Monday, September 30, 2013

A Harem of Horror?: The "Sultan's Palace," New Orleans

[1] "House of the Turk." Francis Benjamin Johnston. 1937-38.
Library of Congress
A quick confession: I kind of have a thing for haunted houses. All of those cheesy television programs on ghost hunters, or the world's most haunted hotels-theaters-mansions? Love 'em.  And, now that the time is approaching for the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association, this year to be held in beautiful New Orleans, October 10-13, I am thinking to myself: what would a visit to New Orleans be without checking out some of the fun, kitschy sites that the city is famous for? That's when I learned about the "House of the Turk." While at MESA, you might also want to stop by what is touted as one of New Orleans' oldest haunted mansions with a dramatic--if somewhat implausible--story about a brother of the Ottoman sultan meeting his grisly death in the house's courtyard. 

The stately two-story building stands on the corner of Dauphine and Orleans streets (716 Dauphine), just two blocks away from the raucous Bourbon Street. The house, with the wrought-iron balcony supported by slender posts, seems like a typical home of the old French Quarter. It was built in 1836 by a dentist from Philadelphia named Gardette, and only three years later purchased by the wealthy plantation owner Jean Baptiste Le Prete who held the property until 1873. Naturally, the building is commonly referred to as the "Gardette-La Prete House," but over the years has earned more theatrical monikers such as the "Sultan's Palace" or the "House of the Turk."

These sensational names recall a moment in the 1860s or early 70s when this house supposedly became, as one enthusiastic website writes, a "harem of horror"! Here is my own rather tongue-in-cheek rendition of the story: 

[2] Modern View of the "House of the Turk,"
716 Dauphine St., New Orelans
La Prete, once a powerful business man but finding himself down on his luck after the Civil War, was approached one day by a mysterious man from Turkey who said he was looking to rent a house for his brother the sultan. Le Prete thought to himself, "Sure, why not? that sounds totally reasonable," and immediately leased his large mansion over to the Ottoman gentleman. But, even before the ink dried on the contract, the house began to fill up with a bevy of beautiful women and oh-so-many exotic textiles. A padlock appeared on the door, and, just for good measure, large-muscled men stood guard on the balconies, their scimitars glistening in the moonlight. Neighbors began to complain about the oppressive smell of incense wafting from the windows and the music of unusual instruments playing late into the night. Rumors immediately began to spread about the large parties--replete with unspeakable orgies and dancing on top of large piles of gold that this renegade Ottoman prince had stolen from the sultan. Unfortunately, the revelry eventually came to an end, when a passerby noticed that blood was oozing out from under the front door. "Well, you don't see that every day," he thought, and ran to go find a police officer. I guess the scimitar-wielding watchmen were on holiday, because the detectives quickly gained entrance to the house. What they found was a scene of abject horror: blood, arms, legs, blood, organs, and more blood (I am telling you, this place made all seven seasons of Dexter combined look like nothing.) The worst part was when they found the mysterious Turk himself in the courtyard, who had died trying to claw his way out from an earthen grave in which he had been buried alive. No one knows who committed this heinous crime...was it one of the jealous harem women, out for revenge? Or pirates, who had given passage to the Turk to New Orleans and were lusting after his treasure. Or maybe even the sultan himself, out to exterminate any potential rivals to the throne? (My vote, as always, is for the pirates.) Of course, later residents of the house have seen a fair young man wander the hallways at night in his silk caftan, only to disappear once spoken to...

[3] View of 716 Dauphine from Google Street View. 
It's a really fun story, but I remain very skeptical as to any part of its veracity, as the earliest reference in print I could find was only from the 1930s. I figured that a multiple-homicide of this magnitude, with the involvement of a "mysterious Turk" no less, would be the scandal of the decade for the fair people of 19th-century New Orleans. So I decided to actually give the story due diligence and try to see if I could find any mention of the incident by searching through contemporary newspapers from the 1860s-70s (using great resources like the Chronicling America project at the Library of Congress). Unsurprisingly, with access to over 20 daily periodicals from the period, I could not find one mention of the crime in question. Also, the sultan at the time of the event in question would have been Abdülaziz, and I cannot recall any stories about a brother absconding to the US with a harem and gold, but I would be happy to stand corrected. So, for now, I would say that this legend simply remains an example of the role New Orleans and Louisiana has played (and continues to play, see: True Blood) in the American imagination as a place of fantasy and exoticism. 

In the 20th century, the house at 716 Dauphine unfortunately became derelict, with a very brief stint as the school of fine arts for the WPA. In the 1960s, it was bought by realtors who divided the property into multiple private apartments, which is the state in which the house stands now. And, perhaps the best news is that the "House of the Turk" is for sale, available for a cool $2.65 million! Whether or not you have that kind of cash, I would say that it is still worth it to include the "Sultan's Palace" in your walking tour of old New Orleans.

**For an update following our visit to the site, see The House of the Turk: Part Deux

BEAR, Rob. "The Strange, Sordid Story of NOLA's Sultan Massacre House," Curbed (April 4, 2013). 
DUREAU, Lorena. "Life with an Exotic Ghost," The Times-Picayune (February 11, 1979)

View Larger Map

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Fondaco dei Turchi, Venice

[1] Facade of the Fondaco dei Turchi on the Grand Canal.
Many people coming to Venice make a point of visiting the Jewish quarter of the city (the original "ghetto"), where diverse communities were compelled to live together in a tightly-controlled enclave. But the idea of having foreigners or a minority religious group reside in a separate area  was not exclusive to the Jewish population; Ottoman Muslims also experienced similar treatment in the city. While the Jewish Ghetto was located on the ruins of an old industrial zone, however, the Ottomans were living in style in a former palace located directly on the Grand Canal: the Fondaco dei Turchi. [1] Their German counterparts were also housed within a restricted area in the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a Renaissance-style palace also on the Grand Canal near the Rialto bridge. In general, a fondaco (Ven. fontego) was a place where foreign groups, in most cases merchants or bankers, lived together and plied their trade. Thus the fondaco would not only serve as a residence, but also a warehouse for goods or a market for conducting business. In the case of the Fondaco dei Turchi, there is no doubt that there also would have been some kind of mescid for prayer on the premises, and would have been the only mosque in Venice. For our blog readers who focus more on the Middle East, this type of institution might sound very similar to a khan or caravanserai; and, as Olivia Constanble argues, it is no wonder that such establishments commonly found in the Islamic lands would be integrated into the urban life of Venice, which was an important connecting point between Europe and the Dar al-Islam. The Italian word "fondaco" itself is clearly related to the Arabic "funduq," a word that in the Maghreb or Levant referred to hostels for foreign merchants (usually Venetian or Genoese). In short, for the medieval and early modern periods, putting up foreign traders in their own digs was a shared practice throughout the Mediterranean.

[2] Engraving of the Fondaco dei Turchi, from the
Natural History Museum, Venice. Date unknown. 
The Fondaco dei Turchi was established in the early 17th century, and was in active service for about two hundred years, until 1838. Even by the 1620s, however, the building allocated to the Ottoman merchants already had a long history. It was first built as a palazzo for Giacomo Palmier of Pesaro in the 13th century--hence the fancy facade, with marble paneling and rows of columns stacked on top of each other. In 1381, the Venetian Republic bought the palace for the residence of Niccolo d'Este, the Marquess of Ferrara, as well as visiting dignitaries. By the 17th century, Venice decided to transform the palace into what was essentially a one-building ghetto for the Ottoman merchants. The layout of the palace--a large, rectangular building looking onto an inner, central courtyard--was suited to its new function. Efforts to control this foreign minority, whether for reasons of security or propriety--were reflected in the management and organization of the physical space itself. Like the Jewish Ghetto and the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the Fondaco dei Turchi had a curfew at night, requiring the foreign traders to be inside and accounted for by evening. There was also a stipulation that the courtyard of the fondaco should not be overlooked by another building, and at no times were weapons or women permitted within the walls. All of these policies limited both physical and visual access to the building, allowing these merchants to carry out their trading conveniently located in the heart of Venice, while at the same time carving out and "containing" this community of foreigners in the city. (It is not quite correct to say that the Fondaco dei Turchi was for all "Ottoman" merchants; Jewish and Greek traders, while technically being subjects of the Ottoman Empire, lived in other parts of Venice.) 

[3] Interior courtyard of the Fondaco dei
Turchi, now the Museo Correr, or the Natural
 Based on the present appearance of the Fondaco dei Turchi, with its grand facade and dozens of windows, it is hard to imagine this location as a closed enclave. But it should be kept in mind that what visitors see today is largely the result of a major renovation/reconstruction in the mid-19th century, after the fondaco had fallen into disuse. Even though the building is often cited as representative of early medieval palaces, Juergen Schulz has demonstrated that only the facade on the canal is from the 14th century, with over two-thirds of the structure being demolished and rebuilt. An engraving showing the building presumably during its time as the fondaco (indicated by, if nothing else, the turbaned gentleman in the bottom-left corner) conveys a space that is much more closed off from the city around it. [2] According to the image, the prominent entrance colonnade appears to have been blocked off from the canal by a low brick wall, and the side windows on the second level were also walled up. 

[4] Musicanti di Brema, Maurizio Cattelan,
Installation in the Natural History Museum
as part of the 55th Venice Biennale, June 2013.
After the Fondaco dei Turchi closed in the 1830s, and the extensive renovations of the mid-19th century, the building became the Museo Correr in 1865, and subsequently has come down to the present day as the Natural History Museum of Venice. The interior courtyard of the palazzo [3], while largely a 19th-century reconstruction, still evokes a sense of how closed-off the building could have felt during its days as the fondaco. Now, as contemporary visitors wander around the galleries of the Natural History Museum, even taking in some of the more light-hearted installations in conjunction with the Venice Biennale [4], they will hopefully also come to know how this place once served as an important point of connection--and separation--between Ottomans and Venetians in the heart of the city. 

CONSTABLE, Olivia Remie. Housing the Stranger in the Mediterranean World: Lodging, Trade, and Travel in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
SCHULZ, Juergen. "Early Plans of the Fondaco dei Turchi." In Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 42 (1997), 149-159.

View Larger Map