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The eunuch ambassador in 'The King at the Edge of the World' by Arthur Phillips

The eunuch here is a supporting character (though one who instigates the main character's life conflict) and does not even have a name. The eunuch — originally “born a Christian in Portugal," captured at the age of 11, and converted to Islam — is the ambassador sent by Ottoman Sultan Murad the Great in 1591 to spend several months negotiating with the Queen of England.

“He carried for the island’s sultana [a.k.a the Queen of England], among many other gifts, a pair of lions, a scimitar, a unicorn’s horn, and ten English pirates captured by Turkish sailors," so he was "welcomed to London by a torchlight parade through the gawping crowds near St. Lawrence Jewry church, winding to the large house where they would live for five months before returning to Constantinople.” The envoys spent months in negotiations with the English “in matters of sea-lanes and free overland passages, the exchange of captured pirates/sailors, various immunities and protections for Englishmen voyaging in the empire of the Ottomans.”

Among his 14-man entourage are his chief adviser, Cafer bin Ibrahim, and a physician, Mahmoud Ezzedine. The physician is supposed to support the eunuch's health on this journey, but the eunuch is accustomed to the food and climate from his own youth and is not ill, so the physician does little more for him than draw up his astrological charts. Ezzedine is, however, needed to treat an Englishman, the Baron of Moresby. His work so pleases the Queen that the Queen "passed to the ambassador a ring set with a blue stone" with the intent that it be given to the physician as a gift. The eunuch ambassador makes a sudden decision to leave the physician with the Queen, essentially presenting him as a gift to her. The ambassador is described as “the puffy man, lovingly grateful in turn to Ezzedine for having played his role so gently, without any strife.” Being left behind in England is painful to Ezzedine because he had expected to return to his wife and child in Constantinople.

That is the last we hear of the eunuch character. The novel follows Ezzedine for the next ten years.

Other quotes of interest:

“The English knight was, as many of the Englishmen were, so languid and thin in arm and leg, so peculiar and effeminate in affect, that Ezzedine wondered how many of them were eunuchs.”

Ezzedine “was here to protect the health of the ambassador, but somehow that eunuch was, without effort, in good health, unaffected by the English air. …The ambassador was ceremonially protected from the English food, too, and mechanically untempted by the grotesque Englishwomen…”

An actor jokes privately to his friend that he could play “a Turk eunuch…If we put a cushion under your shirt? And tied your eggs back between your legs?”

Later...his wife is jealous that he might treat concubines for menstrual cramps. “…if you do, I will have to make you a eunuch.”

Book

Arthur Phillips. The King at the Edge of the World. New York: Random House, 2020.

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