The Twenty-day Sultan

To be a sultan even for only twenty days is an achievement. Cem Sultan paid for it for the rest of his life. Here is his story.

Born the third son of Fatih Sultan Mehmet (the conqueror of Constantinople), Cem could style himself as ‘porphyrogenitus’, being born when his father was an emperor, unlike his two brothers Beyazıt and Mustafa (the latter of whom died soon after and is not part of the story). According to Ottoman tradition, princes were sent out to the provinces while still very young, to learn the ropes. Cem was made governor of Kastamonou at the tender age of five. He took up residence there with his mother, his tutor (his lala) and his court. Later he was promoted to Konya and it was there that he learned of the death of his father. Not yet fifty, Sultan Mehmet had probably died of exhaustion. Already a ruler at twelve, deposed at fourteen and reinstated at nineteen, he went on to conquer Constantinople two years later, embarking afterwards on non-stop wars of conquest in the Balkans and Anatolia. He literally had been burning the candle at both ends.

Mehmet left no arrangements for his succession, which may appear strange since he was well aware of the dangers of civil war. On his accession he had had his one baby brother drowned (or strangled—both methods acceptable as long as Muslim blood was not shed) ‘for the sake of public order’ and had the practice codified in law. The Turco-Mongol tradition leaves to God the choice of ruler from among the males of a specific bloodline. Anyone interfering would be subverting divine will, which equals heresy. But how does God manifest his choice? By granting favour (kut), i.e. the claimant who could maintain himself on the throne could claim divine support. The tradition did not recognise primogeniture of any other form of seniority.

After Mehmet’s death, it was Cem who won the first round. He got himself to Bursa, seized the treasury, minted coins in his own name and was Sultan for twenty days. This was as much time as Beyazıt needed to move from Amasya, where he was governor, gather his troops (the Jannissaries had declared for him) and beat Cem soundly at Yenişehir. Cem fled for his life with his immediate family, all the way to Egypt. While plotting further action, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca (the only Ottoman sultan to have done so) and proposed to Beyazıt that they split the empire. He would rule Anatolia while Beyazıt would control Rumelia, the European provinces. Beyazıt’s answer was unequivocal: absolute power could not be split. ‘Sultans do not have a family’ he said, setting the tone for future Ottoman autocracy.

One last attempt at seizing Konya ended in disaster and Cem had to flee again. This time he did not go to Egypt, where he had left his family, but to Rhodes, the piece of European soil within easiest reach. He was acquainted, moreover, with the local rulers, the Knights of St John, with whom he had been instrumental in negotiating a settlement after his father’s failed attempt to conquer the island. The Order of St John embodied a mixture of military, political, religious aspirations: assisting pilgrims to the Holy Land, checking the advance of the Turks, flying the flag of Catholic Christianity in the East. Cem calculated that the Grand Master of the Order, Pierre d’Aubusson, who lived in Rhodes, would be able to help him gather European support in his quest for justice, or at least a share of the Empire. At the same time, however, d’Aubusson was in touch with Beyazıt, who was geographically his near neighbour and with whom he had to find a modus vivendi. The result of the negotiations was that d’Aubusson would keep Cem well—and well out of the way—and in return the Sultan would maintain friendly relations with Rhodes and help with an annual contribution of 40,000 gold pieces towards Cem’s upkeep. It is difficult to put a modern figure on this sum of money, sometimes described as ducats or florins, but it was certainly a good deal, well in excess of Cem’s needs. There was enough left over to improve the fortifications of Rhodes and later to tempt the greed of a pope (see below).

The Disputation of St Catherine by Pinturicchio, in the Borgia Rooms in the Vatican (1492–5). The figure of St Catherine has long been rumoured to be a portrait of Pope Alexander VI’s daughter Lucrezia Borgia. The young man in the turban is thought to be Cem. Photo ©BlueGuides

Cem, on the other hand, had completely different ideas. He pictured himself at the head of a European coalition to stop the Turks—or at least one particular Turk, his brother. In this he intended to enlist the support of the King of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus. One has to bear in mind that the Hungarian kingdom had historically reached far beyond the Danube and that it had felt Ottoman pressure right from the beginning. Cem was counting on d’Aubusson to help him make contact with the King of France, gain his support and ensure a safe passage to Hungary.

And so to France! Cem left Rhodes (without his family, who remained in Egypt) with a suite of forty or so ‘companions’; a concubine Almeida, constituting a harem of one; a number of Turkish slaves purchased at the thriving slave market in Rhodes; and an unspecified following of spies and agents sent on the orders of Venice, of the Sultan and of anyone else interested in this up-and-coming ‘hot property’. As a prince of Ottoman blood, pretender to the throne, Cem had become just that.

The passage to the French Mediterranean coast was uneventful, but Cem and his retinue could not land in Toulon because of plague. The company opted instead for Nice, then in the Duchy of Savoy. Here they were accommodated in the castle, on a rocky outcrop between the harbour and what is now the Promenade des Anglais. Cem spent his time waiting for things to happen and whiling away his time with a pet monkey who could play chess and a parrot who could recite suras of the Koran.

Things began to move again in 1483. The party progressed through Piedmont, crossing the Montcenis pass in winter, and arrived in Chamonix to meet the Duke of Savoy, a lad of just fourteen. There was still no sign of the French king, nor of his envoys, nor of the passport to Hungary. This was due not so much to lack of cooperation from the king as to the fact that he had not apparently been informed. D’Aubusson was clearly intending to keep his side of the bargain with Sultan Beyazıt, to keep Cem ‘well out of the way’, to all intents and purposes a prisoner. This was the reason behind the detour into Piedmont, where the knights could count on secure accommodation in their various commanderies (fortified buildings).

From Chamonix the way was due northwest, to d’Aubusson country, la France profonde, skirting the Grand Chartreuse massif into the Auvergne and beyond into the Creuse around Limoges. Accommodation was always in some form of defended outpost (Rochechinard, Monteil-au-Vicomte, Poët-Laval etc), which can still be identified though most are in a sorry state today. Along the way, romantic attachments with various châtelaines have entered local lore. And Cem was not the only male in his party. There were his companions as well as an unspecified number of Turkish slaves. Talk of large-scale DNA testing, searching for potential kinship links, has come to nothing so far.

In 1484 at Bourganeuf, 40km east of Limoges, Cem and his company were offered accommodation in a château at the centre of the fortified village belonging to d’Aubusson himself and where his sister was living at the time. On the pretext that the rooms were unsuitable, but in reality fearing kidnap or the flight of the prisoner, it was decided to build new, secure accommodation while housing Cem and company nearby. More removals, more disruptions. The building process took two years. There can be no doubt that the tower known locally as the Tour Zizim (apparently from Cem’s childhood nickname, or perhaps because the local people could not pronounce his name properly) was effectively a prison: a seven-storey building accessed via a walkway from another tower of the castle. The first opening was 10m off the ground. The tower can be visited. Inside, the seven floors connected by a central spiral staircase included (from the bottom): a cellar, kitchen and stores; the companions’ accommodation; Cem’s own apartment on two storeys, with his harem above it (still a one-person harem); guards on the top floor and more guards on the roof. Rumours of a hamam are unconfirmed. Here Cem stayed for two years and three months. Not so Almeida, who killed herself.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, things had moved on. When the King of Hungary died the focus of a crusade moved to Rome, to Pope Innocent VIII. Negotiations produced the expected result. D’Aubusson got his cardinal’s hat and relinquished Cem and his appanage, who were taken into custody by the pope. In the spring of 1489, Cem and his suite were moved to Rome where he was lodged in the Vatican, occupying the floor above the pope’s apartment in the Apostolic Palace, overlooking the Cortile del Pappagallo. From Mantegna’s correspondence (he was working in the Palazzo del Belvedere) we get an unflattering description of a moody, alien character.

Beyazıt then made a new arrangement with the pope. Not only would the sultan continue to pay the very generous pension, in exchange for which Cem would be ‘kept well and well out of the way’, but as a sweetener he added a relic, the metal point of the spear that had wounded the Saviour on the Cross. Istanbul was awash with relics and the Turks soon realised their bargaining power with the Christian West. Alas, this particular relic proved ineffective in dealing with Innocent’s health problems and he died in 1492. Even so, the item figures prominently in his left hand in his tomb monument by Antonio Pollaiolo, which can be admired in St Peter’s.

There is no evidence that Cem was free to come and go as he pleased in Rome, but perhaps it was more appealing than a prison-tower in the middle of nowhere in France. Mantegna’s testimony, though, may suggest bouts of depression.

When Innocent died, Cem graduated to a tighter regime during the conclave. He was still ‘hot property’ and was confined to a tower for the duration of the conclave. Worse was to come. The new pope was a Borgia, Alexander VI. He was determined to use Cem for his schemes, which included a crusade. It never materialised, partly because of disagreements among the perspective participants, chief among them Venice, who was to have supplied the vessels but was very unwilling to upset relationships with the Porte at a time when the Serenissima was trading happily with the infidels in spite of the papal prohibition.

In the meantime the French king, Charles VIII, had decided to act upon his claim to the throne of Naples and in 1494 crossed the Alps to claim his due. Cem this time ended up with the pope himself in Castel Sant’Angelo, the one-time mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian later turned into a fortress. In spite of his determination to hang on to his precious hostage, Pope Alexander had to surrender him to the French king, who also had the same ill-defined ambition of a crusade. It was a difficult time for the Borgias as they were short of money and Beyazıt’s subsidy was quite handy.

Cem just made it to Naples and died in Castel Capuano, at that time the residence of the King of Naples, who was currently in exile. This was a blow for the French king and his ambitions. In the end his mad cavalcade from Paris to Naples came to nothing and he went back home—though not empty-handed. In his train were 43 tons of booty: carpets, tapestries, books, marbles, furniture, the bronze doors of Castel Nuovo and even a set of stained-glass windows. Not all of it made it to France, notably the doors, one of which was used as a shield in a naval battle and was hit by a cannon ball that is still embedded in it. They were sent back to Naples where they can still be admired.

By 1498 the French king was dead and buried. Things were not so simple for Cem, who had died in February 1495 but had still not been buried in the way that Beyazıt wanted, i.e. with the actual body, very publicly in the Empire, to make sure that every citizen knew that the claimant to the throne was truly dead. The problem was twofold. First it was necessary to ensure that the body was really Cem’s. To that effect his two last companions were tasked to guard it day and night. They had already embalmed it, burying the entrails in the garden of Castel Capuano, and then wrapped it in an emergency shroud, in this case one of their turbans.

The lead coffin now awaited transport to Istanbul but that was not so easy. The last thing the Italians wanted to see were Turkish vessels cruising off their shores. The occupation of Otranto by Mehmet Fatih in 1480–81 was still fresh in everyone’s memory. In the end the transport was organised by the King of Naples: overland to Lecce, across the Adriatic to Valona and then by land to Istanbul. Cem was buried in 1499 with full honours in Bursa alongside his brother Mustafa. The surviving companions were rewarded. There is no mention of what became of the parrot and the monkey.

At 35 Cem had spent seven years and two months in France and six years and two months in Italy, in something very close to captivity in unfamiliar surroundings, away from his family and without advancing his cause an inch. If depression and frustration can kill, this would be a textbook case. The curse extended to his progeny. When Sultan Suleiman conquered Rhodes in 1522, he sought out Cem’s son Murat (now a Christian by the name of Niccolò) and had him killed. According to some he may have killed Murat’s son as well, unless the young man had already decamped to Malta, where the Knights of St John had moved. The curse of the Ottoman blood was apparently unforgiving.

by Paola Pugsley. Her latest book, Blue Guide Mediterranean Turkey, was published in 2020.

Recommended places to stay and eat on Crete

As a brief introduction here are six hotels and one restaurant that are recommended in the new Blue Guide Crete. Note that, as with all Blue Guides Recommended establishments, all have been visited by the author or our editors and contributors, indeed in the case of the below we have stayed at all of them.  Considerably longer listings appear in the book itself.

Most of the below are available through www.cretetravel.com who we found excellent. As well as handling the reservations (at no cost to the visitor, they receive a fee from the hotel), they will also give helpful email or telephone advice:

1. Tamam Restaurant, Chania

2. Casa Delfino, Chania

3. Villa Kynthia, Panormos

4. Villa Kerasia, Venerato

5. Kalimera Archanes, Archanes

6. Palazzo Apartments, Agios Nikolaos

7. Aspros Potamos, near Makrigialos

Artwork of the Month: July. The Phaistos Disc

On 3rd July 1908, the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier, working in the so-called ‘House 101’, northeast of the palace of Phaistos, found an object with symbols on both sides, next to a Linear A tablet. The object became known as the Phaistos Disc—and it remains as intriguing and mysterious now, over a hundred years later, as it was then. Physically it is round, hand-made, about 1.5cm thick and approx. 16.2cm in diameter, with an incised spiral decoration. The spiral is filled with little symbols, 241 or so of them (most of the motifs occurring more than once), stamped on the fresh clay. They represent the earliest evidence of the use of movable type. The clay is free from impurities and the object, unlike the tablets, was fired deliberately.

The excavator assumed it had fallen from the upper storey and that it was of Cretan manufacture. Not much progress has been made since then, though not for want of trying. Nothing else remotely similar has ever been found—and that is the main problem. Accusations of foul play were made as early as 1913. The villain of the piece was said to be Pernier who, jealous of his fellow archaeologist Halbherr’s success at Gortyn (also in Crete), where he found the famous Law Code, and of Evans’s discoveries at Knossos, deliberately planted a forged object with an invented script in order to raise the profile of his excavations. However, while it is true that Phaistos could not rival Knossos as to finds, at Aghia Triada nearby, also excavated by the Italians, the quality and quantity of material was truly amazing. Pernier and the Italian School had their hands full. He seems an unlikely accomplice in a forgery of this magnitude.

Interpretations of the object’s function and meaning are extremely diverse, ranging from an astronomical or astrological calendar to a hymn to victory, a nursery rhyme or a sacred text. Current thought assumes it is a piece of writing though the direction of it, from the centre to the periphery or the other way round, has yet to be established. The small number of characters, 45 in total, suggests it is a syllabic script and close to Linear A, which has not yet been deciphered. There has been no shortage of proposed translations, based on languages as diverse as Chinese, Dravidian, Georgian, Hittite, Luwian, Semitic, Slavic and Sumerian. Indeed it was this abundance that prompted the late John Chadwick, who decoded Linear B with Michael Ventris, to appeal to those producing their own solutions ‘not to send them to him’.

With appropriate testing, it would be possible to put this case to rest one way or another. Modern techniques such as thermoluminescence are not invasive and would ascertain the date of the firing, thereby deciding once and for all the question of authenticity, while the analysis of a minimal quantity of the clay could assist in determining provenance. So far the authorities involved have resisted all calls for such tests. But the case should not be allowed to linger.

Blue Guide Crete, which combs the island in loving detail, will be available in digital format later this month.

The real Patrick Leigh Fermor?

Walking seems to be back in fashion. Pilgrim routes, secret pathways, ancient trackways: it is as if we are rediscovering the traditional pace of life. One catalyst for the interest has been Patrick Leigh Fermor’s celebrated walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, in 1934, when he was only eighteen. It was immortalized in his two books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Although they are among my favourite travel books, I had not realised quite how long after the walk they were written. A Time of Gifts appeared 44 years later and Between the Woods and the Waterseveral years after that. So they are as much reflections on the walk, with added colour and insight, as they are of the reactions of an eighteen-year old.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper. John Murray, 2012

Virtually abandoned as a child in England by his family—his father had a distinguished career as a geologist in India—Paddy (the name by which his biographer and his many friends knew him) grew up essentially feral. School did not work for him and he seemed unemployable. Yet he had a passion for the Classics, an acute memory for texts and a fascination with languages and how they shaped cultures. All this was incipient when he began his walk, but as he uncovered the ancient landed families of eastern Europe, explored their libraries and became a lover, notably of Princess Balasha Cantacuzene on her remote estate in Romania, he discovered new roles for himself. He was always to be a wanderer, attracted to the aristocracy as much for their heritage as for their status, ever willing to be financially supported, and happy to drink and sing his way through the night in a variety of languages and cultures.

When war came, it was again apparent that Paddy was not employable in any conventional role; but with his fluent Greek he could be found a job as a general dogsbody in Intelligence. This is how he ended up supporting the resistance in Crete against the occupying Germans. His most famous exploit, kidnapping the German commanding officer, General Heinrich Kreipe, forms the narrative highlight of this book. The moment when Paddy was able to complete a Horatian ode begun by the General is an unforgettable homage to the common roots of both cultures. Of course, with reprisals against villagers and Paddy’s own careless shooting of a partisan with a gun he thought unloaded, the kidnapping remains controversial, but for many Cretans Paddy was a hero. Hard-drinking reunions followed in the years to come.

Artemis Cooper knew ‘Paddy’ well, but her subject still presents a challenge. Cooper is wise enough not to try to match Paddy’s style when describing the famous walk and is content to tidy up discrepancies and fill in gaps. The kidnapping of Kreipe is well told. The problem comes with the years that followed. There is certainly good material for charting Paddy’s sophisticated survival skills, his charm and success in persuading others to finance him (notably his long-term lover and eventual wife, Joan). It is moving to read of the shattered lives of his friends and lovers, Balasha among them. Full tribute is paid to his publisher, Jock Murray, whose guile and persistence ensured that the books actually appeared. Most publishers would have abandoned Paddy in sheer exasperation at his penchant for parties over disciplined writing.

Cooper also hints at the darker side: the depressions, the sexual dalliances—some of them actually encouraged by Joan—and at Paddy’s ability as much to bore his listeners as to amuse them. And yet somehow she does not capture the full personality. The chronology is there, the house in the Mani is built (at Joan’s expense), the wanderings are well charted, but the subject remains strangely elusive. Doubtless there are more perceptive and probing memoirs to come, but this biography provides a solid background and serves well to send one back to Paddy’s writing, not only the famous walk but also the vivid studies of Greece, Mani and Roumeli. And we are promised that the fragments of the third volume of the walk, awaited by his readers for so long, are due to appear next year.

(One correction. Paddy’s friend was Ian Whigham, not Wigham. He was a man of fastidious good taste and generous hospitality: I count the two occasions when I had lunch with him, as a friend of a friend in the 1970s, as among the more civilizing experiences of my life.)

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

The Trouble with Snake Goddesses

Over 100 years after the excavations at Knossos, Crete, it is hard for the modern observer to appreciate the excitement engendered by Evans’s finds. Here was a whole new civilization with artistic achievements rivalling Egypt’s. Evans himself fostered expectation by dwelling on the modernity of the style and by embarking on a (now) controversial restoration programme which owed much to his own romanticized image of the ‘Minoan’ (his own word) past. As Minoan artefacts became prestige objects for museums, unscrupulous dealers, smugglers and restorers were quick to react. Top of the wish list was the snake goddess.

With her full exposed bosom, pinched waist, flounced skirt and modern expression, she looked exactly what was expected: an art even superior to that of Classical Greece and comparable to the Italian Renaissance. But Getty curator Kenneth Lapatin has suggested that the famous snake goddess might not be a genuine antiquity.

It is certainly true that from modest beginnings in Crete in 1903, the production of modern Minoica moved onto a world-wide market. In 1914 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts paid a staggering $950 for a very damaged chryselephantine snake goddess with no detailed provenance. It has affinities with the faïences from the Temple Repositories but also a number of crucial unexplained differences, not least that it is the only example in Minoan art in which ivory is used for a female figure. Questions about its authenticity remain unanswered. In the 1920s the curator at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, wishing to enhance the status of her department, fell for a marble snake goddess, once again with no provenance except for a vague ‘east of Knossos’. £2750 were duly paid to a local intermediary who said he had it through a Paris dealer. Doubts raised in Crete were set aside and ascribed to jealousy and embarrassment at having allowed such a unique artefact to leave the island. Yet questions soon began to be asked. No archaeologist had actually seen the object come out of the ground. Authentication was based purely on style, subjective judgement and expectations. Evans was still defending it in 1935 but the Fitzwilliam Museum, after demoting its status to ‘dubious’ in 1964, last showed it in 1991.

Who dunnit? Evidence points in two directions: first the Gilliérons, father and son, who worked as restorers for Evans from the very beginning and eventually set up shop in Athens producing fine detailed replicas of Knossos finds for academic collections. Alternatively it was one of the Cretan workers trained by them. Sir Leonard Woolley in his memoirs tells how a forger, confessing on his deathbed, had wept bitter tears on discovering how much money his work could ultimately command.

Extract from Blue Guide Crete by Paola Pugsley. Knossos is also one of the sites featured in Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

For more on the Gilliérons and the artworks of Knossos, see here , for details of an exhibition currently running at the Met Museum in New York.

Edward Lear and Crete

The well-known nonsense poet and artist Edward Lear paid a short visit to Crete in 1864. He was coming from Corfu, where he had lived for nine years; when the British government returned the Ionian islands to the Greek state, the British community dispersed. At that point in his life he needed to find a warm place for his indifferent health and to produce another book like his Views in the Seven Ionian Islands, which had sold steadily. Lear chose Crete, and arrived in Chania on 11th April, with his faithful valet George Kokali and armed with Pashley’s Travels in Crete. Although he was aware of the presence of Venetian monuments and of some earlier ruins, what he was searching for were beautiful, exotic landscapes that he could sell in England, possibly in a book reworked from notes in his diary. Crete proved a disappointment in many respects. The landscape, vast, rugged and raw, did not lend itself to artistic composition according to the classical canons. The weather did not help and living conditions, from the food to the ever-present fleas and the state of the pavements, proved a perennial source of complaint. The only things that seemed to cheer him were the wine, the birds and the flowers. Lear took more notice of the latter than of the people. Unlike Pashley he makes very few ethnographical observations, even though he spoke Greek and took lodgings with local people.

Lear first travelled west in the Kissamos direction, venturing as far south as Topolia. He then went back to Chania for the Akrotiri and continued east to Souda and Aptera, cutting across to Vamos and Lake Kournas, finally sailing from Rethymnon to Megalokastro (i.e. Herakleion), which failed to impress him. He continued south, ascending Mt Juktas on the way. This he pronounced ‘Cumberlandish’, a term that he had already applied to Lake Kournas and of which he was obviously fond. The Mesara reminded him of the Beka’a Valley in Lebanon, but wanting in colours, lines and shape, and Mt Ida, around which he skirted from Tymbaki on his way north through the Amari Valley, was forever lost in the clouds. Lear was probably relieved to arrive back in England on 11th June. He had with him some 200 sketches and a diary: nothing of either was ever published in his lifetime. A few drawings were reworked and completed on commission and are now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The bulk of the sketches found their way onto the London art market in the late 1920s. The Gennadius Library in Athens has 92; the remainder are in private collections and museums. The diary was published in 1984.

An extract from Blue Guide Crete by Paola Pugsley. © Blue Guides. All rights reserved.

To mark the bicentenary of Lear’s birth, the Ashmolean Museum is currently running an exhibition entitled Happy Birthday Edward Lear: 200 Years of Nature and Nonsense.

Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Aegean Islands

The result of five years of fresh research by author Nigel McGilchrist, and detailed editing by Michael Metcalfe and Heinrich Hall, this is the first full Blue Guide treatment of all the Greek Aegean islands in a single volume.

(And Nigel McGilchrist has published the full manuscript that he wrote for this book in twenty volumes as ‘McGilchrist’s Greek Islands’, an invaluable resource.)

View the book’s contents, index and some sample pages, and buy securely from blueguides.com here »

Familiar face

Displayed on its own in a glass case in one of the later rooms of the excellent Archaeological Museum in Aghios Nikolaos, Crete, is an arresting clay head. It was found near Siteia, where it had been left at a shrine as a votive deposit. The young man’s lips are slightly curved in the famous ‘Archaic smile’. They would originally have been painted red, his eyebrows black and his enormous eyes probably dark as well. His features call to mind those of someone very famous. A frivolous idea? Perhaps. But once it’s occurred to you, it’s hard not to stroll the museum’s halls without ‘Pretty Young Thing’ ringing in your head.

The new edition of Blue Guide Crete is published February 2010.