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This episode of #DeafHistorySeries doesn’t focus on an individual but explores the history of deaf-mutes serving the Ottoman courts during the 1400s-1900s. Favored by the Sultan, they obtained privilege status & their system of sign language was even adopted by hearing courtiers. A banner showing on the right blue background on yellow graphic and text that says: Deaf History Series with Dr Jaipreet Virdi, Episode 6 Sign Language & the Ottoman Court
At the Ottoman courts in Istanbul, the Sultan valued silence in the court, especially at the private audience hall of Topkapi Palace.

The system of seclusion meant that courtiers were required to adopt an alternative system of communication: sign language. Painting showing the interior of the Palace, with the sultan and his aids under the canopy. They are surrounded by courtiers and dignitaries, and guard all lined up.
The court included the Enderûn (Interior Service) who worked as the Sultan’s private service. This group included the “dilsiz” (Turkish; “bizebani” in Persian—meaning tongueless): the mutes & deaf-mutes employed by Sultan Mehmet II (1432-1481) & chosen for keeping court privacy. Four members of the Interior service dressed in fine clothing and wearing distinctive hats. Two are advisors, one is a little person, and the fourth is a deaf-mute man.
The dilsiz were privileged servants who lived in their own quarters in Topkapi Palace, working as messengers, guards & attendants.

Their propensity for silence also meant they were employed as the Sultan’s secret executioners, often killing by strangulation. Painting of a deaf-mute wearing fine, traditional Turkish clothing and standing. His right hand is relaxed and the left is held up and making a sign.
The dilsiz appear in paintings, such as this portrait of Sultan Selim II (1524-1574), standing in the back, focused on his gesturing left hand – suggesting their prominence in court, power and influence, which regularly drew resentment from hearing courtiers. Painting of a sultan wearing a large turban and fine clothes, sitting on a large chair. Behind him is a deaf mute man looking at his left hand and signing.
As historian @SaraScalenghe explains, the system of signs was passed through generations of deaf-mutes, the hearing courtiers, and Sultans.

From the 16th to 19th centuries, the dilsiz marveled European & Asian visitors who observed them conversing with the Sultan by signs. Painting showing the exterior of Topkapi Palace, with Ottoman courtiers and European visitors all dressed in fine clothing.
The visitors documented their observations:

Flemish nobleman Oghier Ghislain de Busbecq in 1554: the dilsiz were “a favorite kind of servant among the Turks.”

German Johannes Leunclavius in 1588: the dilsiz “open the soul with signs and are mutually intelligible with signs.” Black and white drawing of an Ottoman deaf-mute signing.
English ambassador Thomas Dallam in 1599: “The third hundredth were dumb men, that could neither hear nor speak and they were likewise in gowns of rich cloth of gold and Cordovan buskins…" Illustration of Istanbul with European travelers on horseback depicted at the bottom of the drawing. There are ships in the water surrounding the land.
English Sir Paul Rycaut, 1668 "there is a sort of Attendants to make up the Ottoman Court, called Bizebani or Mutes; men naturally born deaf & so consequently for want of receiving the sounds of the word are dumb…they learn & perfect themselves in the language of the Mutes.” Frontpiece of Rycaut's book, The History of the Present State of the Ottoman Empire, with a drawing of european visitors interacting with Turkish/Persian people.
As historian @krisrich points out, none of these travelers produced any drawings or textual descriptions of the signing system they observed.

The lack of visual records of the signing system, means that it’s difficult to trace their connection to modern Turkish Sign Language. Another painting showing the interior of the Palace, with the sultan and his aids under the canopy. They are surrounded by courtiers and dignitaries, and guard all lined up.
.@krisrich also discovered an Arabic notebook dated to early 1590s, written by a Muslim silk weaver named Kamāl al-Dīn who lived in Aleppo. The notebook includes a description of handshapes for 19 Arabic letters, necessitating that it’s not a unique Ottoman signing alphabet. An interior of a manuscript showing Arabic writing
Side note: If you’re interested, @krisrich gave a talk at @metmuseum about this notebook and it’s been recorded, but unfortunately there’s no captioning or transcript:…
The Ottoman Sultan often gave other governors permission to hire the disliz for their own courts or sent loyal disliz for missions abroad.

By the 1800s, the disliz were even appointed to council seats. Hearing ministers, civil & military servants were required to learn signs. A deaf-mute wearing fine purple clothing and a distinctive hat, signing.
Further Reading:

K.Richardson, “New Evidence," Sign Language Studies (2017)



M. Miles, “Signing in the Seraglio,” in Disability & Society (2000) black and white drawing of a Persian deaf-mute signing. There are some latin text next to the drawing an the caption on the bottom identifies the person as a deaf-mute.
Argh spelling errors.

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