by this aspect of its development and practice. Nor would I want to give the impression that Ottoman musical practice, either within or outside of Topkapı palace, was entirely defined by slave labor: the existence of freelance musicians as well as the musicians of the Sufi orders and other musicians within the religious classes are clear examples to the contrary, and their contributions do not fit neatly into the tradition of royal patronage and courtly power that I have been attempting to sketch out in broad strokes. Rather, I have dwelled on the lives of the enslaved musicians of the Ottoman court in order to articulate what I think is an important point: that the musicians and artists who are most visible to us in the historical record are often those who were able to accrue wealth and power by virtue of skill, birth, luck, or a mixture of the three. Yet the lives and experiences of these musicians are not necessarily representative of the lives of the average musician, let alone the average person, within their time and culture. As we attempt to learn, as is necessary within the realm of Early Music, from the music of the past, we would do well to bear in mind the many musical laborers who have often anonymously made these traditions possible.
A playlist exploring the music of the Ottoman court and its influences from around Asia and the Middle East.
Early Music Seattle: Ottoman Foundations
Works Cited/Further Reading
Aksoy, Bülent. “Preliminary Notes on the Possibility (or Impossibility) of Writing Ottoman Musical History.” Writing the History of “Ottoman Music”, edited by Martin Greve, 1st ed., Orient-Institut Istanbul, 2016.
Anooshahr, Ali. Turkestan and the Rise of Eurasian Empires : a Study of Politics and Invented Traditions. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Aynuksa, İpek. “Ali Ufkî Bey (Wojciech Bobowski) – Well-Known Musician, Forgotten Political Figure. A Luminary in the 600 Years of Turkish–Polish Diplomatic Relations”. Stosunki Międzynarodowe, Issue 1, 2016, pp. 271-284.
Badertscher, Eric. Ottoman Empire. Great Neck Publishing, 2009.
Baer, Marc David. Honored by the Glory of Islam : Conversion and Conquest in Ottoman Europe. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Beşiroğlu, Şehvar. “Demetrius Cantemir and the Music of his Time: The Concept of Authenticity and Types of Performance.” Writing the History of “Ottoman Music”, edited by Martin Greve, 1st ed., Orient-Institut Istanbul, 2016.
Elders, Willem. Josquin Des Prez and His Musical Legacy. Leuven University Press, 2013.
Feldman, Walter. Music of the Ottoman Court : Makam, Composition and the Early Ottoman Instrumental Repertoire. VWB-Verlag für Wissenschaft Und Bildung, 1996.
Fisher, Burton D. Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (Opera Journeys Mini Guide Series). Opera Journeys Publishing, 2000.
Frank Johnson, Alison. “The Strange, Sad Case of the ‘Bosnian Christian Girl’: Slavery, Conversion, and Jurisdiction on the Habsburg-Ottoman Border.” Austrian History Yearbook, vol. 51, 2020, pp. 39–59.
Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Warner Books, 1991.
Jäger, Ralf Martin. “Concepts of Western and Ottoman Music History.” Writing the History of “Ottoman Music”, edited by Martin Greve, 1st ed., Orient-Institut Istanbul, 2016.
Mitchell, Colin. “Two Tales of One City: Herat Under the Early Modern Empires of the Timurids and the Safavids.” Layered Landscapes, 1st ed., Routledge, 2017, pp. 207–222.
Necipoğlu, Gülru. Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power : the Topkapı Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Architectural History Foundation ; MIT Press, 1991.
Quataert, Donald. The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Rothman, E. Natalie. The Dragoman Renaissance. Cornell University Press, 2021.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. First Vintage books ed., Vintage Books, 1979.
Signell, Karl. “Turkey’s Classical Music, a Class Symbol.” Asian Music, vol. 12, no. 1, University of Texas Press, 1980, pp. 164–69.
Toledano, Ehud R. Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East. University of Washington Press, 1998.
 For more on the palace complex and its history, see works such as Gülru Necipoğlu’s Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power : the Topkapı Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, (Architectural History Foundation ; MIT Press, 1991).
 See general histories such as Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples, (Warner Books, 1991) or Ali Anooshahr’s Turkestan and the Rise of Eurasian Empires: A Study of Politics and Invented Traditions, (Oxford University Press, 2018) for more on these two important historical precedents.
 For more on Josquin in the context of royal patronage in Europe, see Willem Elders’ Josquin Des Prez and His Musical Legacy, (Leuven University Press, 2013), pp. 22-26.
 Walter Feldman, Music of the Ottoman Court : Makam, Composition and the Early Ottoman Instrumental Repertoire, (VWB-Verlag für Wissenschaft Und Bildung, 1996). I am once again indebted to Walter for doing much of the heavy lifting in terms of research.
 Ibid., pp. 40
 See, for instance, Colin Mitchell’s article “Two Tales of One City: Herat Under the Early Modern Empires of the Timurids and the Safavids”, (Layered Landscapes, 1st ed., Routledge, 2017), pp. 207–222.
 See note 2.
 See Feldman pp. 39.
 Ibid., pp. 44.
 See note 1.
 See Feldman pp. 70.
 Feldman’s discussion of the Sufi orders and their relation to the Ottoman court tradition can be found on Feldman pp. 85-104.
 Ehud R. Toledano, Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East, (University of Washington Press, 1998), pp. 4.
 See Leslie Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, (Oxford University Press, 1993) for more on this period.
 See Toledano’s introduction, pp. 3-19.
 See Toledano pp. 20-53.
 See Feldman pp. 63.
 Ibid., pp. 65.
 See Marc David Baer’s Honored by the Glory of Islam : Conversion and Conquest in Ottoman Europe (Oxford University Press, 2008) for more on Ottoman conquest in Europe.
 See Feldman pp. 68.
 See, for instance, İpek Aynuksa’s “Ali Ufkî Bey (Wojciech Bobowski) – Well-Known Musician, Forgotten Political Figure. A Luminary in the 600 Years of Turkish–Polish Diplomatic Relations”, (Stosunki Międzynarodowe, Issue 1, 2016), pp. 271-284 for more on Bobowski and his life.
 See Feldman pp. 68.
 Ibid. pp. 69.
 Ibid. pp. 70.
 Ibid. pp. 70-71.
 See Burton D. Fisher’s Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (Opera Journeys Mini Guide Series) (Opera Journeys Publishing, 2000) for a concise summary of the opera.
 This is a topic perhaps most famously covered in Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism (First Vintage books ed., Vintage Books, 1979).
 See Feldman pp. 71.