Between the mid-fifteenth and late sixteenth centuries, the Ottoman enterprise was transformed into an early modern empire with an expansive military-bureaucratic apparatus and a sophisticated religio-cultural identity. A corollary of this transformation was the emergence of an elaborate ceremonial culture around the sultan. From the first decades of the sixteenth century onwards, ceremonies such as weddings and circumcisions, diplomatic audiences, military parades, religious processions, victory celebrations and entries into conquered cities became occasions for the performance of the empire’s new political, cultural and religious identity. This involved elements of ritual, spectacle, and festival, and offered a wide repertoire of cultural messages and sensory experiences, which brought together members of an ever-evolving ruling elite. By establishing ties between the ruler and the ruled, and by creating occasions and spaces of cultural encounter and political communication, they also served as instruments of governance.
In this presentation, through a study of four large-scale celebrations on the occasion of the circumcision of Ottoman princes (in 1457, 1530, 1539, 1582), I aim to address some of the historiographical and theoretical issues related to the new Ottoman ceremonial culture. Ceremonies have been classified as mere extensions of old Turkic and Near Eastern/Islamic precedents; they have been presented as rigid, unchanging manifestations of Ottoman ideas of protocol and hierarchy; and they have been evaluated solely with reference to the sultan and his entourage. Here, I analyze the origins and significance of public circumcision ceremonies, and discuss the transformation of ceremonial content, participant profile, and political dialogue from 1457 to 1582. I will approach these events as multi-layered, multi-centered performances that reflected specific power relations, cultural ideals and political expectations underneath a narrative of timeless dynastic glory.