CIRCUS ARTS AMONG THE OTTOMANS
by Metin AND
The trained animals, and particularly, the wild animals that formed an integral part of the Ottoman circus, were attached to the royal palace. It was, therefore, what might well be termed a “state circus.” Though known at aslanhane or lion-house, the imperial menagerie also contained elephants, giraffes, rhineceri and such like animals. In the 16th Century one can examine these in the light of information gleaned from contemporary writings and drawings. Most of these are by foreigners who, since there were no menageries in Europe at that time and illustrations were scarce, were seeing giraffes and rhinoceri and elephants for the first time, animals of whose very names they had a very uncertain knowledge. These animals were not, however, confined to the menagerie. They were also taken out into the streets and displayed to the populace. Trained in the same way as circus animals, they could give various types of performances. Above all, their skills were displayed to the populace in the great public festivities, as can be seen in the miniature contained in the festival books.
But such shows were not confined to such special occasions. In the 16th century in Istanbul, Tahtakale, near Beyazid was a permanent centre of entertainment rather resembling a circus where all types of displays were given. In this piece of open ground could be seen dancers, comedians, wrestlers, story-tellers, mimics, snake charmers and archers, while others showed their skills with donkeys, cats, deer, lions, bears, leopards, foxes and many other animals. The trainers had names in accordance with animals they worked with. For example, the donkey trainers were known as himarbaz, the bear trainers as ayibaz, the snake trainers as yilanbaz, and those who trained the monkeys, maymunaz. An interesting display arranged by maymunbaz was to have monkeys ride on the backs of goats. Domestic animals were trained to display incredible acts, even cats were trained to walk on tight ropes with balancing-poles as depicted in a miniature reproduced here. The most important however of the circus displays comprises of horses and their riders. Turks were expert horsemen and performed quite incredible acts.
There were also a rich variety of human performers in the circus, each performer having his own peculiar title. Here are a few of them: The canbaz (he who plays with the safety of his life of soul-stakers) These included those acrobat who climbed very high Byzantine columns in the Hippodrome or poles, on top of which they performed daring tricks. He is depicted in the miniature reproduced here. From his lodge watching them is Suleiman the Magnificent. Also in this group are tight-rope walkers or rope dancers, called more specifically rismanbaz (he who plays with ropes) who walked on ropes from one ship’s mast to another, or sometimes from one minaret to another, balancing high above the crowd. These Turkish tight-rope walkers were famous not only in Turkey, but throughout the whole of Europe. They performed quite incredible feats, which aroused great admiration in Europe. For example, during the reign of King Henri II, they appeared at the Foire the Saint Germaine in Paris and at the Foire de Troies in Champagne. Turkish canbaz also performed in England during the reigns of Elizabeth and Charles I. A lithograph of the 18th century reproduced here depicts a Turkish tight-rope walker making his way along a rope stretched across the San Marco Square in Venice, in the writing referring to the picture the Turkish canbaz is described as a “daredevil.”
The tumblers and equilibrists were of various kinds: Taklabaz and parendebaz (he who plays with somersaults) did some of the stunts performed today by “carpet” acrobats. One particular type of tumbler was the cemberbaz (he who played with hoops) who leaped through hoops in various difficult ways. Some of the hoops would be set about with sets of cups full of water of with daggers. The tumbler would tumble through the hoops without spilling one drop of water or without allowing himself to be scratched by the daggers which protruded from the hoops. There is a miniature showing an incredible feat where a performer tied to a donkey is seen leaping through a hoop. More akin to conjurors were those zorbaz (he who plays with strength or strong men) who showed a capacity for suffering or mutilation. One feat of zorbaz permitted several men to heavily hammer on a block of marble lying upon the naked stomach of a zorbaz. The zorbaz was in turn lying upon the sharpened edges of sword blades. A zorbaz would fasten a pulley to a gibbet, through which he would run a rope. The rope was fastened at one end to a ring to which all his hair was tied close to the crown of his head. The other end of the rope was in his hand. By this rope he would pull himself up to a great height. Another category of performers were semsirbaz (he who plays with swords), who were mostly sword-swallowers. Amongst others feats, they would place scimitars on the ground with their edge upwards, they lie stripped to the waist close by the naked blade. They could turn themselves over the swords without suffering. As well, there were performers known respectively as kuzabaz (he who plays with large earthenware jars), sisebaz (he who plays with bottles), and kadehbaz (he who plays with goblets), who balanced on their heads large earthenware, jars, bottles, drinking glasses, great poles or balancing one or two men. There were fire-eaters, atesbaz (he who plays with fire), gurzbaz (he who plays with weights), who were performers who showed vast strength in tossing weights.
Some selected examples (please click on pictures to enlarge):