|Content Advisory:||This page includes images of a child being circumcised for reasons of religious obligation. It also containes images of circumcised adults|
On my way north to the Fartus, I happened to stop at a raba in a large village in the Amaira country. The owner was not at home, but a tall, good-looking youth welcomed us. The men who had brought me returned to their village as soon as they had drunk tea. My host himself, whose name was Abid, short for 'the Slave of God', arrived at sunset. “What have you got in those boxes?” he asked after dinner. “Medicines.” “Are you a doctor?” “I know about medicine.” “Can you circumcise?”
I had never done this operation but had watched many in hospitals and among the tribes, so I took a chance and answered: “Yes.” “Will you circumcise my son Kharaibid? It is years since someone came here who knew how to circumcise and I want him done so that he can marry.” He pointed to the lad who had received me and who, at this moment, was busy pouring out coffee. Rather apprehensively, I agreed to operate in the morning.
Circumcision, although nowhere mentioned in the Koran, is generally regarded as obligatory for Muslims, following the example of the Prophet himself who was circumcised in accordance with Arab custom. No uncircumcised person may lawfully make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Among the tribes in southern Iraq, whether Madan or shepherds, the operation was often deferred till manhood, as in the present case, and was seldom performed before puberty. It was done by specialists who travelled round from village to village in the summer. Their traditional fee was a cock, but more often they charged five shillings.
The examples of their work which I saw later were terrifying. They used a dirty razor, a piece of string and no antiseptics. Having finished, they sprinkled the wound with a special powder, made from the dried foreskins of their previous victims, and then bound it up tight with a rag. People living under these conditions acquire a remarkable resistance to infection, but they could not resist this, and boys sometimes took two months to recover, suffering great pain in the meanwhile.
One young man came to me for treatment ten days after his circumcision, and although I am fairly inured to unpleasant sights and smells, the stench made me retch. His entire penis, his scrotum and the inside of his thighs were a suppurating mess from which the skin was sloughing away, the pus trickling down his legs. I cured him eventually with antibiotics. In spite of the social stigma of being uncircumcised, some boys not unnaturally refused. In other cases the fathers would not allow their sons to be operated on, because there was no one else to look after the buffaloes. A few maintained that they had been circumcised by an angel at birth, a superstition that is also current in Egypt. Later I visited villages, among the Suaid and Kaulaba in particular, where I heard that hardly anyone was circumcised - almost incredible among Muslims.
In the morning, Abid suggested I should do the operation out of doors, in order not to defile the house with blood. A small crowd waited among the buffaloes in the yard, which was not the ideal surgery. A number of Kharaibid’s contemporaries had turned up, to give him moral support as I presumed. I selected an intelligent-looking boy as my assistant. Kharaibid produced a large wooden mortar, turned it upside down and sat on it. I could have wished for a simpler first operation. Examination showed that he had an 'attached foreskin'. I prepared a syringe with local anaesthetic, but Kharaibid said immediately, “What is that for?” I explained that an injection would stop him feeling any pain. “No, no, I don’t want any needles stuck into me; just cut it off”, and nothing I could say would change his mind. By then I was wondering if he was as nervous as I was, though he showed no signs of it. While I operated, which in this case took some time, he sat absolutely motionless, and after I had finished said “Thank you”, and stood up. My assistant, who had been holding the various forceps, dropped them in the manure and pushed another boy aside, sat down on the mortar and said “Now it’s my turn.” I realised with a shock that Kharaibid’s nine friends had all come to be circumcised. The youngest was about fifteen, the eldest twenty-four, and I learnt later that they all recovered in a few days. Evidently sulphonamide powder and penicillin were more efficacious than powdered foreskins. The news had reached the next village by the time I got there and I found a score of boys waiting for me.
In time few of these people were prepared to let the local specialists circumcise them; they preferred to wait until I visited their village or to come and find me somewhere else. On one exhausting occasion, a hundred and fifteen turned up, and I was hard at work from dawn till midnight. They believed that, after circumcision, the smell of baking bread, or of scent, would inflame the wound. Consequently their custom was to stuff their nostrils with pieces of cloth and hang onions round their necks, if they could find any in the local shop. Nor might they eat fish, curds or water melons, or drink more than a few sips of water till they were healed. The local practitioners seized on these superstitions as a ready-made excuse for their incompetence. When some wretched youth hobbled past in agony with legs wide apart, they would explain sententiously, “Of course, the stupid fool hasn’t taken enough care to block his nostrils. He must have smelt baking bread, or perhaps has drunk too much water.”
".. these young men, looking like girls with their flowing hair and delicate features, stepped forwards in front of their tribe. Each of them stood, with legs apart and his hands gripping his long hair, staring motionless and unflinching at a dagger stuck in the ground in front of him, while a slave handled his penis until it was erect and then flayed the entire organ. When the slave stepped aside, his work at last completed, the lad stepped forward and, to the compelling rhythm of the drums, danced frenzedly before the eager, craning crowd, leaping and capering while the blood splashed down his legs. .............. On this particular occasion one of them had already been circumcised as a child, but he insisted on undergoing this econd operation. Even after it was over, their sufferings were not ended. Each morning they were held down over a small hole in the ground, so that their mutilated parts dangled down, to kipper in the heat and smoke that came from a fire below. Lads who had stood unmoved while they were circumcised screamed with the agony of this barbarous treatment."This practice is almost certainly now extinct.
The Ahmad Al-Badawi Mosque.
© 2008, Egypt Travel Search
Turkish circumcision in Berlin. © 1995, Berliner Zeitung
|Turkish boy awaiting ceremonial circumcision|
Imperial grandeur flooded the streets of Constantinople during celebrations for the circumcision of the Sultan’s sons or the marriage of his daughters. Like the selamlik, the celebrations were more public than in Western monarchies. On 27 June 1530 Suleyman the Magnificent, at the height of his power and glory, started the celebrations for the circumcision of his sons Mustafa, Mehmed, and Selim. Tents were erected in the largest open space in the city, the old Roman hippodrome. Protected from rain by a green covering, with interiors sewn with tulips, roses, and carnations embroidered in silver and gold, and held upright by gold-plated poles, the Sultan’s tents were palaces of silk and canvas. His throne was placed under an awning of cloth of gold. The 32-year-old Sultan was surrounded by the dignitaries of the empire, headed by the Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha, and attended by captive princes.
Where the future Empress Theodora had exposed herself to cheering Byzantine crowds, jugglers and buffoons entertained the more decorous subjects of the Ottoman Sultan. Where teams of Blues and Greens had competed in chariot races, soldiers fought sailors in simulated combat. Tightrope walkers walked along cords strung between the Obelisk of Thutmose III (1549–1503 BC), brought from Egypt and erected under Theodosius I in 390, and a stone pillar from the same reign. Presents of crystal, Chinese porcelain, Syrian damask, Indian muslin, and slaves from Ethiopia and Hungary, given to the Sultan by his viziers, Kurdish beys and foreign ambassadors, were displayed to the public. Poets recited works composed in honour of the occasion.
The claims of Islam were not forgotten. During contests of Koranic scholarship between ulema, one professor died of vexation at not being able to find the right words. On the eighteenth day, the Sultan’s sons were fetched from the old palace in the centre of the city: their circumcisions were performed in the palace which the Grand Vizier Ibrahim had built overlooking the Hippodrome (the present Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art). In celebration the Sultan gave kaftans to viziers and ulema. The public was fed on roast oxen, out of which rushed live foxes, jackals, and wolves in order to impress the crowd.
In 1582 the circumcision of Prince Mehmed, son of Murad III, was an affair of state, planned a year in advance. Senior officials were given special festive functions. The commander-in-chief of Anatolia, for example, was appointed superintendent of sherbets. Some 1500 copper plates and trays were made for the banquets. The palaces around the Hippodrome were restored to provide better seating, and viewing, for ambassadors from Samarkand, Persia, Georgia, Morocco, Venice, Poland, and the Holy Roman Empire, as well as for the ladies of the palace behind a grilled stand.
On 1 June the Sultan’s arrival opened the celebrations. Two innovations show the emergence of an urban ethos. All the guilds of Constantinople processed past the Sultan on his golden throne, at the rate of two or three a day. On horse-drawn floats they displayed their skill at a particular trade. One float showed a tiled hamam with men in black skirts performing ablutions and massage. Cooks went by showing sheep’s and bulls’ heads and feet, crying “Take it my dear, all greasy, all hot, all vinegared and garlicked!” Tar makers threw pitch and tar into the crowd and played ‘a thousand merry tricks of that kind’. Keepers of lunatic asylums led laughing and weeping madmen in gold and silver chains. A contingent of 150 boys covered in bits of glass flashed reflections of the summer sun back to spectators, to display the mirrormakers’ skill. Fireworks representing cities, churches, and unicorns were prepared with the help of a captured English engineer called Edward Webbe. The Sultan offered a series of banquets, one evening to the pashas, the next to the ulema, the third to his troops. A thousand plates of rice and twenty roast ox were prepared every evening for the people of Constantinople.
In a humble way, Jews and Christians joined in the celebrations. Both Greek and Armenian Patriarchs, as well as the Mufti and dervishes, made obeisance to the Sultan, blessing him with the words: ‘May God maintain Sultan Murad in long happiness!’ A mock battle in the Hippodrome pitted Muslims against Christians. Naturally the first won, and captured the Christians’ castle, out of which emerged four pigs - a contemptuous reference to Christians’ consumption of pork. The populace was regaled with Jewish comedies and dances. One hundred Greeks from Galata, in red jackets and Phrygian caps, with bells attached to their legs, performed lascivious dances from Alexandria. Some Christians (but not Jews) were so overcome by the occasion – or, according to a Christian source, by offers of money – that they held up their thumbs as a sign of readiness to convert to Islam. They were at once carried off to the palace to be circumcised.
The prince, the future Mehmed III, dressed in scarlet satin and white brocade, with heron plumes in his turban and a red ruby in his right ear, was circumcised on 7 July. The foreskin was despatched on a golden plate to the prince’s mother: his grandmother was sent the knife with which it was severed. The cutter was rewarded with 3000 gold coins, a golden bowl and ewer, thirty lengths of cloth, robes of honour and, subsequently, marriage to one of the Sultan’s daughters. Finally the Sultan returned to the palace on 22 July. The celebrations had lasted so long – fifty-five days – that the start of the campaigning season was delayed. Constantinople might have been another Capua, the city whose pleasures diverted Hannibal’s army from the attack on Rome.
In 1720 four of the Sultan’s sons were circumcised and two of his nieces married at the same time. Four nine-metre high nahils and forty small nahils were made for each prince. The celebrations on the Okmeydan, outside the city walls near Galata, lasted fifteen days and nights: five thousand other boys were circumcised at the same time. There was a procession of guilds past the Sultan, sitting in the Alay (Ceremonial) Kiosk built on the palace wall specifically to enable him to observe what was happening outside. Carriages were driven on tightropes between the masts of ships anchored in the Bosphorus.
Grandiose celebrations also marked the birth of a child to the Sultan.
From the sea walls of the palace cannon fired seven rounds for a boy, three for a girl, five times in twenty-four hours. Firmans announced the news to the rest of the empire. Processions escorted a jewelled cradle and cradle-cover through the streets of the city to the imperial palace. In the palace the bedroom of the mother was crowded with the wives of the most senior officials of the empire, who rose in respect when the cradle arrived.
The night sky also reflected the Sultan’s splendour. To mark dynastic weddings and circumcisions, and religious festivals such as the Prophet’s birthday, ships, mosques and palaces were illuminated by small lamps. Illuminated messages, strung between the minarets, spelt out: ‘My sovereign, may you live a thousand years!’ Boats with red, blue or green paper lanterns, looking like fireflies, turned the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn into a sea of fire.
Be damned, O Emperor, be thrice damnedMore worldly families were delighted to see their children secure a footing on the Ottoman career ladder. Slavery was less degrading in the Islamic than in the Christian world. Devshirme youths educated in the Sultan’s or viziers’ households had the chance to occupy the highest posts in the empire and thus provide for their relatives. ‘Slaves of the Gate’ were free from many of the legal restraints imposed on other slaves in matters of marriage and property. It was the Bosnian Slavs themselves who demanded to remain eligible for ‘gathering’, despite the inevitable conversion from Christianity to Islam that it involved.
For the evil you have done and the evil you do.
You catch and shackle the old and the archpriests
In order to take the children as Janissaries.
Their parents weep and their sisters and brothers too
And I cry until it pains me;
As long as I live I shall cry,
For last year it was my son and this year my brother.
Los Angeles Times, edition date 25.Dec.1993, reporting a UN War Crimes Tribunal
and the Law