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three pairs of lovers with space



The poem presented here concerns a banquet in Nice attended by the Ottoman poet-prince Jem, who arrived there with a suite of thirty followers on 16 October 1482, hoping for the support of the King of France in invading his homeland, and remained “some four months till an outbreak of the plague in that city rendered his removal desirable.”[1]

Jem (modern Turkish Cem) Sultan (1459-95) is often considered one of the great romantic figures of the fifteenth-century on account of his “courage and talents, combined with his misfortunes.”[2]  The third son of the Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror (one of the boysexual episodes in whose life is described in "Le Vice" in Turkey), he attempted unsuccessfully to contest the throne with his elder half-brother Bayezid II on their father’s death, which led to him spending the rest of his life as a well-treated hostage in Rhodes, France and Italy.

The poem appears only to have been fully translated into English by E. J. W. Gibb in his A History of Ottoman Poetry, volume II (London, 1902) pp. 90-2, rather pedantically and obscurely.[3]  Fifteen of the fifty-six lines in his version were translated into livelier verse by Anthony Reid in his The Eternal Flame: A World Anthology of Homosexual Verse, volume I (New York, 1990) p. 364. Though those selected were of obvious Greek love interest, they were not the only such ones. Both versions are therefore given here, Reid’s first.

                      Jem Sultan

Reid, like some others before him, makes Jem the author as well as the addressee of the poem, but Gibb gave convincing reasons for following an earlier attribution: “According to Latífí, [Jem’s loyal “nishánji or chancellor” who accompanied him to Europe,] Sa’dí, who, as we know, was himself something of a poet, composed and presented to his master during their sojourn at Nice a poem in which he sought to cheer him in his ill-fortune by pointing out how destiny may not be evaded, and how even now he was enjoying every delight which kingship could procure. This poem, which later writers such as ‘Ashiq and Hasan attribute, not to Sa'dí, but to Jem, eventually acquired considerable celebrity as the work of the Prince himself. I am, however, inclined to think that Latífí, our earliest authority, is right in his attribution, and that the piece of verse in question is really from the pen of the nishánji. Not only would such an authorship harmonize better with the wording of the poem, which is throughout addressed to Jem, who is thrice mentioned by name, but the work, both in language and in spirit, is quite unlike the ghazels in Jem’s Díwán, the manipulation being much less skilful and the ideas much more matter-of-fact. But as this production, apart from any question of authorship, is very interesting as being quite unusually realistic for a Turkish poem, and as presenting an obviously true picture of the Prince’s life at Nice, I give a translation of it at the end of this chapter.”[4]

‘Ashiq Chelebi in his manuscript biographical dictionary of poets, completed in 1568, added the following details of Jem's life relevant to his interest in boys and his time in Nice. As the teenage governor of the province of Qaraman in his father’s lifetime:

the voice of minstrelsy was heard for the drum of victory. … The vapours of the wine of mirth were the  diadem on his head, and the flowing locks of the beloved were his standard. Most times was he inditing poetry …[5]

In Nice, ‘Ashiq says that he passed his time feasting and making merry with the young Frankish nobles, and he quotes the following couplet which, he says, the Prince composed in praise of the French city:

       Nice, perfect town, fit to delight a King –
       Every caprice is served; and no one says a thing.[6]

Reid says this “suggests that all his own caprices were served there”,[7] apparently including having a beautiful Frankish boy for the night.

Though hardly surprising for the period, it may be worth pointing out that Jem’s romantic temperament involved him in amours with ladies as well as boys, notably Philippine-Hélène of Sassenage. “In the early summer [of 1483] Jem had been transferred either to the castle of Sassenage, the lord of which was the father of this young lady, or to some other castle in the neighbourhood; and there Prince and damozel met and fell in love. In the words of Sa’d-ud-Dín, ‘now the lord of that castle had a wonder-lovely daughter, and she inclined unto the Prince, and there befell between them mutual love and interchange of letters.’ “[8]

“Banquet Boys” translated by Anthony Reid

Mediaeval banquet by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone

These Frankish boys are lovely;
     Silver-bodies, slender, sweet.
Why, the stars lean out to see them
     And the moon cannot compete.

To have such boys to serve one,
     Pouring wine so gracefully,
Is better than ruling China,
     Yemen, Persia - all the three.

Being King could not bring more riches
     (And this is truth, Prince Jem)
So drink and rejoice your spirit
     Here in the midst of them.

Eighteen wine-boys stand in waiting,
     Perfection on parade;
Each has a gold sash round him,
     Short tunic of gold brocade.

On their soft hair golden caps,
     But their limbs quite naked, bare;
Serving honey and sugar and sweets,
     Moist dates and other fare.

Choicest wine of a seven-year vintage,
     Ruby-red, and bright and strong.
With a boy like a silver statue
     To pour for the laughing throng.

Ah Jem, young Prince, such a boy
     As lover for one gay night
Would make any pleasure on earth
     Seem far, far less delight.


Translated untitled by E.J.W. Gibb

The lines given in grey are those translated by Reid above.

Drain, O Jem, thy Jemshíd-beaker;[9] here in Frankish land are we![10]
What upon his head is writ shall tide to man, ’tis Fate’s decree.[11]
That thou once hast gone and compasséd the Ka’ba-shrine of God
Is a thousand Persias, Qaramans or ‘Osmán thrones to thee.[12]
Thanks abounding be to God that thou art come to Frankland whole;
Whosoever health and strength hath, in himself a king is he.

Jem entertained at Rhodes, 1482 (just before he went to Nice), from a 15th-century manuscript

Look thou lose not the occasion; make thou merry with all cheer;
Fortune bideth aye with no man, fleeting is the World, ah me!
Make thou merry in this city with the King’s Son of the Franks,
For that he ’s a wondrous lovesome chieftain of the fair and free.[13]
Cypress-figured, silver-bodied, fair the Frankish lovelings show;
Dazed for love of their bright beauty sun and moon reel giddily!
That with all this grace they offer thee the wine-filled beaker. Prince,
China’s throne is, Yemen’s kingdom, yea, or Persia’s empery!
Kingship can be naught beyond this, O Prince Jem, I tell thee true.
Drain the bowl and glad thy spirit, ’tis the revellers’ feast of glee.
Glory be to God, O Khusrev,[14] ’fore thee as thy vassals stand
Beauties, Bans the sons of Bans[15] amazed thy graciousness to see.
Left and right they flock around thee, ’fore thy feet they cast them prone, —
Every one a Ban full noble in the Frankish signiorie.
Harp and tambourine and organ dulcimer-like sweet resound.
For the sigh of flutes is Frankland all a-wail, in verity.
Beauties sing in their own language songs and carols passing sweet;
Each of those who gracious danceth, sooth a heavenly houri she.
Twelve the Bans, the sons of Bans, who ’fore thee drain the golden bowl;
Eighteen skinkers grace this banquet; fair a life is this, perdie!
All begirt with golden sashes, all yclad in gold brocade,
Golden caps upon their tresses, bare their arms for all to see.
Honey yea, and sugar, sweetmeats, likewise dates full moist and fresh,[16]
Many diverse dainty comfits for refection eke there be.
Many a wastel-cake with milk and sugar kneaded sweet is here,
Over which are freshest almonds ranged like columns orderly.
Here are apples, pears, and oranges untold of many a kind,
Nuts and grapes, jujubes[17] and apricots, and herbs of fragrancy.
Lo, before thee sons of Bans with hands in reverence folded stand.
Yea, thy banquet-place is Paradise, thy stead the flowery lea.
Purest wine, sev’n years in bottle, sooth a ruby bright of ray,
Handed by a skinker silvern midst the toper-company.
O thou youthful Prince, O Jem, to pass one joyous night with those
Midst of fair delice were sweeter than aught else on earth to thee.

Khusrev, let thy heart be merry, yield thee ever to liesse,
For at last must earth’s fair palace fall in ruins, woe is me!
They who rule o’er this world’s kingdoms, whether East or whether West,
Be they Solomons or Alexanders, naught but guests they be.
He alone is King, unto whose Being cometh ne’er decline.
He the Mighty, the Creator, He, the Everlasting, He!
His it was to bid the world arise with but one single word,
His ’twill be again with but one word to bid it cease to be.
Pray to Mustafa[18] that God have ruth upon those youths who lie
Bounden in the Frankish dungeons, that His grace may set them free.[19]

Go thy way, O Báyezíd,[20] and take thy joyance of thy lot;
Should they tell thee empire bideth, learn thou ’tis a lie from me!


[1] E J.W. Gibb, A History of Ottoman Poetry, volume II (London, 1902), pp. 76-9.

[2] op.cit., p. 70.

[3] See note 14 for a typical example of how this is so.

[4] Gibb, op.cit., p. 78, who adds this footnote: “Latífí wrote a takhmís (see vol. i, p. 93) on the opening couplet of this poem which will be found in the printed edition of his Tezkire. I may remark that the poem does not occur in my MS. of Jem’s Díwán, but such an omission would not necessarily prove that he was not the author, as in very many cases MS. Díwáns are by no means complete. The text of the poem is printed in the 4th. vol. of the Táríkh-i ‘Atá, where it is attributed to Jem, and where it is called a Hasb-i Hál or ‘Plaint’. Von Hammer published five couplets from it in an article on the adventures of Jem in Europe which he contributed to the Journal Asiatique for Nov. 1825, under the title of ‘Sur le Séjour du Frère de Bayazid II en Provence’. Von Hammer calls those five couplets (which by the way are full of mistakes and misprints) a ghazel, and this he attributes to Prince Jem.”

[5] Quoted by Gibb, op. cit., p. 71.

[6] Quoted by Gibb, op. cit., p. 77 and Antony Reid, The Eternal Flame: A World Anthology of Homosexual Verse, volume I (New York, 1990) p. 359, whose translation is that given here.

[7] Reid, op.cit., p. 359.

[8] Gibb, op.cit. 80, who adds as a footnote: “The memory of the loves of Jem and Philippine-Hé1ène lingered long in the district. In 1673 the local traditions on the subject were collected by Guy-Allard and worked up into a kind of historical romance under the title of ‘Zizimi prince Ottoman, amoureux de Philippine-Hélène de Sassenage’.

[9] Described by Gibb, op.cit., p. 71 as a cup “famous in Eastern lore, … which expands the heart of the drinker so that he feels as though all the world were his.”

[10] Note by Gibb: “i.e. this is no Muslim country, where prying censors are ever on the watch lest one should drink or indulge in other forbidden pleasures; but it  is the land of the Franks, where every one is free to enjoy himself as he  pleases without fear of being called to account (see p. 77, n. 2.) Von Hammer  remarks that this line is often quoted by Turks travelling in Europe, as analogous to their situation!”

[11] Note by Gibb: “It was formerly believed that each man’s fate is written upon his skull,  the sutures being the writing, which, however, none can read.”

[12] Alluding to Jem’s having recently made the pilgrimage to Mecca, the only Ottoman prince who ever did so.

[13] The only legitimate or recognised son of a King of France then living was the 12-year-old dauphin, soon to become King Charles VIII.

[14] ‘Khusrev’, i. e. ‘Chosroes’, is often used for ‘Sultan’ or ‘Prince’.

[15] Note by Gibb: “Ban is a military title in certain districts of Hungary, Slavonia and Croatia. It is really the Persian word, Bán, ‘warden’ or ‘keeper’, and is said to have been brought into Europe by the Avars who ruled in Slavonic countries subject to Hungary. In the present poem it is erroneously applied to Frankish (Western European) nobles.” Is this not an example of where Gibb’s translation is too literal and pedantic?  Had he opted to capture the essence of “ban” by translating it as “lord”, he would have obviated the need for his footnote and avoided spoiling the point of the poem: the beauty of the lords’ sons.

[16] These things were eaten as appetizers when wine was drunk.

[17] ‘Unnáb, i. e. the fruit of the jujube-tree (the zizyphus); it is pulpy and  resembles a small plum, but is rather elongated in shape. It is red in colour,  and the henna-stained fingers of a beauty are often compared to it by the Eastern poets.

[18] Note by Gibb: “Mustafa, i. e. the Prophet. (See vol. i, p. 244, n. i.)”.

[19] Note by Gibb: “It is impossible to say to whom this refers; there may have been some Turkish prisoners of war in the hands of the Franks of Nice when Jem and his followers were in that town. ”

[20] Here Jem’s triumphant brother, the Sultan is addressed.




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