Life in the Ottoman Empire 200 years ago was an orgy of color, sex, mustache-twirling, same-sex encounters, and a serious lack of clothes.
If you need proof, look no further than the illustrations and manuscripts of an “Ottoman playboy,” a collection of 200-year-old illustrations and texts that show a rare and revealing insight into the sex life of the 18th and 19-century Ottoman Empire.
The manuscript, roughly translated as “A Shaykh remembers his youth”, is going up for sale this month at Sotheby’s famous auction house in London. If you like the look of it, it could be yours for the small sum of around £250,000 to £350,000 ($345,00 to $482,000).
The Ottoman Empire was a major political force that controlled huge parts of southeastern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa from the 14th century until 1922. Although its official religion was Islam, it was realistically a politically-motivated empire made up of many cultures.
We often think of past cultures as prudish when it comes to sex and nudity but – believe it or not – people have enjoyed sex throughout history, even before the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The Ottoman Empire was no exception. Ottoman erotic literature was not something you would keep hidden under your bed, it was common and enjoyed absolutely guilt-free. Sometimes known as “bahname,” these sexual manuals can be found as far back as the 16th century and drew inspiration from a mix of Persian, Arabic, and Hindu traditions.
Among the many illustrations, thought to be around 85 in total, there are vivid depictions of heterosexual sex, homosexual encounters between men in the army, lesbian sex, group sex, and prostitutes.
Since there is no mention of the promiscuous patron, the exact identity of the young Shaykh is unknown, although a man with a very distinct blue and white turban crops up in the images throughout. There are also possibly a few clues tucked away in the small print. The book mentions three sets of dates: 1779 CE, 1799-80 CE, and 1817 CE. There is also a mention of the city of Shumen in present-day Bulgaria, which may help pin him down.
"This is top quality erotic illustration. It represents the long lifetime of an Ottoman playboy. We haven't been able to identify him, but there was a very clear code of dress in the Sultan's palace," Chiara de Nicolais, Middle East specialist at Sotheby's, told The Times.
"Whoever he was, he was certainly influential in the court, and very, very rich," she adds. "His type of turban suggests someone who was within the inner circle of the Sultan."