Knyzhka Corner Book Review: The Empress of the East

In this edition of Knyzka Corner, we will be discussing Leslie Peirce’s Empress of the East, the biography of Roxelana, a captive slave who became the wife of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent.

Empress of the East is a profoundly insightful look at one of the most mysterious figures of the sixteenth century. Roxelana was a slave captured in Ukraine. At the time, Ukraine was known as Ruthenia. She was sold to the Ottoman harem, but later became the wife of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. She ruled with her husband and had a lasting impact on the country known as Turkey today. The subtitle of the book sums up Roxelana’s importance, “How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire.”

Leslie Peirce skillfully describes the perilous journey that led Roxelana from “obscurity to the sultan’s bed.” (p. 3) Roxelana was captured at age 13 in her homeland known at that time as Ruthenia. Today, she would have lived in Ukraine.

She became a royal concubine, and quickly became a favourite of the Sultan. After bearing him a son named Mehmed, Roxelana retained favour with Suleyman I for fifteen years before marrying him in 1536. In a revolutionary break with tradition, she became the very first Ottoman concubine ever to marry a sultan who was her master. Roxelana remained with Suleyman and bore him several other children. She ruled with him for 22 years until her death in 1558.

Peirce uses historical documents, letters and accounts written by foreign dignitaries to piece together Roxelana’s complicated life. Her given name is unknown, but her native country of Ruthenia caused European dignitaries to call her Roxelana or “the maiden from Ruthenia.” After her marriage to Suleyman, she was officially known as “Haseki Sultan.”

By the time she died in 1558, Roxelana made a lasting impression on the Ottoman Empire, not only as the wife of the Sultan, but also because of her numerous charitable foundations in Istanbul and throughout the Ottoman Empire. She funded mosques, schools, soup kitchens, hospitals, shrines and public baths. The establishment of these institutions by Roxelana was a break with the traditional role of an Ottoman royal consort.

Leslie Peirce has written a very well researched biography of a mysterious historical figure who impacted the Ottoman Empire and ruled with her husband at a time when women were not considered worthy to be leaders. Her rise from slave to concubine to royal wife is staggering in its speed, audacity and importance.

Roxelana comes alive as an intelligent but sensitive young woman who understood her role as a concubine to the Sultan, but chose to use her influence to gain power for herself and her children. Roxelana’s story has recently been revived in the Turkish historical television series Muhteșem Yüzyil [Magnificent Century] which was originally broadcast from 2011 to 2014. It has since been seen by more than 150 million viewers in dozens of languages worldwide.

Some readers may be irritated by the frequent references to Roxelana as a “Russian slave.” The very first sentence of the text refers to her in these terms. However, on the very next page of the book, the writer explains these references, “Contemporary consensus held that she came from Ruthenia, “old Russia” – today a broad region in Ukraine – then governed by the Polish king.” References to the Ukrainian historical figure of Roxelana in contemporary historical texts of the 16th century described her origins in these terms. The notes and extensive bibliography in Empress of the East will provide researchers with a great deal of useful information.

Leslie Peirce’s writing and teaching focus is the Ottoman Empire. Her first book, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, (1993) explored the shifting nature of imperial politics and the role of the palace harem. Her second book, Morality Tales: Law and Gender in the Ottoman Court of Aintab (2003), examined aspects of law and society in a provincial Ottoman court. Leslie Peirce studied at Harvard and Princeton University. She taught at Cornell, Berkeley and NYU where she became a Silver Professor in the Department of History and the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.

The Empress of the East is an impressive exploration of feminine power, ruthlessness and political skill which will be of interest to anyone interested in the impact of Roxelana on the history of the Ottoman Empire. It is a wonderful window into the world of harems, complicated Ottoman royal relationships, and palace intrigue!

Empress of the East is available at Chapters and Amazon.

–Reviewed by Myra Junyk


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