“Empire of the East: How a European Slave Girl became Queen of the Ottoman Empire” by Leslie Peirce

La Sultana Rossa, Titian, c. 1550 La Sultana Rossa, Titian, c. 1550

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once observed that “seekers for gold dig much earth, but find little gold.”

This is what figuratively happens to biographers who attempt to resurrect tantalizingly interesting and important historical personages about whom little information survives beyond a few fascinating nuggets. A lot of digging takes place, but the biographer is often unable to find the gold that is supposed to be concealed in the earth of obscurity.

The solution is to over-contextualize and to write around the subject, speculating all the way with phrases such as “we may imagine”, “we may suppose”, or “it could be thought that…” These phrases may be augmented or replaced by subjunctives; everything is “could have,” “might have” or “may have”. The result is that the reader gets a comprehensive and even panoramic description of the environment surrounding the subject, which is all very interesting and entertaining, but which leaves a sense of frustration when it comes to learning much about that subject.

We don’t even know Roxelana’s real name for sure, or her country of origin.

Empire of the East: How a European Slave Girl became Queen of the Ottoman Empire, Leslie Peirce (Basic Books, Sept 2017)
Empire of the East: How a European Slave Girl became Queen of the Ottoman Empire, Leslie Peirce (Basic Books, Sept 2017)

Leslie Peirce, a scholar who has taught at Cornell and Berkeley in the United States, is forced to do a fair amount of the above in her book about Roxelana, the European concubine who did, indeed, become the wife of Suleyman the Magnificent and “queen” (an odd word to use, since the Ottoman sultan was usually referred to as an emperor) of her adopted country.

Fortunately for both Peirce and the reader, there is gold buried in the earth of Roxelana’s story, although it takes a while for it to come to the surface. The fact is, we don’t even know Roxelana’s real name for sure, her country of origin, or exactly how she arrived in the Ottoman Empire, and with such a start it must have been extremely hard work to give her anything resembling an authentic voice of her own.

It is to Peirce’s great credit that in the end she manages to do this for the woman whom Richard Knolles, in his Generall History of the Turkes (1603), called “the greatest empresse of the East, flowing in all worldly felicitie.” There are, fortunately, some letters extant from Roxelana to her husband, and many reports about her, truthful and otherwise, from foreign ambassadors and visitors.

In the 1550s, a painting entitled La Sultana Rossa was executed by the studio of Titian, which may be a portrait of her (it is the cover illustration), and there is another, earlier portrait entitled Rosa, Solemanni Uxor which Peirce reproduces in Chapter 1, so we may have some idea what she looked like. The fact that these paintings exist shows that Roxelana was indeed a significant figure, and the foreign ambassadors certainly took more notice of her than they had of previous Ottoman royal women.

Peirce takes us into the intriguing world of Ottoman royal women, and it’s a remarkable journey which I won’t spoil by retelling here. The context to Roxelana’s life is fascinating; she must, like other royal women, vie with others (here it’s Mahidevran, Suleyman’s former favorite) to ensure that her son succeeds the sultan, and she must put up with any inconveniences that women of her ilk had to endure along the way. As Caroline Finkel, another distinguished historian of the Ottoman Empire, states, “the personal was inescapably political.”

On the other hand, it appears that she and Suleyman genuinely loved and cared for one another, which makes their relationship so much more than merely political or dynastic, especially when we consider that Suleyman actually married Roxelana, and that he remained (as far as we know) faithful to her until her death in 1558. Her son Selim did indeed succeed when Suleyman died in 1566. She called him “my sultan” and worried about his health; “let me be the sacrifice for your pain,” she wrote to him when he was suffering from gout, and “please make an effort to send someone who can tell me of your good health and well-being.” When he is absent on campaign, she tells him she is “roasting in the fire of separation.” It is indeed a pity that we don’t have Suleyman’s letters to Roxelana.

Leslie Peirce does dig a lot of earth, but eventually she finds the gold.

Roxelana’s memory is preserved not so much by portraits and letters but by buildings. It was customary for royal women, especially after they had attained to high status within the court, to build or endow such things as schools, hospitals, mosques and soup-kitchens.

Roxelana did all these things, but she did more. Her name became known internationally through her correspondence with other powerful women of the time, such as Catherine de’ Medici and Isabella of Hungary, whom she addressed as “dearest daughter”, and noted that “we were both born from one mother, Eve”, pointing out also that “I am the person most close to the emperor.”

That last point was the basis for scandalous and horrific stories about Roxelana, many of which found their way into foreign observers’ letters and memoirs as well as those of some Ottomans. Roxelana had seduced the sultan and wielded power over him, she had plotted and conspired, and she had even arranged for people to be murdered. When Suleyman had Mahidevran’s son Mustafa executed in 1553, the poet Nisayi addressed the sultan with the words “You allowed the words of a Russian witch into your ears/ … you did the bidding of that spiteful hag.” There is, as Peirce shows, no basis in historical fact for any of these accusations; Suleyman the Magnificent was not the sort of man who could be led around by the tip of his pointed beard.

 

Leslie Peirce does dig a lot of earth, but eventually she finds the gold. This book is the product of meticulous research using primary sources, and she has succeeded in making the book readable and page-turning, especially when Roxelana’s correspondence comes into play. She could have turned this story into some kind of Arabian nights fantasy with Roxelana as Scheherazade, but she stoutly resists this temptation and gives us a book in which the reality becomes just as fascinating as any tall oriental tale. Both historians and general readers will find the lure of Ottoman history almost irresistible through its pages.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.