EMPRESS OF THE EAST: HOW A EUROPEAN SLAVE GIRL BECAME QUEEN OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE
By Leslie Peirce
Basic Books, $32, 359 pages
In the early 16th century, long before the advent of newspapers, one of the few sources for breaking news was the confidential correspondence carried on by sophisticated Italian diplomats and financiers. Thus, in 1536, we find a Genoese banker in Constantinople informing his employers:
“This week there has occurred in this city a most extraordinary event, one absolutely unprecedented in the history of the Sultans. The Grand Signior Suleiman has taken himself as his Empress a slave woman from Russia. There is great talk about the marriage and none can say what it means.”
We now know that it meant the emasculation of what was then arguably the richest, mightiest and, in some ways, the most sophisticated superpower of its age. Master of the Mediterranean, the Balkans, most of the Middle East and much of Northern Africa, the Ottoman Empire was ruled by a conscientious, reforming monarch who commanded the most effective fighting machine of the period.
Turkish in name and Muslim in religion, it was largely run by senior officers and officials drawn from the “devshirme,” a regular levy of young Christian men and boys taken from their villages and raised as Muslim slaves of the sultan. A similar but less official system of conscription stocked the royal harem with Slavic, Greek and Circassian beauties, the concubines of choice for the empire’s rulers.
Thus, with each generation, the bloodline of the Ottoman ruling house became less Turkish and more foreign even as the commercial life of the empire was dominated by Christian Greek and Armenian subjects, Jewish refugees from persecution in Spain, and Italian merchants and their Levantine descendants. Ironically, the group that derived the least benefit from the mighty Ottoman Empire was its native Turkish population.
Which brings us back to that week in 1536 when Suleiman the Magnificent broke with precedent by marrying one of his concubines. The lady in question — a wily slave captured either in Belarus or Ukraine rather than in Russia proper — is remembered in European history as Roxelana although Suleiman knew her as Hurrem.
By any name she was a real handful, confident, ruthless, cunning and a mistress of the deal. You might almost say that the lady was a Trump. While by no means a classic beauty and barely literate, she quickly perfected the art of playing to her one-man audience: Sultan Suleiman.
Hurrem gradually marginalized, co-opted or eliminated rivals for her husband’s favor. These included Mustafa, his talented, highly popular son by an earlier favorite, who stood in the way of her ambition to have one of her own sons succeed Suleiman. Hurrem and her accomplices poisoned Suleiman’s mind to the point where he ordered his favorite son’s execution on fabricated charges, even as he mourned him.
While author Leslie Peirce does her best to minimize or explain away Hurrem’s role in this particular crime in “Empress of the East,” most serious historians do not agree.
As J.M. Rogers, then deputy keeper in the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, wrote in 1988:
“Who was really responsible? There is no need to resort to the speculations and gossip of not always well-informed European diplomats. The army, the clerisy (sic) and the bureaucracy were unanimous: Hurrem and Rustem Pasha [grand vizier at the time and a corrupt ally of Hurrem’s].
“At best the premeditated execution of an eldest son must appear as a blot on Suleiman’s reputation, but the picture of him as an inhumane tyrant seduced by the baseless accusations of a scheming woman into killing an innocent son is not the moralistic judgment of the censorious modern historian but of his own contemporaries.”
Ms. Peirce has written a lively, colorful account of a remarkable woman who started, to use a modern term, as a sex slave, and ended up empress of a large chunk of the world. But “Empress of the East” is more of an apologia than an objective biography. Hurrem cannot be blamed for using sex and intrigue — the only weapons at her command — to win her unique place in Suleiman’s heart.
But what was a personal triumph for Hurrem was an institutional disaster for the Ottoman Empire, ushering in an era of indolent rulers who spent most of their time drugged, drunk or debauched in the harem, influenced by ignorant, scheming concubines and eunuchs who often derailed the best-laid plans of reform-minded counselors.
As for Hurrem, while she did not live to see it, her fat, drunken lecher of a son — nicknamed “Selim the Sot” — succeeded to the throne. From then on, it was mostly downhill for the Ottoman Empire.
• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.