The Curious Case of the Sultan's Turtle Trainer: A Glimpse into the Ottoman Court

March 16, 2024 in Arts & Culture by Charlotte Sinclair

Osman Hamdi Bey

In a blend of the peculiar and the historical, it has come to light that within the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire's court, there existed the unique position of a turtle trainer. As unusual as it may sound, the trainer employed sound as a key tool in the taming process, utilizing musical instruments such as flutes and drums. In modern practices, a bell is more commonly used.

The question naturally arises: why would one need to train turtles? Contemporary breeders suggest it's to prevent them from biting, though this is achieved only with difficulty and usually by habituating the turtle to a single person. Quick movements can cause even a trained turtle to forget its tameness.

However, within the walls of the sultan's palace, turtles were trained for an entirely different purpose—and no, not to gracefully accept food from tongs or human hands. They were trained to carry lanterns on their backs. During evening festivities, turtles with small lanterns attached to their shells were released, creating a captivating effect as they moved continuously, illuminating the space with their slow-paced promenade. Essentially, the training was to encourage the turtles to crawl for extended periods without stopping, an enchanting requirement for the palace's evening events.

The most renowned depiction of a turtle trainer in culture was created by Osman Hamdi Bey, a Turkish painter of Greek aristocratic descent, in 1906-1907. Yet, his painting does not speak of turtle training but rather of the prolonged decline of the Ottoman Empire and the futile, ineffective attempts at state reforms. The artist likened these attempts to the process of training a slow and difficult-to-teach animal for an obscure and seemingly unrealistic objective. The painting is considered an artistic harbinger of the Young Turk Revolution of 1908.

One of the two versions of this canvas can be found in Istanbul's prestigious Pera Art Museum.

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