Galina Yermolenko, Ed.: Roxolana in European Literature, History and Culture

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Galina Yermolenko, ed. Roxolana in European Literature, History and Culture. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Press, 2010; pp. xvi + 318. $114.95 cloth. Review by BINDU MALIECKAL, SAINT ANSELM COLLEGE.

In the popular imagination, the Ottoman harem, or any harem for that matter, is depicted as an exotic and orientalized realm where women are beautiful, mysterious, and experts in the art of seduction. Fortunately, recent scholarship has not succumbed to such objectification, especially since the 1993 publication of Leslie Pierce's groundbreaking The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, in which Pierce painstakingly pieces together the impressive lives of Ottoman women within and beyond the seraglio. Far from being voiceless victims, Ottoman women were indeed, as eighteenth-century Englishwoman Mary Wortley Montagu pronounced, during her travels in Turkey, "the only free people in the empire." As Pierce elucidates in her book, if an Ottoman woman gained the Sultan's favor and bore his successor, she could become the "valide sultan," a position of great authority and influence in the harem and at court. During the early modern period, a series of successive valide sultans, by virtue of not being native Turks, seemed predisposed to forging Ottoman relations with the West. These women included Hurrem (also called Roxelana or Roxolana), wife of Suleyman I (r.1520-1566); Nurbanu, wife of Selim II (r.1566-1574); and Safiye, valide sultan of Murad III (r.1574-1595). Of these three women, Hurrem in particular captured the European imagination and is mentioned in numerous texts, although, arguably, Nurbanu and Safiye's interventions led to more significant benefits for the Ottomans as well as Europeans. Nurbanu was responsible for Venice's special access at the Ottoman court (she herself being either a Venetian or Cypriot), and Safiye carried on a personal correspondence with England's Queen Elizabeth I, at one point sending Elizabeth a Turkish dress and image of herself, with Elizabeth requesting cosmetics in exchange. Bernadette Andrea's 2007 monograph, Women and Islam in Early Modern English Literature, is an excellent follow-up to Pierce in its development of the Anglo-Ottoman relationship, especially in terms of women's agency.

Hurrem may have not been as involved in diplomacy as Nurbanu and Safiye, but she was certainly politically astute--for instance, she was thought to have masterminded the death of Suleyman's oldest son Mustapha to make way for her own offspring--not to mention that Hurrem was an inspiration for writers of both fiction and nonfiction, these writers having heard news of Hurrem's manipulations, Suleyman's partiality towards her, and the seeming incongruity of a "white," Christian-born woman's elite presence in the lands of the "infidel" Turk. Roxolana in European Literature, History and Culture, edited by Galina Yermolenko, is much-needed and much-appreciated, since, given Hurrem's stature in European discourses, the book bestows Hurrem with the attention she deserves and does so in a complete way, presenting various perspectives on Roxolana: the volume contains scholarly essays, primary texts, illustrations, detailed appendices, and an extensive bibliography. Students in university-level courses that focus on the representation of the Ottomans and gender politics in the early modern world will find Roxolana in European Literature, History and Culture very useful and even necessary for future research and analysis of the figure of Roxolana. …


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