||Traditional Muslim Male Circumcision
Last updated: 05 April 2014, 11:01 UTC
||This page includes images of a child being circumcised for reasons of religious obligation. The style of circumcision being performed can only be illustrated with reference to a pre-pubescent boy.
Islam - The newest of the three Abrahamic Religions
Let’s be clear what is meant by the three Abrahamic Religions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a common root; all include stories of the wanderings of the Tribes of Abraham not only in their accounts of early Middle Eastern history but also in many of their religious beliefs deriving from the supposed historical record.
It is necessary to bear in mind that the biblical record is unproven both as regards accuracy and completeness, especially in respect of events many thousands of years ago. For example it is impossible to date the Exodus
from Egypt with certainty. From the entire time when the Egyptians kept written records but the Jews did not, nothing survives showing that the Jews ever were in Egypt. By the time that the Jewish account was written down, it had suffered the inevitable distortions of many generations of oral recitation. Accurate record, fable and baseless belief had become hopelessly mixed.
Islam ought to have a clear advantage here; by the time of the birth of the Prophet Muḥammad (PBUH) in about the year 570 of the modern secular calendar, the making of contemporary written records of current events was reasonably well established. Yet the Qur’an [Koran], the central religious text of Islam, mentions Muḥammad directly only four times. There are additional verses which can be interpreted as allusions to Muḥammad’s life, but the Qur’an provides little assistance for a chronological biography of Muḥammad and many of the utterances recorded in it lack historical context. Besides the Qur’an, Muḥammad’s teachings and practices (sunnah) are to be found in the Hadith
(Sayings) and Sīrat Rasūl Allāh
(Biographical literature, literally “The Life of the Messenger of God”). These texts are also upheld by Muslims and used as sources of Islamic law.
Circumcision in Islam - Obligation, timing, ritual and style
Whereas Jewish circumcision is closely bound by ritual timing and tradition, Islamic circumcision does not have a strictly mandated procedure or an obligatory style of circumcision. The age when boys get circumcised, and the procedures used, tend to change across cultures, families, and time. In some Islamic countries, circumcision is performed at the time when Muslim boys have first recited the whole Qur’an from start to finish.
In Malaysia the boy usually undergoes the operation between the ages of ten and twelve, and thus it should be seen as a puberty rite serving to introduce him into the new status of an adult. The procedure is sometimes semi-public, accompanied with music, special foods, and much festivity. Elsewhere the procedure happens when the boy is somewhat younger - in Turkey, for example, traditional circumcisions happen from about the age of 5. Throughout the Islamic world, it is unusual for a boy to go through puberty without being circumcised.
Traditional circumcisions however are steadily becoming rarer throughout the Islamic world, with many Muslim families preferring to have their sons circumcised at birth, or if it is done at an older age it is normally done in a clinic by a doctor and under local anesthetic. Irrespective of the timing, method and style chosen, the word most widely used to describe circumcision in Islam is “Khitan”.
There is no equivalent of a Jewish mohel in Islam, but occasionally special prayers will be said by an Imam present for the purpose. When that is the case, those of other faiths or none may be excluded from the proceedings, but more common is the belief that good luck is conferred by the presence of a stranger.
Professional journalism, personal experiences and traveller’s tales
The Islamic community in Germany
Translated by a CIRCLIST Member from the original German text published in Berliner Zeitung, 16.8.1995.
How Turks in Berlin Celebrate the Traditional Circumcision Ceremony
It’s Saturday evening in the inner-city suburb of Berlin-Kreuzberg. In a former factory building you will find a newly established festival hall, filled with 300 guests. On long tables covered with white table cloths are Coca-Cola and wine bottles. A music group plays the popular Turkish song Hepsi Seninmi? and well-dressed young women and men are dancing. Normally Turkish weddings are celebrated here. But this evening there is a special event, a ‘Sünnet Düğünü’, a circumcision ceremony.
The most important person of this evening is the seven year old Serdar Baladin. With his white dress and his turban-like cap he sits like a Sultan on a bed. Curious, he observes the goings-on in the hall. Serdar is one of over a thousand Turkish boys who are circumcised in Berlin each year. This tradition is still done among the Turkish families in Germany – the boy’s foreskin is cut off. “A man becomes a real man if he is circumcised and has done his national service,” the Turkish adults are saying.
No Sünnetçi, the circumciser, is yet in sight. The guests are busy with eating and listening to the music. Serdar is not scared of the procedure. He is pleased about his circumcision, “I become a man and later I’ll get married", he says. Serdar’s wishes are still those of a little boy: A remote-controlled car, a spider, a snake and a playhouse are on his list. It’s a tradition that the boys get money and gold coins at this event. Serdar knows exactly what he’s doing with the money: “I’ll put it into the bank, where nobody can take it. When I’m a grown up I will buy a car.”
Turkish circumcision in Berlin. © 1995, Berliner Zeitung
At about 10pm Akif Özcan enters the hall. The only traditional Turkish circumciser living in Germany goes about his job quickly. After injecting a local anaesthetic he puts a thermocauter (an electrically-heated knife) on the boy’s foreskin and makes a quick cut. Afterwards Serdar gets a special dressing. A week later he can go to the playground again. After the ceremony Serdar gets his presents and the guests go back dancing. Özcan packs his things away. He’s an experienced circumciser. Neverless the 56 year old is every time very careful: “It's a little operation on an important organ; you have to be very careful,” he says to me in a quite voice, “I can do it almost without looking, but it’s better to be a little bit afraid. You need to be careful”.
Akif Özcan has done about 3000 circumcisions in his career. To this day he can’t forget his first circumcision. He was scared, he shook, he says. “Perhaps because it was my own circumcision it didn’t go well. I was 11 years old. It hurt a lot and I was ill for two months”, Özcan says. His face gets serious. “It hurt a lot and bled constantly. A relative was a doctor, he treated me afterwards.
“There were not enough qualified personnel in Turkey. Sometimes even barbers did the job with a sharp razor blade. Often the knowledge was passed down from father to son. Today, medical schools for circumcisers are in almost every big town in Turkey. After the exam they collect experience working alongside an older colleague before they circumcise by themselves.”
This was the way the career of Akif Özcan started. After eleven years as a circumciser in different Turkish cities, in 1971 he came to Berlin were he worked as a male nurse in the Urban Hospital of Kreuzberg. Eight years ago he stopped and began to work as a Sünnetçi as a full time job. After long negotiations his Turkish diploma got accepted by the authorities in Berlin. Since then he has been driving throughout the whole republic, circumcising about 200 boys per year. He has a lot of German customers too – German men, who marry muslim women or convert to Islam, are circumcised by him. This little procedure can be done on adults as well. There’s only one difficulty – some men get erections during the healing process. “Because of this there is a tension on the wound and it doesn’t heal as quickly as it does on little boys”, Özcan says, “but after ten days the men are doing fine again. With the benefits of modern medicine, the circumcision takes place without lots of pain and bleeding and the patient can walk again after a short time.”
Circumcision has an important position in Turkish society and accordingly the circumciser has an important role. Akif Özcan likes his special position in Germany, but nevertheless he wants to go back to Turkey and open a practice south of Antalya.
Circumcision in the muslim northern part of Sudan
Recently I met a young man from Sudan who is a university student here in Europe. Eventually our conversation came to the topic of male circumcision in Sudan, and with pride and real enthusiasm he gave me detailed information about traditional circumcision rites in his country.
Sudan is divided in two parts, the Christian south and the Muslim north. In the north, each boy has to be circumcised before starting school at the age of eight. Wealthier parents, who mostly live in the cities, have their sons’ foreskins cut in hospital right after birth. In the provinces outside of larger cities, boys get circumcised when they are between four and six years of age.
All circumcisions in rural areas are performed by an old and experienced man, the circumciser of the village. Before a boy gets his circumcision, his parents arrange an appointment with the circumciser, who examines the little boy’s penis thoroughly. The old man retracts the foreskin from the glans in order to break any adhesions. Then he cleans the glans and inner foreskin with sesame or olive oil, which also allows the foreskin to be moved smoothly back and forth. This procedure “may be more painful for the boy than the circumcision itself” (my raconteur said) and is repeated on the following days if necessary. During these examinations, the circumciser gets a good idea of the amount of skin that needs to be removed. Some days later, the boy’s circumcision is celebrated with all family members gathered, giving lots of presents to the boy. This is an important day on his way to becoming a man – “no man ever forgets his circumcision”. The boy’s father or an uncle has the honour of holding the boy during the procedure and presents his bared genitalia to the circumciser. The boy’s attention is then distracted by flute players and the other adults, while the circumciser does his work. First, the old man moves the foreskin back and forth to make sure it easily slides over the oiled glans and the whole area is clean. Then he inserts a special straw (cut from a savannah grass) under the foreskin. The width of the straw must be about the same as the glans; the circumciser chooses the right straw from a set that he brings along. Using this straw, he pushes back the glans whilst the foreskin gets pulled forward over the straw as far as possible. The circumciser then ties a thin cord around the foreskin directly where the tip of the glans is, so that the elastic foreskin is firmly attached to the straw and the glans is marked by the cord. With one quick motion of his sharp knife, the circumciser cuts just in front of the cord, through the foreskin and the straw. After the knot has been untied, the elastic outer foreskin retracts behind the glans and the inner layer would be pushed back manually so that the cuts are aligned, but not stitched. The circumciser the applies a powder to the wound in order to stop bleeding and to release pain, then the freshly circumcised penis gets bandaged. The bandages are changed every day and new powder is applied until the cut has healed. According to the Sudanese student, the cut itself is less painful than the healing process and repeated change of the bandage during the following days.
It is deemed very important that the glans is completely uncovered after the circumcision, otherwise the boy would not be regarded as circumcised and would need to be cut again.
I have witnessed many circumcision operations in small booths close to the wall of the great Tanta mosque during the autumn mawlid or birthday celebration of the saint, Sidi Ahmad al-Badawi. There, peasant parents simply bring their little boys, from infancy up to ages seven or eight, and the circumciser and usually an assistant hold the boy down while his foreskin is removed. Sometime a man plays a flute or beats a drum. Afterwards the child will be given sweets or ice cream, and paraded off in honor and triumph as if he were a little prince. Whether the celebration is makeshift and humble or ceremonious and lavish, it is a significant moment in the life of a boy and his parents and siblings. Afterwards, if the circumcision takes place around puberty, the boy will enter into full participation in Islamic ritual life, although he may have performed prayers and fasting before, either regularly or occasionally.
The Ahmad Al-Badawi Mosque.
© 2008, Egypt Travel Search
Circumcision is not mentioned in the Qur’an, but Muslims everywhere regard it as essential, and the Hadith record it as a practice enjoined by all past prophets. Significantly, it is also known by a euphemism: tahara, meaning purification. The age at which it is performed varies from region to region and even from family to family, but most often age seven is preferred, although it is known from as early as the seventh day following birth all the way up to puberty. Adult converts to Islam have traditionally been required to undergo the operation, but this practice is not universally considered to be essential, especially if there is a health risk.[The Ahmad Al-Badawi Mosque is the largest mosque in the northern city of Tanta, Egypt. It is a Sufi mosque and contains the tomb of Ahmad al-Badawi - Ed.]
Traditional Turkish circumcision museum exhibit in Istanbul
I recommend a visit to the Sadberk Hanim Müzesi. It is a museum created by a private foundation, opened in 1980 and primarily dedicated to showing one person’s domestic collection – domestic the sense that it consists mainly of household objects assembled by a woman of means whose occupation was running a household and bringing up four children. I have been trying to get there for almost ten years; I am a carpet collector and this place is noted for its collection of embroidery.
The most spectacular set piece is the famous Sünnet bed, decorated for the circumcision ceremony that marked a boy’s formal entrance into adult membership of the Muslim faith. This impressive bed alone makes the visit to the museum worthwhile. The tradition it represents is virtually dead and even where still observed of an extremely private nature. These beds were made by the women in the family or their friends/relatives. Its preparation is always described as the women’s part of the Sünnet Düğünü (circumcision feast) taking place with the ladies in the house dressed in traditional costumes, as for wedding ceremonies.
The bed is decorated with rich counterpanes and valences and the tester (canopy) is then draped with embroidered napkins and hand towels joined together to make curtains and flounces. The front of these curtains is in turn decorated with KESE, small hand-knitted decorative purses. These held gifts of money or jewelry for the boy to be circumcised. Few families would have had enough grand napkins to make the curtains, so the traditions was that pieces were lent by relatives for the display, all carefully marked to ensure that they were later returned to the right owners. There were also exquisite linen towels made specially for one use only. These had a slit for the penis to be pulled through; they protected the fine clothes of the day from blood or cuts. So rare is the tradition today that the museum had to bring an elderly lady from Ankara to set up the display correctly.
If you go to Istanbul I urge you to take the time for a visit to this beautiful old Ottoman house in the Azaryan Yalisi on the Eastern shore at Büyükdere. All good hotel concierges can direct you there.
The 1950s : Travels amongst the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq
During the period 1951-1956, Major Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, CBE, DSO, FRAS, FRGS (1910–2003), also known as Mubārak bin London (Arabic for "the blessed one from London"), travelled extensively amongst the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq. The following text comes from his book The Marsh Arabs, first published in 1964 and reprinted in paperback by Penguin Books in 2007. The photographs reproduced below are Thesiger’s 35mm originals, now in the care of Oxford University. The two images showing boys seated depict the aftermath of circumcision ceremonies.
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.”
My mother remarried when I was eleven and my new stepfather was Turkish. One day he told me that when we went to Istanbul for the holidays I was going to have a little operation on my penis and at bath time he explained that the skin at the end would be removed. My foreskin had always been tight and it was difficult to wash my whole glans, so what he said made sense.
On the day of the circumcision in Istanbul I had to dress in a white suit and wear a red sash and then we went round to my stepfather’s brother’s house for a party. I can’t say I enjoyed it much, knowing what was about to happen. After a few hours my father took me into the bedroom with a few of the men at the party and I started shaking when I saw the knife. I was so scared I couldn’t undo the buttons on my trousers so my dad took them off. Although by this time I was twelve I hadn’t started puberty. Nevertheless, I was very embarrassed about having all these strangers see me naked. My dad sat down on a chair and I had to sit on his lap. They put my arms under my knees and then my dad held my hands, which meant my genitals were fully exposed. Two other men held my feet and knees so I couldn’t move. The circumciser pulled at my penis until I had an erection and then he forced my foreskin right back and examined my glans. Once he had done that he waited until I had gone soft before pulling my foreskin out as far as he could and putting a clamp thing on to protect my glans. I remember seeing him pick up the knife and I knew this was it and I had hardly finished the thought when my foreskin was completely sliced off in one go. For the first second I didn’t feel anything and then it felt as my penis had been set on fire and I started screaming.
Once the wound had been bandaged I was allowed to lie and rest. The bandages were removed after three days and for the first time I saw my circumcised penis. It was pretty much all glans; the shaft was only about 2cm (¾") long and it looked as if it had been skinned. The scar line was close to my body – the traditional stretch and chop can be reasonably tight but it leaves a lot of the inner foreskin.
The wound got a little infected which left a scar that’s a bit raised, but it’s covered by pubic hair now and can’t really be seen. My erections are very tight but I like that. To this day it still gives me satisfaction to know I survived the ordeal. The day I was cut was the first day I felt like a grown up.
A female viewpoint, by Ayşe Sarıoğlu, a Turkish citizen and a reporter of the Turkish daily newspaper Taraf
. This article was first published in the Los Angeles Times on August 19, 1990 and apparently exaggerates Kemal Özkan’s age by two years. Kemal Özkan’s website
was last refreshed in January 2012.
|Turkish boy awaiting ceremonial circumcision
ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey’s school summer vacations are boom time for Circumcision King Kemal Özkan. “Each year about 1 million boys come of circumcision age in Turkey,” 58-year-old paramedic Özkan said. Up to 20 boys a day will pass through his private Istanbul clinic with proud parents paying as much as $200 for the privilege. “Few of them are taken to hospitals because the hospitals are full and mostly equipped for major surgeries,” he said.
Circumcision is one of the most strictly observed religious practices in secular, though predominantly Muslim, Turkey. Muslim families, 99% of Turkey’s 55 million population, regard circumcision as the first step to manhood. Turkish doctors consider circumcision a hygienic and prophylactic practice.
Dr. Demokan Erol, chief urologist in an Ankara hospital, said: “Research shows that in communities where early-age circumcision is widely practiced, cancers of the male genitalia have a very low incidence. I say the best age is from 5 to 9.”
Why is the operation not done on babies at birth? “The boys must be able to remember the occasion,” said Özkan, with 58,000 circumcisions to his credit in his 26-year career.
And what an occasion it is for Turkish boys as families indulge their every whim and shower them with presents before the painful but blessedly brief surgery.
However poor the family, all Turkish boys preparing for circumcision wear an embroidered satin pillbox hat and sash.
Though painkillers are rarely part of the ritual, each boy is accompanied by an adult male to give him courage as he faces the knife. The male companion or kirve assumes lifelong obligations to the boy, much like a Christian godfather.
The skills of Özkan and the hygienic conditions under which he performs are not mirrored in much of rural Turkey. In the villages paramedics have rarely had special training in circumcision. Often the operation is performed by handymen whose sole claim to proficiency is inherited from their fathers.
Though the Ministry of Health has no exact figures of deaths or mutilations caused by amateur practitioners, complaints from around the country have spurred the government to launch a free, nationwide circumcision service.
The ministry will provide surgeons, paramedics and nurses to offer supervised health are in each of Turkey’s 73 provinces during the main circumcision season. “Unfortunately some of the government-appointed medics are not properly taught to circumcise, but a brief training can make them proficient in modern methods,” Özkan said.
Will the free government circumcision service be bad for business? Özkan doesn’t think so.
Our mother remarried an Arab man and we all went to live with him in Dubai - my brother and sister and I. Because he was a very religious Muslim we all were keen to convert to Islam. We were to go to a religious school as well. Our mother always now wore a veil and a long dress, as did our sister, and they began to follow the customs and ways of the Arab women who lived nearby. My brother and I would play with the Arab boys in the neighborhood.
We had arrived in Dubai during the summer, when school was out, and our new father soon called us two boys in to talk to him, as he said, so that he could prepare us for our new life as Muslims. He explained that, as part of the religious practices, Muslim men shaved off their pubic hair and armpit hair. He then asked us to take our clothes off so that he could show us how to do this. We were both very eager to become just like the other boys and do these new and exciting things. My brother was 16 years old and when he stripped off I saw that he had black pubes and also some armpit hair. Our new father, taking a razor, carefully dry-shaved off all of this hair, being careful not to make any cuts. Then I stripped, but as I was just 13 I didn’t have any pubic hair yet, so we now looked the same. Our father said that he would teach me how to do it when my pubes started to grow.
The other important thing was, he said, that we also needed to be circumcised, as all Muslims were, but that we would all have to go to the medical clinic the next day in order to have this done. Our father explained that I was the perfect age for this operation, and that although my brother was a bit older it was a very important thing for him to have done too, so that we would both be circumcised and hairless before starting at our new school where all the other boys would also be the same. We were a little bit nervous, but very pleased that we would be just like all the others boys.
The next day the whole family went to the clinic. First, our father, my brother and I, went in to see the Doctor. We both stripped and lay on adjacent tables. Our father explained that we had been shaved the previous day and were now ready to be circumcised. The Doctor asked us whether we were ready, and we both eagerly said yes. The Doctor asked our father just how he thought the circs should be done and he replied that they should be very low and very tight. I soon found out this meant that all the inner lining of the foreskin would be removed, as would as much as possible of the outer skin, so that there would be absolutely no movement along the shaft. In addition, the frenulum would be completely removed, making an incision as deep as possible so that the back of the head would be very smooth. Then the Doctor went ahead with the operation. We have both been thoroughly pleased with the results and are glad to be clean, Muslim men. We both remain completely shaved to this day, and have had our sons circumcised as well.
Are circumcisions getting tighter in Indonesia?
The first circumcision I ever witnessed was in South Molucca in 1987. The “boy” might better have been described as a young adult, probably about fifteen or sixteen years of age. The cut he received I would now describe as moderately low and loose, although at the time I was ignorant of the terminology – Ed.
Videos appearing on websites such as YouTube suggest that Indonesian candidates for circumcision are now much younger, the circumcisions they receive are much tighter and the location is more likely to be a hospital or specialist clinic than was previously the case. The following still images are taken from an amateur video filmed in January 2013. The age of the boy and the location of the clinic within Indonesia are unknown.
Imperial Circumcision in the Ottoman Empire
[Exerpt from Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453–1924
by Philip Mansel. New York : St Martin’s Press, 1996, pp. 75-78.]
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.
No account of circumcision in the Ottoman Empire would be complete without mention of the Janissaries, also discussed in Philip Mansel’s book (pp. 16-18). The Ottoman government, called the Gate, was overseen by the Sultan and his relatives. But the main body of the Sultan’s officials and soldiers were slaves known as kapi kulu
, or ‘slaves of the Gate’. They were recruited as youths typically between the ages of 8 and 16, conscripted according to need from the rural Christian population of the Balkans and, less frequently, Anatolia, by the process known as devshirme or ‘gathering’. By tradition they could not be Turkish. After the Ottoman conquest of Bosnia in 1463, although the Koran forbade the enslavement of Muslims, Muslim Slavs could be ‘gathered’. These youths’ date of birth and details of parentage were recorded. They were then taken to Constantinople, circumcised, and converted to Islam. The best looking and best born were educated in the palace school or a Pasha’s household. Eventually they entered government service.
The others were given to the Turks and sent to farms in Anatolia to learn Turkish. Subsequently they worked as gardeners in the Imperial Palace, sailors in the Imperial navy, or on building sites in the city. Eventually they too joined the Janissaries. A force numbering some fifteen to twenty thousand, the Janissaries were the spearhead of the Ottoman army and the principal military and police force in Constantinople itself. They patrolled the walls, garrisoned the Seven Towers, enforced law and order, guarded the Patriarch and the Sultan himself.
Some Christian families were heartbroken to see their children ‘gathered’. There was a song:
Be damned, O Emperor, be thrice damned
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.
More 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.
Some writers suggest that the Balkan Janissaries were castrated. This does not appear to be well evidenced, but a belief
that it was so may have been the motivation behind the outbreak of castrations of Muslim civilians – both men and boys – perpetrated at the start of the Bosnian War of 1992–1995 by the Chetniks, the ultra-nationalist Serb faction in the former Yugoslavia
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