BOOK REVIEW: EMPRESS OF THE EAST
How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire
By Leslie Peirce
Glass ceilings in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire were made of cut stone, secured by iron locks, ringed with imposing walls and guarded by armies of eunuchs. The Ottoman women closest to imperial power were not nobles, but slaves: stolen from their Christian families, selected for their health and beauty, and placed in the sultan’s private harem. For them, the stakes were high. Bearing a son would catapult a concubine to the summit of the female hierarchy, with apartments, slaves and an income to match. She would also never again sleep with the sultan. By Ottoman tradition, the mother of an imperial heir devoted herself solely to her child, preparing him to succeed his father to the throne. She was, of course, not alone. Other concubines, equally favored by the sultan, had their own heirs. All struggled mightily to position their sons against the others. For when the reigning sultan passed away, only one son could succeed him. And the victor would then kill his brothers.
The women of the harem may have been shut away from public view, yet they were intimate with the undercurrents of power. As Leslie Peirce explains in “Empress of the East,” the harem “was politics, and it taught politics.” She tells the fascinating story of one remarkable harem slave, who broke through that rocky ceiling, claiming unprecedented authority for a woman and forever changing the nature of Ottoman government.
The name of that woman is lost. Europeans called her Roxelana, “the maiden from Ruthenia,” a land in what is today Belarus and Ukraine. Captured around the age of 13 by Tatar slavers, Roxelana ended up in the markets of Ottoman Constantinople, and ultimately in the sultan’s harem. There she learned Turkish, the precepts of Islam and the amorous arts. She was given a new name, Hurrem, “the laughing/joyful one.” Sultan Suleiman I (“the Magnificent”) first slept with her around 1520, about the time he took the throne. He never stopped, neglecting all other women in his harem. Before long, Roxelana bore a son, Mehmed, which elevated her status yet should have removed her from the sultan’s bed. But, defying tradition, Suleiman refused to abandon his beloved. After the birth of Mehmed, Suleiman continued to have sex with Roxelana. Soon, she gave birth to a daughter, Mihrimah, and three more boys. By 1532, she had borne the sultan six children — something so unheard of that many suspected witchcraft. Several years later Suleiman stunned the population by marrying Roxelana, thus making her a free woman. Having overturned centuries of traditions, Roxelana exerted extraordinary influence over her husband, the most powerful man in Ottoman history.
This lively book resurrects Roxelana by digging into letters, account books and diplomatic dispatches to illuminate a life meant to be hidden from view. It is a difficult task. Ottoman culture prized the invisibility of its women, forcing Peirce to judiciously conjecture or creatively imagine much of Roxelana’s life. This requires more creativity than professional historians usually allow themselves, but Peirce, an expert on the Ottoman Empire, is careful to wall off her speculations with fair warnings. Less convincing are her strained exculpations for Roxelana, insisting that she was not behind various unsavory murders that benefited her. One is left with the impression that Roxelana consistently wielded impressive power, except when things went badly.
Roxelana died in 1558, but her life changed Ottoman politics for centuries. No longer on the periphery, the cloistered harem was moved to the center of imperial government, where it would bubble with ambition and intrigue. This new book sympathetically brings Roxelana beyond the hidden world of her rich palaces, at last exposing her, if incompletely, to public view.