The Janissary Tree is the first in Jason Goodwin’s “Yashim” series.
It is 1836. Europe is modernizing, and the Ottoman Empire must follow suit. But just before the Sultan announces sweeping changes, a wave of murders threatens the fragile balance of power in his court. Who is behind them? Only one intelligence agent can be trusted to find out: Yashim Lastname, a man both brilliant and near-invisible in this world. You see, Yashim is a eunuch.
He leads us into the palace’s luxurious seraglios and Istanbul’s teeming streets, and leans on the wisdom of a dyspeptic Polish ambassador, a transsexual dancer, and a Creole-born queen mother. And he introduces us to the Janissaries. For 400 years, they were the empire’s elite soldiers, but they grew too powerful, and ten years ago, the Sultan had them crushed. Are the Janissaries staging a brutal comeback?
An extended excerpt of Chapters 1-7 of The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin.
Yashim ﬂicked at a speck of dust on his cuff.
“One other thing, Marquise,” he murmured.
She gazed at him levelly.
The Marquise de Merteuil gave a little laugh.
“Flûte! Monsieur Yashim, depravity is not a word we recognize in the Académie.” Her fan played; from behind it she almost hissed, “It is a condition of mind.”
Yashim was already beginning to sense that this dream was falling apart.
The marquise had ﬁshed out a paper from her décolletage and was tapping it on the table like a little hammer. He took a closer look. It was a little hammer.
Tap tap tap.
He opened his eyes and stared around. The Château de Merteuil dissolved in the candlelight. Shadows leered from under the book-lined shelves, and from the corners of the room—a room and a half, you might say, where Yashim lived alone in a tenement in Istanbul. The leather-bound edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses had slipped onto his lap.
Tap tap tap.
“Evet, evet,” he grumbled. “I’m coming.” He slipped a cloak around his shoulders and his feet into a pair of yellow slippers, and shufﬂed to the door. “Who is it?”
Hardly a boy, Yashim considered, as he let the spindly old man into the darkened room. The single candle guttered in the sudden draft. It threw their shadows around the walls, boxing with one another before the page’s shadow stabbed Yashim’s with a ﬂickering dagger. Yashim took the paper scroll and glanced at the seal. Yellow wax.
He rubbed his ﬁnger and thumb across his eyes. Just hours ago he’d been scanning a dark horizon, peering through the drizzle for lights and the sight of land. The lurching candlelight took his mind back to another lamp that had swayed in a cabin far out at sea, riding the winter storms. The captain was a barrel-chested Greek with one white eye and the air of a pirate, and the Black Sea was treacherous at this time of year. But he’d been lucky to ﬁnd a ship at all. Even at the worst moments of the voyage, when the wind screamed in the rigging, waves pounded on the foredeck, and Yashim tossed and vomited in his narrow bunk, he had told himself that anything was better than seeing out the winter in that shattered palace in the Crimea, surrounded by the ghosts of fearless riders, eaten away by the cold and the gloom. He had needed to come home.
With a ﬂick of his thumb he broke the seal.
With the scent of the sea in his nostrils and the ﬂoor still moving beneath his feet, he tried to concentrate on the ornate script.
He sighed and laid the paper aside. There was a lamp screwed to the wall and he lit it with the candle. The blue ﬂames trickled slowly round the charred cloth. Yashim replaced the glass and trimmed the wick until the ﬁtful light turned yellow and ﬁrm. Gradually the lamplight ﬁlled the room.
He picked up the scroll the page had given him and smoothed it out.
Greetings, et cetera. At the bottom he read the signature of the seraskier, city commander of the New Guard, the imperial Ottoman army. Felicitations, et cetera. He scanned upward. From practice he could ﬁllet a letter like this in seconds. There it was, wedged into the politesse: an immediate summons.
The old man stood to attention. “I have orders to return with you to barracks immediately.” He glanced uncertainly at Yashim’s cloak. Yashim smiled, picked up a length of cloth, and wound it around his head. “I’m dressed,” he said. “Let us go.”
Yashim knew that it hardly mattered what he wore. He was a tall, well-built man in his late thirties, with a thick mop of black curls, a few white hairs, no beard, but a curly black mustache. He had the high cheekbones of the Turks, and the slanting gray eyes of a people who had lived on the great Eurasian steppe for thousands of years. In European trousers, perhaps, he would be noticeable, but in a brown cloak—no. Nobody noticed him very much. That was his special talent, if it was a talent at all. More likely, as the marquise had been saying, it was a condition of mind. A condition of the body.
Yashim had many things—innate charm, a gift for languages, and the ability to open those gray eyes suddenly wide. Both men and women had found themselves strangely hypnotized by his voice, before they had even noticed who was speaking. But he lacked balls.
Not in the vulgar sense: Yashim was reasonably brave.
But he was that creature rare even in nineteenth-century Istanbul.
Yashim was a eunuch.
In the Abode of Felicity, in the deepest, most forbidden district of Topkapi Palace, the sultan lay back on his pillows and picked fretfully at the satin coverlet, trying to imagine what could amuse him in the coming hours. A song, he thought, let it be a song. One of those sweet, rollicking Circassian melodies: the sadder the song, the brighter the melody.
He had wondered if he could just pretend to be asleep. Why not? Ruler of the Black Sea and the White, ruler of Rumelia and Mingrelia, lord of Anatolia and Ionia, Romania and Macedonia, Protector of the Holy Cities, steely rider through the realms of bliss, sultan and padishah, he had to sleep sometimes, did he not? Especially if he was ever to reclaim his sovereignty over Greece.
But he knew what would happen if he tried to pretend. He’d done it before, dashing all the hopes and ambitions of the lovely gözde, the girl selected to share his bed that night. It would mean listening to her sighs, followed by timid little scratches against his thighs or his chest, and ﬁnally tears; the whole harem would throw him reproachful glances for a month.
Soon she’d be here. He’d better have a plan. Riding the rooster was probably safest: he was quite fat, frankly, and he didn’t want anyone hurt. If only he could be lying in bed with Hadice instead, who was almost as cuddly as himself, having his feet rubbed!
His feet! On a reﬂex, he pulled his knees up slightly under the coverlet. Ancestral tradition was all very well, but Sultan Mahmut II had no intention of letting any fragrant Circassian girl lift the covers and start crawling up toward him from the foot of his bed.
He heard a slight commotion in the corridor outside. A sense of duty brought him up on one elbow, arranging his features into a smile of welcome. He could hear whispers. Last-minute nerves, perhaps? The swooning slave suddenly resistant? Well, it wasn’t likely. She’d got this far: almost to the moment she’d been trained toward, the event she had given her life to attend. A jealous squabble was more likely: those are my pearls!
The door opened. But it wasn’t a bangled slave girl with swaying hip and full breasts who entered. It was an old man with rouged cheeks and a big waist who bowed and loped into the room on bare feet. Catching sight of his master, he sank to his knees and began to crawl until he reached the edge of the bed, where he prostrated himself on the ground. He lay there, mute and quivering, like a big jelly.
“Well?” Sultan Mahmut frowned.
Out of the enormous body there came at length a voice, piping and high. “Your magniﬁthenth, my lord, my mathter,” the slave ﬁnally began to lisp. The sultan shifted uncomfortably.
“It hath pleathed God to catht a mantle of death over the body of one daughter of felithity whothe dreams were about to be fulﬁlled by your magniﬁthenth, my mathter.”
The sultan frowned.
“She died?” His tone was incredulous. Also he was taken aback: was he so very fearsome?
“Thire, I do not know what to thay. But God made another the inthtwument of her detheathe.”
The eunuch paused, groping for the proper form of words. It was awfully hard.
“My mathter,” he said at last. “She hath been stwangled.”
The sultan ﬂopped back onto the pillows. There, he said to himself, he was right. Not nerves at all. Just jealousy.
Everything was normal.
“Send for Yashim,” the sultan said wearily. “I want to sleep.”
Asleep or awake, the sultan was the Commander of the Faithful, chief of the Ottoman armed forces, but it was many years since he had unfurled the standard of the Prophet and put himself at the head of his soldiery, securing his throne by a single act of nerve. His navy was commanded by the kapudan pasha, and his troops controlled by the seraskier. The seraskier did not rise for Yashim, but merely motioned him with dabbling ﬁngers to a corner of the divan. Yashim slipped off his shoes and sat down cross-legged, his cloak settling around him like a lily pad. He inclined his head and murmured the polite greeting.
Clean-shaven, in the new fashion, with tired brown eyes set in a face the color of old linen, the seraskier lay awkwardly on one hip, in uniform, as though he had received a wound. His steel-gray hair was cut close to his skull, and the red fez perched on the back of his head emphasized the weight of his jaws. Yashim thought he would be passable in a turban, but Frankish practice had instead dictated a buttoned tunic, with blue trousers piped in red and a shoal of braid and epaulettes: modern uniform for modern war. In the same spirit he had also been issued a solid walnut table and eight stiff-looking upholstered chairs, which stood in the middle of the room and were lit by candelabra suspended from the coffered ceiling.
He sat up and crossed his trousered legs so that the seams bulged. “Perhaps you would rather we moved to a table,” he suggested irritably.
“As you wish.”
But the seraskier evidently preferred the indignity of sitting on the divan in his trousers to the unpleasant exposure of the central table. Like Yashim himself, he found sitting on a chair with his back to the room faintly disquieting. So instead he drew a long sigh, folding and unfolding his stubby ﬁngers.
“I was told you were in the Crimea.”
Yashim blinked. “I found a ship. There was nothing to detain me.”
The seraskier cocked an eyebrow. “You failed there, then?”
Yashim leaned forward. “We failed there many years ago, efendi. There is little that can be done.” He held the seraskier’s gaze. “That little, I did. I worked fast. Then I came back.”
There was nothing else to be said. The Tartar khans of the Crimea no longer ruled the southern steppe, like little brothers to the Ottoman state. Yashim had been shaken to see Russian Cossacks riding through Crimean villages, bearing guns. Disarmed, defeated, the Tartars drank, sitting about the doors of their huts and staring listlessly at the Cossacks while their women worked in the ﬁelds. The khan himself fretted in exile, tormented by a dream of lost gold. He had sent others to recover it, before he heard about Yashim—Yashim the guardian, the lala. In spite of Yashim’s efforts, the khan’s gold remained a dream. Perhaps there was none.
The seraskier grunted. “The Tartars were good ﬁghters,” he said, “in their day. But horsemen without discipline have no place on the modern battleﬁeld. Today we need disciplined infantry, with muskets and bayonets. Artillery. You saw Russians?”
“I saw Russians, efendi. Cossacks.”
“That’s the kind we’re up against. The reason we need men like the men of the New Guard.”
The seraskier stood up. He was a bear of a man, well over six feet tall. He stood with his back to Yashim, staring at a row of books, while Yashim glanced involuntarily at the curtain through which he had entered. The groom who had ushered him in was nowhere to be seen. By all the laws of hospitality, the seraskier should have offered the preliminary pipe and coffee; Yashim wondered if the rudeness was deliberate. A great man like the seraskier had attendants to bring him refreshment, as well as a pipe-bearer to select his tobacco, keep the equipment in good, clean working order, accompany his master on outings with the pipe in a cloth and the tobacco pouch in his shirt, and ensure the proper lighting and draw of the pipe. Rich men who vied with one another to present their guests with the ﬁnest leaf and the most elegant pipes—amber for the mouthpiece, Persian cherry for the stem—would no more think of functioning without a pipe-bearer than an English milord could dispense with the services of a valet. But the room was empty.
“Less than two weeks from today, the sultan is to review the troops. Marches, drills, gunnery displays. The sultan will not be the only one watching. It will be—” the seraskier stopped, and his head snapped up. Yashim wondered what he had been about to say. That the review would be the most important moment of his career, perhaps. “We are a young troop, as you know. The New Guard has only been in existence for ten years. Like a young colt, we startle easily. We have not had, ah, all the care and training we might have wished for.”
“Nor always quite the success that was promised.”
Yashim saw the seraskier stiffen. In their newfangled European jackets and trousers, the New Guard had been put through their paces by a succession of foreign instructors, ferenghi from Europe who taught them drilling, marching, presenting arms. What could you say? In spite of it all the Egyptians—the Egyptians!—had dealt them humiliating reverses in Palestine and Syria, and the Russians were closer to Istanbul than at any time in living memory. Perhaps their victories were to have been expected, for they were formidable opponents with up-to-date equipment and modern armies; yet there remained, too, the debacle in Greece. No more than peasants in pantaloons, led by quarrelsome windbags, even the Greeks had proved to be more than a match for the New Guard.
All this left the New Guard with a single sanguinary triumph. It was a victory achieved not on the battleﬁeld but right here, on the streets of Istanbul; not against foreign enemies but against their own military predecessors, the dangerously overweening Janissary Corps. The Ottoman Empire’s crack troops in the sixteenth century, the Janissaries had long since degenerated—or evolved, if you liked—into an armed maﬁa, terrorizing sultans, swaggering through the streets of Istanbul, rioting, ﬁre-raising, thieving, and extorting with impunity.
The New Guard had ﬁnally settled the account. Ten years ago, on the night of June 16, 1826, New Guard gunners had pounded the Janissaries to pieces in their barracks, bringing four centuries of terror and triumph to a well-deserved end.
“The review will be a success,” the seraskier growled. “People will see the backbone of this empire, unbreakable, unshakable.” He swung around, sawing the air with the edge of his hand. “Accurate ﬁre. Precise drill. Obedience. Our enemies, as well as our friends, will draw their own conclusions. Do you understand?”
Yashim shrugged slightly. The seraskier tilted his chin and snorted through his nose. “But we have a problem,” he said. Yashim continued to gaze at him: it was a long time since he had been woken in the dead of night and summoned to the palace. Or to the barracks. He glanced out the window: it was still dark, the sky cold and overcast. Everything begins in darkness. Well, it was his job to shed light.
“And what, exactly, does your problem consist of ?”
“Yashim efendi. They call you the lala, do they not? Yashim lala, the guardian.”
Yashim inclined his head. Lala was an honoriﬁc, a title of respect given to certain trusted eunuchs who attended on rich and powerful families, chaperoning their women, watching over their children, supervising the household. An ordinary lala was something between a butler and a housekeeper, a nanny and the head of security: a guardian. Yashim felt the title suited him.
“But as far as I understand it,” the seraskier said slowly, “you are without attachment. Yes, you have links to the palace. Also to the streets. So tonight I invite you into our family, the family of the New Guard. For ten days, at most.”
“The family, you mean, of which you are the head?”
“In a manner of speaking. But do not think I am setting myself up as the father of this family. I would like you to think of me, rather, as a kind of, of—” The seraskier looked uneasy: the word did not seem to come easily to him. Distaste for eunuchs, Yashim knew, was as ingrained among Ottoman men as their suspicion of tables and chairs. “Think of me—as an older brother. I protect you. You conﬁde in me.” He paused, wiped his forehead. “Do you, ah, have any family yourself ?”
Yashim was used to this: disgust, tempered with curiosity. He made a motion with his hand, ambiguous: let the man wonder; it was none of his business.
“The New Guard must earn the conﬁdence of the people, and of the sultan, too,” the seraskier continued. “That is the purpose of the review. But something has happened which might wreck the process.”
It was Yashim’s turn to be curious, and he felt it like a ripple up the back of his neck.
“This morning,” the seraskier explained, “I was informed that four of our ofﬁcers had failed to report for morning drill.” He stopped, frowned. “You must understand that the New Guard are not like any other army the empire has seen. Discipline. Hard work, fair pay, and obedience to a superior ofﬁcer. We turn up for drill. I know what you are thinking, but these ofﬁcers were particularly ﬁne young gentlemen. I would say that they were the ﬂower of our corps, as well as being our best gunnery ofﬁcers. They spoke French,” he added, as if that concluded it. Perhaps it did.
“So they had attended the engineering university?”
“They passed with top marks. They were the best.”
“Please, a moment.” The seraskier raised a hand to his forehead. “At ﬁrst, in spite of everything, I thought like you. I supposed they had had some adventure and would reappear later, very shamefaced and sorry. I, of course, was ready to tear them into strips: the whole corps look up to those young men, do you see? They set, as the French say, the tone.”
“You speak French?”
“Oh, only a very little. Enough.”
Most of the foreign instructors in the New Guard, Yashim knew, were Frenchmen, or others—Italians, Poles—who had been swept into the enormous armies the Emperor Napoleon had raised to carry out his dreams of universal conquest. A decade since, with the Napoleonic Wars ﬁnally at an end, some of the more indigent remnants of the Grande Armée had found their way to Istanbul, to take the sultan’s sequin. But learning French was a business for the young, and the seraskier was pushing ﬁfty.
“Four good men vanished from their barracks last night. When they did not appear this morning, I asked one of the temizlik, the cleaners, and found out that they had not slept in their dormitory.”
“And they’re still missing?”
“No. Not exactly.”
“What do you mean, not exactly?”
“One of them was found tonight. About four hours ago.”
“He was found dead in an iron pot.”
“An iron pot?”
“Yes, yes. A cauldron.”
Yashim blinked. “Do I understand,” he said slowly, “that the soldier was being cooked?”
The seraskier’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head. “Cooked?” he echoed weakly. It was a reﬁnement he had not considered. “I think,” he said, “that you should just come and take a look.”
Two hours later, Yashim had seen just about all that he wanted to see for one morning. For any number of mornings.
Summoning a lantern bearer, the seraskier had walked him eastward through the empty streets, following the city’s spine toward the imperial stables. Outside the Beyazit Mosque, torches ﬂickered in the dark; they passed the Burnt Column close to the entrance to the Grand Bazaar, now shuttered and still, holding its breath as it guarded its treasures through the night. Farther on, near the S¸ehzade Mosque above the Roman aqueduct, they ran across the night watch, who let them go when he saw who it was. Eventually, they reached the stables. The stables, like the Guard itself, were new. They had been erected close below the ridge, on the southern side, on an area of ground that had been vacant since the suppression of the Janissaries ten years before, when their vast and rambling barracks had succumbed to bombardment and conﬂagration.
Yashim had found the cauldron, just as the seraskier had described. It stood in a corner of one of the new stables, surrounded by bedding straw and lit by large, globular oil lamps suspended on heavy chains from the tie beam way overhead. The horses, the seraskier explained, had been removed.
“It was the horses’ disturbance that brought the matter to light,” he added. “They do not like the smell of dead men.”
Yashim had not realized when the seraskier described it that the cauldron was so very big. It had three short legs and two metal loops on either side for handles; even so, Yashim could barely see over the top. The seraskier brought him a mounting stool, and Yashim climbed it to look inside.
The dead soldier was still in his uniform. He was coiled in a fetal position at the bottom of the pot, just covering the base: his arms, which were tied at the wrist, were drawn up over his head, making it impossible to see his face. Yashim stepped down and brushed his hands automatically, though the rim of the pot was perfectly clean.
“Do you know who he is?”
The seraskier nodded. “Osman Berek. I took his pocketbook. You see—”
“Well?” Yashim prodded.
“I am sorry to say, the body has no face.”
Yashim felt a chill of disgust. “No face?”
“I—I climbed in. I turned him just a little. I thought I would recognize him, but—that’s all. His face has been hacked off. From below the chin to above the eyebrows. It was done, I think, at a single blow.”
Yashim wondered what force was needed to sever a man’s face from his body at a blow. He turned around. “The cauldron is always here? It seems an odd place for it.”
“No, no. The cauldron came with the body.”
Yashim stared. “Please, efendi. Too many surprises. Unless you have more?”
The seraskier considered. “The cauldron simply appeared in the night.”
“And nobody heard or saw anything?”
“The grooms heard nothing. They were asleep in the lofts.”
“The doors are barred?”
“Not usually. In the event of a ﬁre . . .”
“Quite.” According to an old saying, Istanbul suffered three evils—plague, ﬁre, and Greek interpreters. There were so many old wooden buildings in the city, too closely packed: it took only a careless spark to reduce whole sections of the city to ashes. The unlamented Janissaries had been the city’s ﬁremen, too: it was typical of their degeneration that they had combined their ﬁre duty with the more proﬁtable occupation of ﬁre raising, demanding bribes to put out ﬁres they themselves had started. Yashim vaguely remembered that the Janissaries had manned an important ﬁre tower on the edge of their old barracks here, which ironically collapsed in the conﬂagration of 1826. Subsequently, the sultan had ordered the construction of an extraordinary new ﬁre tower at Beyazit, a 260-foot-high pillar of stone, topped with an overhanging gallery for the ﬁre watchers. Many people thought that the Beyazit Tower was the ugliest building in Istanbul; it was certainly the tallest, standing as it did on the Third Hill of the city. It was noticeable, all the same, that there were fewer ﬁre alarms these days.
“And who found the body, then?”
“I did. No, this is not a surprise. I was called because of the cauldron, and because the grooms were unhappy about the state of the horses. I was the ﬁrst one to look inside. I am a military man, I’ve seen dead men before. And”—he hesitated—“I had already begun to suspect what I might see.”
Yashim said nothing.
“I gave nothing away. I ordered the horses out and had the doors barred. That’s all.”
Yashim pinged the cauldron with his ﬁngernail. It gave a tinny sound. He pinged again.
The seraskier and he looked at each other.
“It’s very light,” Yashim remarked. They were silent for a moment. “What do you think?”
“I think,” said the seraskier, “that we do not have much time. Today is Thursday.”
“Ten days. To ﬁnd out what is happening to my men.”
It had been a difﬁcult morning. Yashim went to the baths, was soaped and pummeled, and lay for a long time in the hot room before returning home in his freshly laundered clothes. Finally, having explored the matter in his mind in every way he could think of in an effort to draw a lead, he turned to what he always considered the next best thing.
How do you ﬁnd three men in a decaying, medieval, mist-benighted city of two million people?
You don’t even try.
Getting up, he moved slowly over to the other side of the room, which lay in darkness. He struck a lucifer and lit the lamp, trimming the wick until the light burned steadily and bright. It fell on a neat arrangement of stove, high table, and a row of very sharp-looking knives, suspended in midair by a splice of wood.
There was a basket in the corner and from it Yashim selected several small, ﬁrm onions. He peeled and sliced them on the block, ﬁrst one way and then the other. He set a pot on the stove and slipped enough olive oil into it to brown the onions. When they were turning, he tossed in a couple of handfuls of rice that he drew from an earthenware crock.
Long ago he’d discovered what it was to cook. It was at about the same time that he’d grown disgusted with his own efforts to achieve a cruder sensual gratiﬁcation and resigned himself to more stylized pleasures. It was not that, until then, he had always considered cooking as a woman’s work: cooks in the empire could be of either sex. But he had thought of it, perhaps, as a task for the poor.
The rice had gone clear, so he threw in a handful of currants and another of pine nuts, a lump of sugar, and a big pinch of salt. He took down a jar from the shelf and helped himself to a spoonful of oily tomato paste, which he mixed into a tea glass of water. He drained the glass into the rice, with a hiss and a plume of steam. He added a pinch of dried mint and ground some pepper into the pot and stirred the rice, then clamped on a lid and moved the pot to the back of the stove.
He had bought the mussels cleaned, the big three-inch mussels from Therapia, up the Bosphorus. He opened them one by one with a twist of a ﬂat blade and dropped them into a basin of water. The rice was half cooked. He chopped dill, very ﬁne, and stirred it into the mixture, then tipped it into a dish to cool. He drained the mussels and stuffed them, using a spoon, closing the shells before he laid them head to toe in layers in a pan. He weighted them down with a plate, added some hot water from the kettle, put on a lid, and slid the pan over the coals.
He took a chicken, jointed it, crushed walnuts on the ﬂat of the cleaver, and prepared Acem Yahnisi, with pomegranate juice.
When everything was done he picked up a swan-necked ewer and very carefully washed ﬁrst his hands, then his mouth, his face, his neck and, lastly, his private parts.
He took out his mat and prayed. When he had ﬁnished, he rolled up the mat once more and put it away in a niche.
Soon, he knew, he would have a visitor.
Stanislaw Palewski was about ﬁfty-ﬁve years old, with a circle of tight gray curls around his balding pate and a pair of watery blue eyes whose expression of beseeching sadness was belied by the strength of his chin, the size of his Roman nose, and the set determination of his mouth, which at this moment was compressed into a narrow slit by the rain and wind backing off the Marmara shore.
He walked, as he did every Thursday night, along the road that ran from the New Mosque up the Golden Horn, a conspicuous ﬁgure in a top hat and frock coat. The coat, like the hat, had seen better days; once black, it had been transmuted by wear and the damp airs of Istanbul into something more nearly approaching sea green; the velvet nap of the topper had worn smooth in many places, particularly around the crown and on the rim. Approaching a pair of ladies swathed in their charshaf, accompanied by their escort, he stepped politely into the road and automatically touched the brim of his hat in salute. The ladies did not directly acknowledge his salutation, but they bobbed about a little, and Palewski heard a mufﬂed whisper and a giggle. He smiled to himself and stepped back onto the pavement to resume his walk.
As he did so, something chinked in his bag, and he stopped to check. Nothing explicitly forbade the diplomatically accredited representative of a foreign power from walking through the city carrying two bottles of 60 percent bison-grass vodka, but Palewski wasn’t eager to put the case to the test. For one thing, he was not absolutely sure that there hadn’t ever been, in the whole tumultuous history of the city, an edict which made carrying liquor a ﬂogging offense. For another, his diplomatic immunity was at best a fragile kind of favor. He had no gunboats at his disposal to ride up the Bosphorus and bombard the sultan into a more amenable frame of mind if things went wrong, as Admiral Duckworth had done for the English in 1807. He had no means of exerting government pressure as the Russians had done in 1712, when their ambassador was locked up in the old Castle of the Seven Towers. Forty years ago, the rulers of Russia, Prussia, and Austria had sent their armies into Poland to wipe the country from the map. Palewski, in truth, had no government at all.
The Polish imperial ambassador to the Sublime Porte rearranged the damp cloth that protected his bottles, drew the strings of his bag tight again, and walked on through a dwindling series of streets and alleyways until he came to a very small porte cochere in one of the back alleys of the old town down by the Golden Horn. The door was small because it was sunken: only the upper three-ﬁfths showed above the level of the muddy ground. A scattering of small boys tore past him, no doubt rubbing yet another layer of shine into the back of his old coat. A snapping bell, clapped between the ﬁngers, announced the approach of a man in a tiny donkey cart, weaving his way with miraculous precision through the narrow interstices of the close medieval streets. Hurriedly, Palewski knocked on the door. It was opened by an old woman in a blue wimple who silently stood back to let him enter. Palewski, stooping, stepped in just as the cart swept by with a pattering of tiny hooves and a shout from the man at the reins.
Outside, the light, such as it was, was fading; inside, it had never, apparently, risen. Palewski wondered brieﬂy whether sunlight had penetrated to this spot at all in the past ﬁfteen hundred years: the sunken doorcase, he had long suspected, was early Byzantine work, and he had no reason to imagine that the dark wooden handrail, to which he was now clinging as he swung blindly but unfalteringly upstairs, was anything but Byzantine itself, like the stone of the house, and the window embrasures, and the very probably Roman vaulting overhead.
At the head of the stairs he paused to catch his breath and analyze the peculiar mixture of fragrances seeping through the lighted crack at the foot of the door in front of him.
Yashim the Eunuch and Ambassador Palewski were unlikely friends, but they were ﬁrm ones. “We are two halves, who together become whole, you and I,” Palewski had once declared, after soaking up more vodka than would have been good for him were it not for the fact, which he sternly upheld, that only the bitter herb it contained could keep him sane and alive. “I am an ambassador without a country and you—a man without testicles.” Yashim had considered this remark, before pointing out that Palewski might, at a pinch, get his country back, but the Polish ambassador had waved him away with a loud outbreak of sobs. “About as likely as you growing balls, I’m afraid. Never. Never. The bastards!” Soon after that he had fallen asleep, and Yashim had employed a porter to carry him home on his back.
The impoverished diplomat sniffed the air and adopted a look of cunning sweetness that was entirely for his own beneﬁt. The ﬁrst of the smells was onion; also chicken, that he could tell. He recognized the dark aroma of cinnamon, but there was something else he found it hard to identify, pungent and fruity. He sniffed again, screwing his eyes shut.
Without further hesitation or ceremony he wrenched open the door and bounded into the room. “Yashim! Yashim! You raise our souls from the gates of hell! Acem Yahnisi, if I’m not mistaken—so like the Persian fesinjan. Chicken, walnuts, and the juice of the pomegranate!” he declared.
Yashim, who had not heard him come up, turned in astonishment. Palewski saw his face fall.
“Come, come, young man, I ate this dish before you were weaned. Tonight, let us give it in all sincerity a new and appropriate name: The ambassador was out of humor, and now is delighted! How’s that?”
He presented the bottles to his host. “Still cold, you feel! Marvelous! One day I shall take a light and go down into that cellar and ﬁnd out where the icy water comes from. It may be a Roman cistern. I shouldn’t be surprised. What a ﬁnd!”
He rubbed his hands together while Yashim, smiling, handed him a glass of vodka. They stood for a moment looking at one another, then tossed back their heads simultaneously, and drank. Palewski dived on the mussels.
It was going to be a long evening. It was a long evening. By the hour of the dawn prayer, Yashim was aware he had only nine days left.
The Street of the Tinsmiths ran slightly above and to the west of the Mosque of Rustem Pasha, itself half buried in the alleys and crooked passages that surround the southern entrances of the Grand Bazaar. Like most of the artisans’ quarters, it consisted of a narrow funnel of open workshops, each no bigger than a very big closet, where the smiths worked with forge, bellows, and hammers over the standard articles of their trade: tin pots, little kettles, weakly hinged or plainly lidded boxes of every size and shape, from the tiny round tins used for storing kohl and tiger balm to banded trunks for sailors and the linen trade. They made knives and forks; they made badges and insignia, spectacle frames and ferrules for walking sticks. Every one of them worked at a specialism, rarely if ever straying from, say, the remorseless production of amulets designed to contain a paper inscribed with the ninety-nine names of God to, for example, the perpetual manufacture of pin boxes. These were guild rules, laid down hundreds of years before by the market judges and the sultan himself, and they were broken only under very special circumstances.
Would the manufacture of an enormous cauldron, Yashim wondered, constitute a special circumstance?
The tin market was not a place for the crowds who infested some of the other industrious highways of Istanbul: the food markets, the spice bazaars, the makers of shoes. Even the Street of the Goldsmiths was busier. So Yashim walked along easily in the middle of the street and attracted few glances. Once the smiths had satisﬁed themselves that he was a stranger, they thought no more about him: they hardly cared to notice if he was rich, poor, fat, or thin, for no man alive was likely to bring them any greater proﬁt than the modest proﬁt they enjoyed by the terms of their guild membership. No one was going to stop by and offer to buy—at a wild price—any of their humdrum manufactures. The regulations of the guild were ﬁxed: there was a quality, and a price, neither more nor less.
Yashim knew all this. For the moment he merely watched. Most of the smiths worked in the opening of their shops, closest to the light and air and away from the smoky furnaces that blazed in the background. From here, tapping incessantly with their hammers, they slowly pushed out a succession of little products. He glanced up: the usual arrangement of latticed windows overhead advertised the dwelling places of the men, their wives, and their children. The apprentices, Yashim thought, would sleep in the shops.
He took a turn into a courtyard and looked back. Up an alley thick with rubbish, the upper stories were approached by rickety staircases leading, in every case, to a mean doorway hung with a faded strip of carpet or a blanket cut into ribbons against the ﬂies. Which left, he imagined, the ﬂat roofs where the women could go in the day to get some air, unobserved. And at night, who used those roofs? Enough people, he supposed: you could never be sure. With a shrug he dismissed a faint idea and returned his inspection to the courtyard.
The sound of hammers beating against the tin was fainter here: it broke upon the courtyard like the musical note of frogs tinkling in a nearby lake. Few smiths were working in the alcoves of the courtyard itself: it served, instead, as a caravanserai where tin merchants brought the raw materials of the trade and sold it, at need, to the smiths outside. Here were piled thick sheets of tin in apparently random shapes, and their owners sat among them on low stools in quiet contrast to the arrhythmic tintinnabulation of the street beyond, sipping tea and telling their beads. Now and again one of them would make a sale; the tinsmith cut the sheet, the tin merchant weighed it out, and the smith carried it away.
Yashim wandered out for a last look. The bigger objects—lanterns, in the main, and trunks—were being assembled on the ground outside the shops. But Yashim was satisﬁed that nowhere, either inside or out, was there a place where a cauldron with a base big enough to ﬁt a man could be discreetly built.
Someone, he thought, would have seen.
And that person, he thought, would have been legitimately puzzled. Why, in the name of all things holy, should anyone want to make a cauldron out of tin?
Of such a size, too! The biggest cauldron anyone had seen since— when?
Yashim froze. All around him the tinsmiths beat out their meaningless birdlike paean to industry and craftsmanship, but he no longer heard. He knew, in a ﬂash, when that moment had been.
Ten years before. The night of June 15, 1826.
Yashim felt conspicuous as soon as the thought ﬂashed upon him. It was as if the knowledge had made him glow.
In a nearby café, the proprietor brought him a coffee while Yashim looked with unseeing eyes down the street. The noise of the tinsmiths insistently hammering had melded with a memory of that terrifying sound, ten years ago, of the Janissaries battering on their upturned cauldrons. It was an age-old signal that nobody in the palace, or in the streets, or in their homes in the city could misunderstand. It was the mother of all dins, and it hadn’t meant that the Janissaries wanted more food.
It meant that they wanted blood.
Up through the centuries that driving and sinisterly insistent sound of the Janissaries beating on their cauldrons had been the prelude to death in the streets, men torn apart, the sacriﬁce of princes. Had it always been so? Yashim knew well what the Janissaries had achieved. Each man was selected from a levy of the empire’s toughest, likeliest, most wide-awake Christian boys. Brought to Istanbul, renouncing the faith of the Balkan peasants who had borne them, swearing allegiance as slaves to the sultan mounted at their head, they became a corps. A terrifying ﬁghting machine that the Ottoman sultans had unleashed against their enemies in Europe.
If the Ottoman Empire inspired fear throughout the known world, it was the Janissaries who carried the fear to the throats of the unbelievers. The conquest of Soﬁa and Belgrade. Istanbul itself, wrested from the Greeks in 1453. The Arab peninsula and, with it, the Holy Cities. Mohács, 1526, when the ﬂower of Hungarian knighthood was cut down in the saddle and Suleiman the Magniﬁcent led his men to Buda, and on, ﬂeetingly, to the gates of Vienna. Rhodes and Cyprus, Egypt and the Sahara. Why, the Janissaries had even landed in France in 1566 and spent a year in Toulon.
Until—who could say why?—the victories dried up. The terms of engagement changed. The Janissaries sought permission to marry. They petitioned for the right to take up trades when there was no ﬁghting, to feed their families. They enrolled their sons into the corps, and the corps grew reluctant to ﬁght. They were still dangerous: loaded with privilege, they lorded it over the common people of the city. Designed to die ﬁghting at the lonely borders of an ever-expanding empire, they enjoyed all the license and immunity that the people and the sultan could bestow on men who would soon be martyrs. But they no longer sought to martyr themselves. The men who had been sent to terrify Europe made a simple discovery: it was easier—and far less dangerous—to terrorize at home.
The palace made efforts to reason with them, efforts to discipline them. In 1618, Sultan Osman tried to overturn them: they had him killed, as Yashim knew, by the compression of his testicles, a mode of execution that left no traces on the body. Special man, special death. It was considered ﬁtting for a member of the imperial family. Later still, in 1635, Murad IV rounded up thirty thousand Janissaries and marched them to their deaths in Persia. But the corps survived.
And slowly, painfully, the Ottomans had come to realize that they could no longer properly defend themselves. Unreliable as they were, the Janissaries still insisted on being the supreme military power: they had become unassailable. The common people were afraid of them. In trade, they exploited their privileges to become dangerous rivals. Their behavior was threatening and insolent, as they swaggered through the city streets, fully armed and wielding sticks, uttering loutish blasphemies. Outside the Topkapi Palace, between Aya Soﬁa and the Blue Mosque, lay an open space called the Atmeidan, the ancient Hippodrome of the Byzantines. In it grew a huge plane tree to which the Janissaries always rallied at the ﬁrst sign of any trouble, for the blotched and peeling trunk of the Janissary Tree stood at the center of their world; as the palace lay at the center of Ottoman government, and Aya Soﬁa at the heart of religious faith. Beneath its branches the Janissaries divulged their grievances and secrets, and plotted mutinies. From the swaying limbs of the tree, too, they hanged the bodies of men who had displeased them: ministers, viziers, and court ofﬁcials sacriﬁced to their bloodlust by a terriﬁed succession of weak and vacillating sultans.
Meanwhile, lands conquered by the sultan’s armies in the name of Islam were being lost to the inﬁdels: Hungary, Serbia, the Crimea. In Egypt, Ali Pasha the Albanian built on the experience of the Napoleonic invasion to train the fellahin as soldiers, Western-style. And when Greece disappeared, from the very heartland of an empire where every other man was Greek by speech, it was the ﬁnal blow. The Egyptians had held the fort for a while: they were to be commended. They had drill and discipline; they had tactics and modern guns. The sultan read the message and began to train his own, Egyptian-style force: the seraskier’s New Guard.
That was ten years ago. The sultan issued orders that the Janissaries should adopt the Western style of the New Guard, knowing that they would be provoked and affronted. And the Janissaries had rebelled on cue. Caring only for their own privileges, they turned on the palace and the ﬂedgling New Guards. But they had grown stupid as well as lazy. They were loathed by the people. The sultan had made ready. When the Janissaries overturned their cauldrons on the night of Thursday, June 15, it took a day to accomplish by modern means what no one had managed to achieve in three hundred years. By the night of the 16th, efﬁcient modern gunnery had reduced their mutinous barracks to a smoldering ruin. Thousands were already dead: the rest, ﬂeeing for their lives, died in the city streets, in the forests outside the walls, in the holes and lairs they crept into to survive.
It was a trauma, Yashim reﬂected, from which the empire still waited to recover. Certain people might never recover at all.
Copyright © 2006 by Jason Goodwin
Jason Goodwin fell under the spell of Istanbul while studying Byzantine history at Cambridge University. He’s married to Kate, his companion on the walk to Istanbul; they live in rural Sussex with their four children. They are keen cooks, like Yashim himself; they also grow vegetables, keep hens and have two lurchers.