Tag Archives: Anna Notaras

“Ottoman”: final assessment; plus: the Notarades, and a “what-if” on our Turkish centuries

3 Feb

I’ve had more than one old Constantinopolitan Greek say to me: You [metropolitan Greeks] call us Byzantines but we’re not any more “Byzantine” than you. “Because when the Conqueror entered the city,” Kyra Smaro says, “he slaughtered any Greeks that had remained.” And this is born out by legit historical sources. Greeks — and other ethnicities of the empire — started repopulating Constantinople, now the Ottoman capital, after Mehmet consolidated his rule; ironically often brought in large numbers by force by the Ottomans to repopulate the almost empty city.

In my comments on the first two episodes of Netflix‘: “Ottoman”: It’s pretty good: understanding an opponent’s mythology — I expressed my apprehensions about how the violence of the final fall would be portrayed:

Maybe the inevitable escalation of violence, especially against civilians after the entry of the Turks into the City will make later episodes more disturbing, since The Religion of Peace gives an army three days’ right to loot, murder, rape and enslave if a city resists and doesn’t capitulate on its own.

Instead of glorifying the violence, though, the production totally whitewashes it, and I don’t know what’s worse or what I find more annoying. None of the massacring or enslavement of the remaining inhabitants of the City is shown, and though we know for a fact that large mobs of Greeks had packed themselves into a barricaded Hagia Sophia, hoping to be saved there, and that when the Turks finally broke in, everyone in the church was put to the sword (try and remember the butchery in the cathedral in Andrey Tarkovsky’s Andrey Rublev, when the Tatars finally break in), Netflix gives us an infuriating segment of Mehmet tranquilly walking into an empty, sanitized, already de-imaged Hagia Sophia and beatifically walking about in wonder, amazed at the building and the fulfillment of his own miraculous destiny.

And then there’s the sidebar story of Loukas Notaras, megas doux, the Grand Duke, something like a Prime Minister or Grand Vizier, to Constantine XI:

I do dread the thought of how they’re going to treat the fate of the Notarades, though. It’s much too scintillating to just leave out of the whole narrative, yet to show it to us they’d have to admit that their revered Fatih Mehmet was what we would today call bisexual, and that he was also a cruel sadist, and I don’t know how that would have sat with the Turkish side of the production.

I think we do know that Notaras tried to cooperate with the new rulers and perhaps tried to buy Mehmet off in exchange for his and his family’s safety. But apparently, soon after the fall, Mehmet ordered that he be sent one of Notaras’ handsome sons, Jacob, a notably beautiful teenager, who had inevitably caught Mehmet’s eye, to do…well…whatever with. Notaras refused and Mehmet then had the boy and perhaps his other brothers decapitated in front of his father and then decapitated Notaras himself.

A daughter of the family, Anna, somehow ended up in Venice — whether she had escaped before the fall of the City or not is not clear — but became a sort of Queen Mother in exile and benefactress to the large Greek community there, (Notaras, being a “spins-gold-out-of-thin-air” Greek, had invested most of his wealth in real estate in the Venetian Republic) creating a Greek school and setting in motion the construction of the first Greek church in Venice, San Giorgio dei Greci (below) or St. George of the Greeks, a truly gorgeous church, with an adjacent icon museum that shouldn’t be missed if you’re in Venice next; seriously, it’s one of the sites in the city critical for understanding its role and position in the larger Mediterranean.

And it might seem odd, given that so much of this blog is dedicated to making Greeks’ understand (or accept) their relationship to the East, that I’m now musing on our relationship to the West. But San Giorgio itself is — along with the glorious icons from Venetian Cretan School, along with other things that then come to mind…the unique urban beauty of the city of Corfu, or the couple dances, balos, of the Aegean islands, and the liltingly beautiful music that accompanies them, or reading Erotokritos, or El Greco — among the things that beg the question: “What if?” What if the Ottomans hadn’t prevailed? At least not for so long and over such a huge piece of territory? What would we “look” like now?

Anyway, the story of Mehmet and Notaras’ son, Jacob, is so lurid and full of orientalist tropes about sexually depraved Muslims that it’s hard to know if it’s apocryphal or not (that Mehmet was bisexual, or at least what we would call bisexual today, is not in doubt, however. But, again however, bisexuality was par for the course in the mediaeval Muslim world, as it was in the classical Greco-Roman world which had preceded it, so it was not a particularity or idiosyncrasy of Mehmet’s nor would it have been considered immoral at the time). And some historical sources claim that Jacob wasn’t beheaded but ended up in Mehmet’s harem or serving him at his new court, and later escaped to Venice to join his sister Anna and two other siblings of his. I can tell you one thing: the whole story of the Notarades is so fascinating and complicated that someone should give it a historical fiction chance, print or screen, at some point.

There is this fascinating and kinda wacky book out there, The Age of Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early-Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society, by Walter G. Andrews and Mehmet Kalpaklı, that describes a homoerotic and bisexual court culture that the authors argue existed in both East and West in the early modern Mediterranean, that starts off with the story of Mehmet and the Notaras boy, and that claims the whole incident was a cultural misunderstanding, and that Mehmet was honoring the Notaras family by seeking the intimacy of the handsome young Greek boy. I’m not doing the book justice; it’s complicated and parts are actually very beautiful. Check it out; it’s very interesting.

As for “Ottoman”, it ends up being an atypically Netflixian anodyne treatment of a fascinating historical moment.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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