The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire

The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire

The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire

The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire

Synopsis

The unprecented political power of the Ottoman imperial harem in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is widely viewed as illegitimate and corrupting. This book examines the sources of royal women's power and assesses the reactions of contemporaries, which ranged from loyal devotion to armed opposition. By examining political action in the context of household networks, Peirce demonstrates that female power was a logical, indeed an intended, consequence of political structures. Royal women were custodians of sovereign power, training their sons in its use and exercising it directly as regents when necessary. Furthermore, they played central roles in the public culture of sovereignty--royal ceremonial, monumental building, and patronage of artistic production. The Imperial Harem argues that the exercise of political power was tied to definitions of sexuality. Within the dynasty, the hierarchy of female power, like the hierarchy of male power, reflected the broader society's concern for social control of the sexually active.

Excerpt

In 1599 Sunullah Efendi, leader of the religious hierarchy of the Ottoman Empire and foremost guardian of the holy law of Islam, publicly lamented what he saw as a number of harmful and disruptive developments in Ottoman society. Among his several criticisms, he proclaimed that women should have nothing to do with "matters of government and sovereignty." While other of his warnings were addressed to the general populace, this proclamation was aimed at the sultan and the dynastic family, whose senior women had come in recent decades to exercise an extraordinary degree of political influence. Sixteen years earlier, shortly before the death of Nurbanu, the mother of the sultan Murad III, the Venetian ambassador to the Ottoman court, Paolo Contarini, had commented that "all good and all bad come from the queen mother." When Nurbanu died in December 1583, Contarini's successor noted:

Some are saddened by this lady's death and others consoled, each according to his or her own interests, for just as she provided enormous benefits to many as a result of the great authority she enjoyed with her son, so conversely did she deprive others of the hopes of obtaining what they desired. But all universally admit that she was a woman of the utmost goodness, courage, and wisdom.

The rise to power of the imperial harem is one of the most dramatic developments in the sixteenth-century history of the Ottoman Empire. From almost the beginning of the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent, who came to the throne in 1520, until the mid-seventeenth century, high-ranking women of the Ottoman dynasty enjoyed a degree of political power and public prominence greater than ever before or after. Indeed, this period in the empire's history is often referred to, in both popular and scholarly literature, as "the sultanate of women." The women of the imperial harem, especially the mother of the reigning sultan and his leading concubines, were considerably more active than their predecessors in the direct exercise of political power: in creating and manipulating domestic political factions, in negotiating with foreign powers, and in acting as regents for their sons. Furthermore, they played a central role in what we might call the public culture of sovereignty: public rituals of imperial legitimation and royal patronage of monumental building and artistic production.

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