Bend the Knee

Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire BY Leslie Peirce. Basic Books. Hardcover, 368 pages. $32.

Six years ago, a soap opera set off an angry debate among historians, politicians, and viewers in Turkey. It was called Muhtes¸em Yüzyil (The Magnificent Century) and depicted the inner workings and often-violent intrigues of the sixteenth-century Ottoman palace—particularly the fraught relationships between Sultan Süleyman and his harem, viziers, and eunuchs. The show was wildly popular, but politicians from the AKP, the party of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, protested the portrayal of the holy sultan as a lush and a womanizer. They claimed it was clearly inaccurate, as if they were unaware of the Ottomans’ reputation as decadent and lusty. Erdoğan, then Turkey’s prime minister, was obsessed with cultivating a pious generation of loyal young Turks and proclaimed that the soap was “an effort to show our history in a negative light to the younger generations.” Soon enough, protesters showed up at the studio and threw eggs while yelling “God is great!” The state media regulator claimed that some seventy thousand Turks had lodged complaints about the show’s mores and supposed violations of historical accuracy.

Despite the outcry, 2011 was a comparatively sweeter, more optimistic moment in recent Turkish history. The neo-Ottoman ideology that Erdoğan still defends was only just emerging. This view sees the Ottomans as Turkey’s true forefathers and spiritual guides and contests the heavy-handed history of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Before long, Erdoğan was being compared to Mehmed the Conqueror and referencing ancient Ottoman victories in his speeches as a way of conjuring a stronger Islamic identity for his citizens and claiming the ultimate status of caliph for himself. Real policy changes accompanied this mythmaking: diplomatic overtures to Turkey’s Arab neighbors in former Ottoman lands; increased trade with and eased visa restrictions for countries of the Arab Middle East; and the rhetorical reassertion of Turkey as a regional leader. Erdoğan longed for his own empire and wanted the symbols of it displayed in his imperial city of Istanbul; he began commissioning the construction of grand mosques in his honor, much like the sultans once had. Most of these mosques were built in the old Ottoman style of the sixteenth century. As it turns out, that is the century that means the most to Erdoğan: the era when the empire rapidly expanded and the Turks seemed poised to rule the planet—the very same era portrayed in that randy, messy soap opera. The sixteenth century was New Turkey’s true blueprint.

But what was the sixteenth century really like at the Sublime Porte? In her new book, Empress of the East, historian Leslie Peirce attempts a chronicle of the palace, this time filtered through the life of Süleyman’s longtime companion and wife, Roxelana, who was referred to at the time as the “slave woman from Russia.” According to Peirce, “It was Roxelana who transformed the imperial harem from a residence for women of the dynasty into an institution that wielded political influence.” Most significantly, she “shattered tradition by creating a nuclear family in a polygynous world”; in other words, Roxelana was the first Ottoman concubine to marry her master, and she became a copilot of sorts with the great military commander. There is no more contested area in Turkish life than that of gender relations and women’s rights; Empress of the East seems to offer a glimpse of a protofeminist life in a land otherwise known as an oppressive one for women.

Süleyman had a difficult reproductive mandate and history to contend with when he decided to elevate Roxelana’s status and make her his wife. The Ottomans bought Christian slaves—to be both the sultans’ concubines and their janissaries—because they preferred subjects who had no affiliation with or loyalty to “Ottoman families who might challenge the dynasty’s dominance.” The Christians had been torn from their families and were therefore “completely dependent” on the sultans’ “largesse.” The tradition also complied with Islamic law, which dictated that a Muslim could not enslave another Muslim. Once a kidnapped Christian became a concubine, the sultan began a sexual relationship with her until she produced a son, at which point she would rise in rank to obtain the status of mother. According to tradition, the sultan would not seek her affections again and would move on to a new concubine. Each mother’s relationship with the sultan was supposed to be severed; she would then spend the rest of her life promoting her son as a successor to the throne. The Ottomans believed that “competition among princes identified the successor best able to govern, defend the empire, and conquer new lands,” while European-style primogeniture threatened the fate of the empire by promoting ill-equipped leaders. As Peirce writes, the Ottoman formula “worked, for fraternal rivalry had produced a chain of exceptionally talented sovereigns.” In this view, the Ottoman Empire was a “meritocracy” in which the “capacity to compete was what spelled success.”

Roxelana (Meryem Uzerli) and Sultan Süleyman (Halit Ergenç) in a still from the Turkish television show Muhteşem Yüzyil (The Magnificent Century), 2011–14.

The competition was often bloody, with family members conspiring to kill one another to elevate their favorites to the top of the heap, and many concubines suffering the sorrow of losing their children. But the concubines were well acquainted with struggle. Roxelana, who was most likely from Ukraine or Poland, endured a brutal abduction, the loss of her family, and a harrowing journey to Constantinople, where she had to learn how to survive amid many other eligible concubines. As Peirce notes, “The slave girl must have demonstrated to discerning observers her fitness for more than menial employment.” She assumes that Roxelana, who was “young but not beautiful, although graceful and petite,” must have been a gifted strategist. “The real job of royal concubines, once they had aroused their master’s sexual interest,” she writes, “was to bear and then to raise royal children. A sharp mind along with a savvy instinct for political survival was a sine qua non in a culture that trusted the mother of a potential heir to prepare him for the sultanate.” Roxelana had a bevy of fierce women to contend with, including Süleyman’s own mother, Hafsa, and the concubine mothers of the sultan’s four children, especially Mahidevran, whose stature soared after two of Süleyman’s children died during an epidemic (there are many such tragic deaths in Empress of the East).

When Roxelana got pregnant, she became Mahidevran’s primary rival. Then Süleyman made a fateful and dramatic decision: He chose to be with Roxelana again after her first son was born—something unheard of in Ottoman history—and eventually took her as his wife. “Five children with one concubine in seven years and none with any other was a revolutionary break with tradition,” Peirce writes. “An Ottoman sultan had become monogamous. What the consequences might be, no one could yet say.” The book promises that by its end readers will understand those consequences much better.

Peirce’s chronicle of this period is a fascinating one, but several unavoidable problems distract from her otherwise carefully constructed and colorfully written story. One is that much about Roxelana is unknown because the information simply isn’t available and most of the accounts that do exist are from European observers—in other words, outsiders. More often than not, Peirce is guessing at what Roxelana did and said; the book is laced with words like perhaps and might. Since the author has little personal information to go on, she relies heavily on public records, making the book more like a taxonomy of the Ottoman Empire’s infrastructure—as outlined, for instance, by its financial records in various provinces and the architectural layout of the palace—than the deep analysis of Roxelana’s significance that the title promises. The book might have benefited from focusing more on Roxelana’s life within a larger history of Ottoman women, including those outside the palace. A large portion of Empress of the East focuses on Roxelana’s admirable philanthropic construction of mosque complexes, madrassas, and hammams; a greater sense of Ottoman women’s lives in the sixteenth century might have illuminated just how rare a figure like Roxelana was for her time.

In Ottoman myths and gossip, Roxelana is known for her viciousness. She was thought to have had a hand in the deaths of Ibrahim, one of Süleyman’s most trusted viziers, and Mustafa, who was Süleyman’s son with Mahidevran. The fact that she had managed to seduce Süleyman into marrying her had made many observers think she was a witch; her very survival in the palace—in other words, her triumph within the harem’s own mini meritocracy—made her suspect to many Turks. Then again, wasn’t she just protecting her family according to the terms of the time? What has always made the Ottomans so tantalizing to Westerners is their supposed lasciviousness and their institutionalized polyamory. But for a few decades during the sixteenth century, it seems, the most successful Ottoman sultan of all had created a period of empire expansion and relative stability by disavowing the harem and choosing monogamy. After Süleyman, the empire began to decline. Perhaps the real reason Erdoğan admires the sixteenth century so much is because it reinforces not only all his greatest political dreams and values—empire and military might, urban construction and neighborhood charity—but also his greatest desires in the domestic realm, especially for Turkish women. Surely he would have admired a woman like Roxelana. As he commands in his speeches, he wants women to bear their husbands three to five obedient, pious children who will in turn grow up to emulate their fathers—and make the Turkish empire great again.

Suzy Hansen is a writer based in Turkey and the author of Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).