In Turkish society, children are considered an essential factor for strengthening family ties. At the same time, the fact that the Islamic faith perceives parenthood as a means of legitimizing a marriage places particular importance on children in the eyes of society. Thus, in the past married couples were expected to have children as early as possible. As an inevitable result of this expectation, the birth of a child has always been considered important by society, and celebrated with various traditions and rituals.
Although the rituals in question varied from generation to generation and in different regions, with the conquest of Constantinople, the Ottoman capital became a special place where these traditions were maintained; the fact that the residents came from all parts of the empire and brought various cultures to the city played an important role in this. Indeed, the multi-folkloric structure which developed over a period of time in Istanbul and the surrounding areas, and the birth rituals which emerged as a part of this are in fact the result of different periods and cultures. The customs connected to birth, which contain many practices both religious and ethical, were not practiced in Istanbul alone, but conducted in almost every part of the empire in a similar manner. While Istanbul occasionally served as an example for other places in this respect, a majority of the time those who came to the Ottoman capitol from every corner of the empire contributed to enriching this culture.
The birth rituals were shrouded in both traditional and religious motives, while occasionally containing practices that could be classified as superstitious; they begin at pregnancy and continue after the birth. The customs related to birth were extremely widespread among those who settled in Istanbul around the palaces, and even among the poorer members of the community.
Couples, who were expected to have children as soon after their marriage as possible, were under constant pressure during this period. In particular, the concern and apprehension of becoming pregnant was extremely widespread among women. Indeed, infertility in a couple was initially blamed on the woman. The pressure experienced by the women of the palace to bear sons for the Ottoman sultans was even greater, as women who did not have sons (şehzades) were not favored; the country could also experience a serious crisis if there was no male heir for the Ottoman dynasty.
Regardless of social status, the new brides, who were expected to give birth at the earliest possible time, were told to keep their feet warm and avoid catching cold. In addition, due to the belief that sour and salty flavors prevented pregnancy, these kinds of foods were avoided. After a while, if there were no signs of pregnancy, superstitious measures to encourage pregnancy were widespread. These kinds of so-called solutions were generally based on the presumption that it was the woman who was infertile, and many different methods of treatment, some of which include medical treatment and alternative medicine, could be implemented. Among these, practices such as visiting a Turkish bath or applying a dressing of black-gum on the stomach were traditional practices.
Apparently there were also certain methods that would be used in order to prevent frequent miscarriages. The different methods used by women who wanted to become pregnant, such as stretching the back, potions made from various herbs and visiting the tombs of sacred figures can also be classified within this context.
The Ottomans placed particular importance on children in the family structure. The issue of pregnancy is mentioned in some of the written works of this period; these works also contain various kinds of advice and information regarding the process of pregnancy. In his work entitled Tercüme-i Aynü’l-Hayat by Bali Efendi, this kind of knowledge, a majority of which contains no logical explanation, is included.
In the context of the importance given to pregnancy, the Ottoman judicial system contains regulations guaranteeing the rights of pregnant women. In view of this, the rights of the unborn child were also protected. A man who divorces his pregnant wife was obliged to pay maintenance, if the woman so desired. On the other hand, Islamic law, which supports the idea of the family, places emphasis on the protection of a child while still in the mother’s womb. Due to this, the Ottoman judicial system introduced punishments for those who clearly terminated a pregnancy without valid reason, and also prohibited unnecessary terminations. In decrees issued by the sultans, measures were taken to prevent abortion, which was classified as one of the major factors in the population decrease. Practices not confined to Istanbul alone during the reign of Sultan Selim III and then during the era of Mahmud II may be given as examples of this. With the Tanzimat, the issue of abortion was structured on a legal basis and those involved in abortion were subjected to various punishments, including fines, exile and hard labor.
The life of an expectant woman entered a totally new phase with pregnancy. In Ottoman-Turkish society, pregnancy was an intimate condition that was contained within the family. Due to this, pregnant women attempted to hide their pregnancy by various methods for as long as possible from those around them. However, despite these efforts the pregnancy would be noticed, especially by the older female members of the family.
Certainly, one of the most famous and amusing rituals during pregnancy was the sudden urge for a particular kind of food or drink, known commonly as an aşerme (craving). Due to the belief that if a pregnant woman is not able to eat the food she craves during pregnancy the child will be born with a defective limb, the man of the house was expected to obtain the food or fruit his wife craves, regardless of the season. In addition, it was also a custom for the pregnant woman to taste any food that was being cooked.
With pregnancy, speculations regarding the sex of the child became one of the main topics of conversation. With technological developments, today the sex of the child can be easily determined while still in the womb with ultrasound; however in the past this was an entertaining topic of dispute among members of the family. In order to determine the sex of the unborn child, they would look at the shape of the mother’s belly; if it was a pointed shape then it was said to be a boy, whereas if the belly was rounder in shape the unborn child was thought to be a girl. Again, opinions regarding the sex of a baby could be determined by looking at the mother’s face. If a woman grew more beautiful during pregnancy, this indicated a boy, but if her beauty faded it was thought to be a girl.
It was believed that certain actions carried out by a pregnant woman could also determine the sex of the unborn child; for example, it was a custom to place a knife and scissors under the cushion where a pregnant woman was going to sit. Like many other practices that could be classified as old wives’ tales, according to the direction in which she reclined, those present would predict whether the child was a boy or a girl. During pregnancy, various fruit were eaten to enhance the beauty of the child. One of these was quince, which was believed to cause dimples to appear on the cheeks of the baby. It was also believed that rose essence made the baby’s cheeks red.
Just before the baby was due, preparations for the birth increased and the necessities required for the birth were obtained. Preparations would vary according to social and economic status. In this context, while the preparations in the higher classes were more extensive and luxurious, the preparations of the lower-middle class were more modest. The preparations for birth would include certain pieces of clothing, such a zıbın (a kind of jacket) and iç gömlek (vest) to be placed in the room where the birth was to take place; various symbolic objects would also be placed around the room to ward off evil.
One of the important factors of birth in the Ottoman-Turkish society was undoubtedly the active role played by the midwives during the birth. At the same time, midwives were legally considered to be experts. The midwives, easily recognized by the people due to the special canes they carried, also performed certain rituals and duties, such as washing the newborn baby, cutting the umbilical cord and giving the baby a göbek adı (birth-name). In return for her services during the birth, the midwife would reward financially; this was known as the ebe hakkı (midwife’s due).
The midwife at the Saray-ı Hümayun (The imperial palace) attended to the women of the palace; naturally these midwives conducted the births within the palace with extreme care. As a result of regular visits, the midwives who had been selected by the imperial palace were able to determine the date of birth. Close to the due date they would visit and prepare the zıbın, omuz bezi (shoulder cloth), etek bezi (cloth that covered the child from the waist down – diaper) ayak bezi (cloth that covered the child’s feet), çember (muslin scarf), gömlek (shirt) and kundak (swaddle) with great care. While it is clear that the midwives of the palace bore a huge responsibility, it is also a fact that they earned a good income, particularly after the births. However, passion for money occasionally complicates certain matters. The best example of this was regarding an unnamed concubine of Sultan Selim III. In the Rûznâme published by I.H Uzunçarşılı, according to records dated 25 February 1792, a slave who had been acquired as nanny during the reign of Mustafa III was later freed and educated; she was then employed at the palace as a midwife. In an attempt to extort money, this midwife, said to be of Tatar descent, reported that an unnamed concubine of Selim III was pregnant. This news was welcomed with great joy throughout the entire palace, where such news had been expected for a long time and the midwife was bestowed with various gifts and money by the valide sultan (mother of the sultan) and the sultan himself. The concubine’s apartment was refurnished at great expense, a post-birth chamber was prepared, and all the members of the harem were given gifts of clothing; the total cost of all these activities were 9,809 purses of gold. However, senior midwives at the palace revealed that the concubine was not pregnant. In fact, there had even been rumors among the public that this concubine was not pregnant. Eventually the midwife’s lie was exposed and all the preparations for the birth in the palace were cancelled.1
Births were usually performed on a special chair provided by the midwife. The newly born baby would be dressed in the zıbın and gömlek and swaddled so its arms and legs would be straight and not bowed. The baby’s face would be covered with a suitable cloth to prevent damage to the eyes. After birth, the new mother was generally placed in a bed known as the lohusa döşeği and kept warm so she would perspire.
According to an ancient Turkish custom, newborn babies were either submerged in salty water or rubbed with salt. The purpose of this was to clean the baby and make the child resistant to evil. Another reason for using salt was to prevent any rashes that could emerge on the baby’s body. Amulets and stones, made from alum, black cumin, blue beads and garlic, were hung above the baby to protect it from evil. Additionally, another tradition aimed at protecting the mother and baby from evil was pouring boiling lead into water. If babies born to the new mother had previously died at birth, she would dress the baby in a vest made of material gathered from forty different houses in the belief that this would help the child to live. The child’s umbilical cord was cut immediately after birth and buried. However, the place it was buried was also extremely important, as it was believed the child’s future career would be influenced by where the umbilical cord was buried. For example, it was believed that if the umbilical cord was buried in the yard of a mosque the child would be an imam, if it was buried in school yard it would become a teacher.
Sweets and a sherbet made from cloves were given to those who came to visit after the birth. The sherbet was distributed to relatives and friends to celebrate the birth of the baby, and was also the means of announcing the sex of the newborn child. In other words, if the top of the jug was open it was a boy, and if the jug was covered with a red cloth the newborn was a girl; in this way visitors would be informed of the sex of the child.
On the seventh day after the birth, the bed prepared for the new mother would be removed and forms of entertainment and activities known as the beşik alayı (crib procession) were organized. The beşik alayı was held for the birth of the first child, generally by those living close to the palace and distinguished families. Again, the most popular drink at this celebration was the clove sherbet. After the dinner was finished, the crib bearing the child would be brought into the center accompanied by the playing of musical instruments, and various gifts would be presented to the newborn child.
Women who gave birth were looked after with great care for the first forty days. Indeed, it was believed that these forty days were extremely critical for the physical and spiritual well-being of both the mother and baby. During this period, it was believed that an imaginary creature known as the al karısı (red woman) would haunt the new mother. It appears that the phenomenon known as the al karısı was referred to by different names in the various regions of the Ottoman Empire, including Istanbul. Although this attitude is connected to the multi-cultural structure of Istanbul, it is also a sign of the extent to which the local cultures within the empire influenced one another. In an attempt to prevent the al karısı from harming the new mother, she would not be left alone for these forty days, the light in the room where she slept remained on at all times and a Qur’an would be hung above her head. In addition, the clothing of the new mother’s husband would hang at the foot of the bed to scare away the al karısı; thus, it was believed that this imaginary being could not enter the room.
In the early days of birth, female relatives and neighbors would come to visit, and for the most part they would bring food for the new mother. Also, in the period following this, those who came to visit the newborn brought various gifts of gold and clothing. This was known as the bebek görme (visiting the baby).
One of the most important rituals that took place after the birth was naming the baby. An Islamic tradition after birth was to recite the adhan (call to prayer) in the ear of the newborn and then name the baby. The name given to the child reflected the family’s values. In these terms, in addition to giving the baby an Islamic name, naming the child after a family elder was also a common practice. It was also a widespread practice to give the child a name that reflected the local and ethnic cultures, or a name of a person or place that was respected by society, or a name that indicated the time at which the child was born. Early deaths of newborn babies were a frequent occurrence during this period. It appears that names which emphasized longevity, such as Yaşar (viable) and Durmuş (stable) were given to babies in an attempt to prevent these early deaths.
Births, in particular, births of boys, for women from the general public, and for women in the Ottoman palace were of great importance. The birth of a şehzade (prince) who could become the ruler of the empire was undoubtedly important not only for the woman who gave birth, but also for the empire and surrounding regions. On the other hand, considering the importance of the hierarchic structure among the women living in the Harem, in which the woman who gave birth to a son would be considered second to the valide sultan, is a reflection of the importance of births in the palace. In other words, the main means of being promoted above the other female members of the Ottoman palace was to give birth to a son or daughter, thus attaining the title haseki sultan.
From the establishment of the Ottoman Palace, more than five hundred births took place. These children were not only born in the capital, but where the father had been assigned to a sanjak (province), they could also be born in the provinces. Selim II was the first shahzade to be born in Istanbul. Ibn Kemal mentioned Selim’s birth in his work and spoke of the birth as a great occassion.
Celebrations for the births in the palace continued for days, carried out in a manner in keeping with the sultan’s splendor and grandeur. Births of şehzades were celebrated with great joy in the palace vicinity, animals were sacrificed and distributed to the poor. In his work titled Selimşahname, İdris-i Bitlisi, who discusses the birth of Yavuz Sultan Selim, speaks of how the birth of the şehzade brought joy, and describes the superb feasts prepared for the people. In later periods, we see that cannons were fired, candles were lit and various official ceremonies were held to celebrate the birth of the şehzades.
From the period of Sultan Suleyman I, celebrations were held after the births of children in the palace. The celebrations held for the births of Sultan Suleyman’s son Mustafa, for Murad, the son of Ahmed I, for Mustafa, the son of Mehmed IV, and Hibetullah Sultan, the daughter of Mustafa III are a few examples of such celebrations. Such celebrations were the subject matter of a few surnames (chronicles). At these celebrations, held for both girls and boys, the hatt-ı hümayun (imperial edict) would be read, alms would be distributed to the poor, entertainment, accompanied by drums and flutes, acrobatic displays and mehter (military band) performances. In addition to the firing of cannons, the birth would be announced by the tellals (town crier). The birth of the şehzades was occasionally mentioned in poems written by scholars.
The historical reality experienced in Istanbul, the focal point of cultures, contains vast knowledge not only for comprehending the past, but also the present. This reality, which has been shaped around customs that can be met at any moment in every be confronted with at any moment of daily life in Istanbul, appears before us part of daily life in Istanbul, is a unique example of the multicultural social perception. In these terms, Istanbul, a place in which the deep-rooted Ottoman heritage still makes itself felt today, is an arena in which the customs from the various regions of the empire are maintained. Amidst this traditional array of color, in addition to the many other rituals, those related to birth have contributed to the rich cultural accumulation in Istanbul and earned a place in the pages of history. The city’s rich cultural heritage will be a source of inspiration for generations to come, and will act as a touchstone for maintaining these social traditions in the future.
Abdülaziz Bey, Osmanlı Âdet, Merasim ve Tabirleri, prepared by Kazım Arısan and Duygu Arısan Günay, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 1995.
Faroqhi, Suraiya, Osmanlı Kültürü ve Gündelik Yaşam, tr. Elif Kılıç, Istanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları, 1998.
Karataş, Aynur, “Doğum Âdetleri”, DBİst.A, III, 82-84. .
Ortaylı, İlber, Osmanlı Toplumunda Aile, Istanbul: Pan Yayıncılık, 2000.
Uluçay, Çağatay, Harem II, Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 2011.
1 İsmail Hakkı Uzunçarşılı, “III. Sultan Selim Zamanında Yazılmış Dış Ruznamesinden 1206/1791 ve 1207/1792 Senelerine Ait Bir Vekai”, TTK Belleten, 1973, vol. 37, issue 148, pp 623-624.