An Uncanny Discipline
During the later years of his reign, as the palace and mosque complexes were reaching completion, Mehmet II adopted new state regulations (kanunname) that decisively transformed his state system into an imperial system. Afterwards, he entered the middle court to appear before the personnel of the ruling institution only twice each year, on the occasion of the two major Islamic festivals. Otherwise, he never again joined his officials to host them with food prepared in his royal kitchens. And yet the dynastic court tradition of the formal banquet still continued, but in a new "disarticulated" form.
After the adoption of the new state regulations the sovereign was still the focal point of the ruling institution, but the sovereign himself was more than ever inaccessible, even invisible. He retreated to his residential quarters within the palace, distancing himself even from the members of the official class. Meanwhile, the representatives of his ruling institution became more than ever a centralized and exclusive official class. The highest state officials were more and more often of "slave" status, individuals who had been separated from their families to be raised and trained within the palace. Correspondingly, the dynastic court tradition changed in character to reflect the logic and sense of the new imperial project. The loyal and obedient officials now presented themselves before a sovereign who had come to resemble a divinity, seeing but unseen, hearing but unheard. Four times each week, thousands of officials came to the middle court to manifest the ruling institution as a normative interpersonal association through a display of ceremony and protocol. Necipoğlu summarizes the intent of these so-called "Victory Councils" (galebe divanıı) in the following terms:
A fragment of the old dynastic court tradition, a warrior leader hosting warrior followers, had been elevated to the level of an imperial project. But in the quote, which tells us a great deal, Necipoğlu has also uncharacteristically slipped past the most important point, which her study otherwise fully documents.
Ceremonial [of the middle court] served to create a visual diagram of this hierarchically organized military state that was immediately graspable at a glance. This diagram accentuated the omnipotence of the sultan together with the transformation of the centralized state into a bureaucracy and a great army at the personal service of the sultan.
The perpetuation of ceremonial communicated a message of timeless order and stability, bestowing permanence and legitimacy on an arbitrary social construct. Its power lay in constant repetition, enacted in an eery silence, as if time had been temporarily suspended by an endless recurrence. It froze time in an eternal present and created the illusion of an order transcending mere human experience. [Italics mine]
The imaginary potential of the displays in the middle court did not arise from the suspension of time through constant repetition. The witnesses of the ceremonies of the middle court, both insiders and outsiders, had an experience of repetition, but in the register of the uncanny, rather than the eternal. The imperial theater of the middle court had distilled an interpersonal association, rooted in the dynastic court tradition, into its disciplinary essence. The ceremonial rested on an arbitrary social construct, but only in the sense that it revealed thousands and thousands of individuals whose being had seemingly been seized and compelled by such a construction. It was this conscious display of the unconscious that had lain behind the poet's image of the place complex in terms of body parts, eye (çeşm), head (ser), foot (kadem), and tongue (dil). The display of a sovereign association had acquired the quality of an "order transcending human experience." The movements of its participants seemed governed by divine ordinances, by their reduction to figures of loyalty and obedience. Such an imperial theater would not have been effective had it been arbitrarily staged and performed by casting directors and professional actors. Its power to seize and compel its witness relied on effects that could have only been induced by radical procedures of recruitment and training.
One did not have to "know" the meaning of the imperial theater in order to be impressed. Both foreign observers and official participants were struck by its representations. Fresne-Canaye, who witnessed one of the Victory Councils in the company of the French ambassador in 1573, noted its disciplinary essence, even as he could not conclude whether the sight was pleasurable, frightening, monastic, natural, civilized, or savage. The Frenchmen had first passed through the outer gate into the outer court where they dismounted from their horses. They then passed through the threshold of the middle gate to enter into the open square of the middle court. Fresne-Canaye describes what they then saw:
The Frenchmen were then taken to the Council Hall in the forward section of the middle court where they were "courteously received" by the grand vizier and governors. Following this reception, they were then taken elsewhere in the middle court, where they were provided a generous dinner laid out under a portico. As they dined, they observed the officials and troops assembled in the middle court:
At the right hand was seated the Agha of the Janissaries [a high officer of the central army], very near the gate, and next to him some of the highest grandees of the court. The Ambassador saluted them with his head and they got up from their seats and bowed to him. And at a given moment all the Janissaries and other soldiers who had been standing upright and without weapons along the wall of that court did the same, in such a way that seeing so many turbans incline together was like observing a vast field of ripe corn moving gently under the light puff of Zephyr.
This representative of a country distant from the Ottoman Empire was both enchanted and frightened, but the nearer neighbors of the Ottomans came away with less ambivalent impressions. When the Safavid prince visited the palace complex in 1591, for example, his attendants were "exhausted" and "weakened" by what they saw in the middle court.
We looked with great pleasure and even greater admiration at this frightful number of Janissaries and other soldiers standing all along the walls of this court, with hands joined in front in the manner of monks, in such silence that it seemed we were not looking at men but statues. And they remained immobile in that way more than seven hours, without talking or moving. Certainly it is almost impossible tocomprehend this discipline and this obedience when one has not seen it. . . . After leaving this court, we mounted our horses where we had dismounted upon arrival [in the outer court]. . . . Standing near the wall beyond the path we saw pass all these thousands of Janissaries and other soldiers who in the court had resembled a palisade of statues, now transformed not into men but into famished wild beasts or unchained dogs.
According to the witnesses of this imperial theater, the crowds of officials did not behave as crowds at all. By the gravity of their movements and the silence they imposed on themselves, they took on the appearance of an exalted assembly under the governance of divine ordinances. The personal oversight of the sovereign was coupled with the enactment of a discipline of interpersonal association. The result was the manifestation of the ethical underpinnings of the ruling institution in the form of a body of loyal and obedient servants.