The Sultan’s Cigarettes

She was created out of an imagination that had been seduced by foreign lands.  The Russian ballet had arrived, and the West was suddenly awash in colors as deep and mysterious as the ocean, in movement that was caught in unbridled symmetry.  Bakst’s designs redefined the stage, Nijinsky’s passion redefined artistic courage. 

Russia, Turkey, Persia, India, Egypt:  in the mind of “civilized” society these countries merged to create a single distant horizon:  the East.  A rich, savage, fertile apparition,  it bred stories of suns that melted  into boiling oceans, of panthers that slept by their mistresses, purring ferociously –  of spices that glittered with powdered gems…stories created out of fear, ignorance and yearning.  She was born out of a desire for vice and beauty; provokingly clothed in silks and and a deadly mosaic of tinted pearls. 

Fact and Fiction In A Box

With smoky, kohl-lined eyes she mocked the gilded society that knelt at her slippers embroidered with jungles and flowers.  A dark, teasing figure:   she seems ill-fitted for her exploitation, for the message she has been chosen to convey.  Her veils of apricot and sapphire waft towards it, like a curl of perfumed smoke: 

  “Judge for yourself – compare MURAD with any 30 cent cigarette”

For what reason was this name used?  There were four Murads:  Murad I, the first ruler to use the title of ‘sultan’, pushed the burgeoning Ottoman Empire further and further west:  creating ambitions of Christian glory for a new generation of Crusaders.   He was assassinated in 1389 by a messenger, whom, as he knelt to whisper into the sultan’s ear, slit his throat.

 In 1421 Murad II was laying siege to Constantinople. He had his 13-year old brother executed after discovering that he was in league with the Byzantines and planning a rebellion.  When Murad III become sultan in 1574 he had his five younger brothers strangled.  Despite the removal of such familial threats, his reign was undermined by the more formidable politics of his harem.   Murad IV – ironically – banned alcohol, tobacco and coffee in Istanbul.  He would patrol the streets, and anyone caught breaking this law he would kill on the spot.  Terrifyingly strong, his favourite weapon was a two-handed broadsword, weighing 110 pounds.  He died in 1640 from cirrhosis of the liver.

There is too much history here – mad and bloody; audacious and cruel – to be contained in a single cellophane-wrapped box.  The sultan’s cigarettes, as well as the girl, are products of truth, innocence and foolishness.   They are a collision of fact and imagination that whets the appetite for their delicious past and embraces their exotic promise.


7 responses to “The Sultan’s Cigarettes

  1. Thank you for the history lesson!

  2. I love “deadly mosaic of tinted pearls” ……

  3. A nice summary of Orientalism, without Edward Said’s difficult lit-crit vocabulary. But oddly, I have an Arab friend who collects this sort of art from the 1890s thru the 1940s. She says it’s beautiful in and of itself, as well as a reminder that the West has always seen the Muslim world as a barbaric Other.

  4. 110 pounds? Wow. He’d have to be strong. Lovely imagery in this one, I felt as though I was actually walking down the street with coffee in hand, terrified I’d be caught by the Murad the 4rth!

  5. I feel like I know nothing about history, certainly this history, other than clicheed assumptions and viewpoints. This however has been humanized in a story way – works for me. You seem to find all kinds of wonderful (fascinating, even bizarre) bits of history and retell them so that those of us who only tolerated such history do actually pay attention. And remember.

  6. WBaby/AlleyCat – and that history was hanging on my wall for years! I bought that advertisement because I had thought it was pretty – I never realized the stories that were inherent there.

    Aussie Emjay – that was the very last line I added. It just popped into my head; and I knew better than to edit it.

    Hangaku Gozen – thank you! This particular advertisement was from 1919. The Murad campaign from the early 20th century was ravishing if a thought childish in its perception of the East.

    Emmy – nothing could tear me away from my morning cup of coffee! Not even a 100+ pound sword sweeping towards my neck!

    oh – fascinating and bizarre: that’s what history is…and it’s made even more so because it is all true. It comes full circle too – this picture has been on my wall for years; the stories of the Murads have been in one of my favorite history books for even more years. They have all been waiting to meet.

  7. The Turks seemed an unstoppable force in Anatolia and the Balkans after the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade (1204). They reached a brief zenith after taking C’nople themselves (1453), then began the inevitable decline, a withering that was stopped only by their defeat during WWI and the declaration of the Turkish Republic. Will Turkey become a credible Muslim secular state? Can it balance the western and eastern influences of its culture and history? Stay tuned folks… RT

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