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The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire

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The unprecedented 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 network The unprecedented 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, Leslie 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 control for social control of the sexually active.


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The unprecedented 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 network The unprecedented 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, Leslie 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 control for social control of the sexually active.

30 review for The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire

  1. 4 out of 5

    Brian Griffith

    Peirce shows impressive familiarity with the practical evolution of the Ottoman court, and the interactions of its male and female players through political events spanning about 150 years. It's a meticulously researched human interest story, based on detailed analysis of financial records and archival notes, which documents the important roles of court women in daily administration of the empire, the palace, and the ruling family network. Where Westerners have commonly presumed that the “harem” Peirce shows impressive familiarity with the practical evolution of the Ottoman court, and the interactions of its male and female players through political events spanning about 150 years. It's a meticulously researched human interest story, based on detailed analysis of financial records and archival notes, which documents the important roles of court women in daily administration of the empire, the palace, and the ruling family network. Where Westerners have commonly presumed that the “harem” of the ruling house was a site of decadent pleasure, Peirce shows its full complexity as an administrative center, somewhat like an early-modern Buckingham Palace with all its royals, officials, and managerial staff.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Karen

    Although a chronologically confusing read for those who don't have a background in the Ottoman Empire, but it successfully challenges western views of gender roles and power of the Harem. Although a chronologically confusing read for those who don't have a background in the Ottoman Empire, but it successfully challenges western views of gender roles and power of the Harem.

  3. 5 out of 5

    YZK

    An excellent work on the Ottoman harem, bringing the institution into the center of discussions on Ottoman sovereignty. Even after more than 25 years, this book is still the best on the topic and one of the best books in Ottoman historiography. After examining the roles of earlier members of the harem (both concubines and mothers), Peirce directly connects their fortunes to the changing systems of the Empire. This was mostly not the general environment changing the institution of the harem; but t An excellent work on the Ottoman harem, bringing the institution into the center of discussions on Ottoman sovereignty. Even after more than 25 years, this book is still the best on the topic and one of the best books in Ottoman historiography. After examining the roles of earlier members of the harem (both concubines and mothers), Peirce directly connects their fortunes to the changing systems of the Empire. This was mostly not the general environment changing the institution of the harem; but the other way around. Individual favorites and royal mothers with their decisions affected the course of how the Ottoman dynasty functioned. Peirce made the compelling argument that it was the royal mothers who ensured that the violent change of sultans did not break down the entire system. So, while the legitimacy of the individual sultan could be challenged and erased the legitimacy of the dynasty as a whole remained intact. This is so much similar to the argument Kantorowicz made in "The King's Two Bodies" for the English crown. In a way, royal mothers were playing the role of guarantee for the legal body of Ottoman crown/dynasty. Still, the book might be overwhelming for people unfamiliar with Ottoman history as it necessarily uses a lot of unfamiliar names and titles. That the book covers more than three centuries might also be too much for the unfamiliar. If you wonder about how Ottoman power functioned and what harem was all about though, this is a must-read!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Elia Princess of Starfall

    I became interested in learning more about the Ottoman Empire, the Sultans and the institution of the Imperial Harem after watching 'The Magnificent Century'. The series revolves around the reign of Sultan Süleyman 'the Magnificent', his relationship with his favoured Haseki Hürrem Sultan and the triumphs and disasters of the Ottoman Empire during the era of the 16th century. Needless to say I was intrigued and decided to peruse the history section of my university library in search of books on I became interested in learning more about the Ottoman Empire, the Sultans and the institution of the Imperial Harem after watching 'The Magnificent Century'. The series revolves around the reign of Sultan Süleyman 'the Magnificent', his relationship with his favoured Haseki Hürrem Sultan and the triumphs and disasters of the Ottoman Empire during the era of the 16th century. Needless to say I was intrigued and decided to peruse the history section of my university library in search of books on the Ottoman Empire and specifically on the harem. Despite being a history student, I have never studied the Ottoman Empire in detail as my focus up till now has been on Europe, America and the modern world. So I went into this book with very little background information on the Ottomans or their modes of government and authority. I wouldn't recommend this as the Imperial Harem, although incredibly detailed, is highly academic and requires some previous knowledge in order to fully grasp its key themes. Nonetheless, I can safely say that I enjoyed this book, despite my being woefully under prepared for it. The Imperial Harem is rigorously researched, insightful and brimming with historical detail and analysis. The main arguments of the book are that the royal women of the Harem played critical and influential roles within the politics and government of the Ottoman Empire, that the Sultan relied heavily on his female relatives and concubines for alliances, advice and for the production of royal heirs and that the nature of Ottoman sovereignty changed dramatically throughout the history of the Empire. To say that this is a heavy going book is an understatement. It is clearly meant for an academic audience and the author often delves into intense analysis which may leave the general reader a little lost. Informative and dense, this book requires patience and a willingness to understand the various theories being proposed. However, it is still a fascinating and well-written read for those prepared. The Imperial Harem is focused into two components. Section 1: The Politics of Reproduction. This sections provide a broad overview of the Ottoman Empire from the reign of Osman I (1281-1324) to the reign of the child Sultan Mehmed IV (1648-1687) and details how and why the Sultans preferred serial concubinage in the production of royal heirs then to them marrying into other royal houses. The influence and prestige of the various Hasekis and Valide Sultan in the post-Süleymanic period is noted and deftly explained from the reign of Hürrem Sultan, favoured concubine then wife to Süleyman to the Turhan Sultan, Haseki to Ibrahim I and mother to Mehemed IV. This is a brilliantly researched and thoughtful piece; relentless in destroying the damaging Western obsession with the harem as a place of sexual intrigue and lust. Pierce puts the Harem in context and explains it workings as an institution and why it was the locus for power in the Ottoman world. In the intro, she smoothly sorts out the myths of the Harem and places the institution into its proper standing in historiography. Section 2:Women and Sovereign Power This section concerns the authority and political aptitude wielded by influential members of the harem particularly the Valide Sultan and the Grand Vizier. Pierce discusses the transformative images of Ottoman Sovereignty as the Empire ceased to expand and instead focused its energy and resources on maintaining its vast territories. The various public charities, good deeds, public processions, the building of grand mosques and tombs were celebrated displays of royal power and privilege; meant to broadcast who was in charge and to bolster popular support. Pierce argues that the diplomacy carried out by the Valide Sultans and the Sultans favoured concubines ensured more successful international relations. How the women exercised such broad power and how society viewed it is another key component of the Pierce's thesis. This section leans to more the theoretical than the previous one and is good deal more analytical and thoughtful. It is highly interesting and will question the readers attitude towards the harem. All in all, this was an excellent, well-rounded and academically brilliant book into the real historical value and influence of the royal Harem. Might be a much for the general reader to follow.

  5. 5 out of 5

    J.M. Hushour

    A re-envisioning of the role of women at the Ottoman courts of the 16th and 17th centuries. Pretty good stuff: details the politicizing of reproduction, concubines, and the political responsibilities of moms, slave women, and the ways in which male dynasts were moving in the same arenas of "seclusion". It's not really seclusion, though. Fully illustrated but not in the way you might want. A re-envisioning of the role of women at the Ottoman courts of the 16th and 17th centuries. Pretty good stuff: details the politicizing of reproduction, concubines, and the political responsibilities of moms, slave women, and the ways in which male dynasts were moving in the same arenas of "seclusion". It's not really seclusion, though. Fully illustrated but not in the way you might want.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Larissa Nordholt

    A must-read for anyone interested in harem politics in the Ottoman empire!

  7. 5 out of 5

    kayleigh

    3.5 stars. Read for my Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Middle Eastern History class, not going to review.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

    Fascinating and filled with rich historical detail into the secret lives of the most powerful women in the Ottoman Empire! Highly recommend to anyone interested in Women's History! Fascinating and filled with rich historical detail into the secret lives of the most powerful women in the Ottoman Empire! Highly recommend to anyone interested in Women's History!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Dan Gorman

    Dense, but fascinating. Peirce argues that the women of the royal Ottoman court, from the 1600s through the late 1700s, exercised a great degree of legitimate political power, both behind-the-scenes and during public rituals, although Peirce says we shouldn't think of the Ottomans with a simple public/private dichotomy. The favorite concubines and, above all, the mother of the sultan exercised a huge degree of autonomy. The royal harem was not the prison Western Christians imagined, but lively p Dense, but fascinating. Peirce argues that the women of the royal Ottoman court, from the 1600s through the late 1700s, exercised a great degree of legitimate political power, both behind-the-scenes and during public rituals, although Peirce says we shouldn't think of the Ottomans with a simple public/private dichotomy. The favorite concubines and, above all, the mother of the sultan exercised a huge degree of autonomy. The royal harem was not the prison Western Christians imagined, but lively places filled with religion, children, and political intrigue. The women were the glue of the imperial government, providing continuity. They were closest to the sultan, so they, like the male grand vizier, had the most influence.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Eafiu

    I recommend this for anyone who wants to know more about arguably the most tumultuous era for the Ottoman dynasty's harem through a sociopolitical lens that takes into account axes other than simply gender. Caveat: Not for strictly chronological historical account. This book is more about how certain governmental bodies and traditions evolved according to the demands and circumstances of their time; not about giving a year by year guide for people who are unfamiliar with Ottoman history. You can I recommend this for anyone who wants to know more about arguably the most tumultuous era for the Ottoman dynasty's harem through a sociopolitical lens that takes into account axes other than simply gender. Caveat: Not for strictly chronological historical account. This book is more about how certain governmental bodies and traditions evolved according to the demands and circumstances of their time; not about giving a year by year guide for people who are unfamiliar with Ottoman history. You can still read it without knowing much about Ottoman history, but it would be very challenging to follow.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Allyce DeSimone

    I'm only halfway kidding when I say I would force others to read this book if I could. Not only is it easy to read, it's filled with a lot of great source material and explores women's lives in the Ottoman Empire/Imperial Harem, looking at the personal and political roles they played behind the scenes. I'm only halfway kidding when I say I would force others to read this book if I could. Not only is it easy to read, it's filled with a lot of great source material and explores women's lives in the Ottoman Empire/Imperial Harem, looking at the personal and political roles they played behind the scenes.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Janet Russell

    All you need to know about the Ottoman Harem! Have always been fascinated about this particular subject but could find no revelent books written about it! Finally one has been! No heresasy or guesswork but simple facts written with care & great knowledge of the subject! A good book all-round only wish there were more written!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Santa

    I find this book important, not only as a study which serves well in shattering persisting western myths, but also as a starting point for research in entirely new field of study with respect to political involvement of the Ottoman women.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Aida Benitez

    I am reading it the third time around and even watching all Turkish series related to Sultans. Outstanding book with academic rigor.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Liz

    Utterly fascinating! I loved learning about the structure of early Ottoman Society and the lives of these incredible women. A must read for fans of the Sultanate of Women.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sand Princess

    An extremely well written book which is suitable for anyone who has no prior knowledge on the subject or has previously read on the topic.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Erika

    Wonderful and meticulous overview of women in the early modern Ottoman Empire, accessible to the non-specialist.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Dorkthropology

    Meant for somebody with a better base in Ottoman history, so I lost a lot because I had trouble keeping track of people and events. But still interesting, especially since it's clear she's extrapolating from some extremely dry sources like expense accounts. It was at times a bit dry and finishing it felt like a bit of a chore. Might reread if I cover more Ottoman history. Clears away a lot of the stereotype of the harem and has a lot of fascinating tidbits about how royal marriages worked--like h Meant for somebody with a better base in Ottoman history, so I lost a lot because I had trouble keeping track of people and events. But still interesting, especially since it's clear she's extrapolating from some extremely dry sources like expense accounts. It was at times a bit dry and finishing it felt like a bit of a chore. Might reread if I cover more Ottoman history. Clears away a lot of the stereotype of the harem and has a lot of fascinating tidbits about how royal marriages worked--like how marrying the sultan would actually lower the status of a free Muslim woman.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Courtney

    This is much more of a textbook than a historical novel, but if you're passionate about learning this will read well for you. Thoroughly well researched and remarkably sensitive to the needs of the layman, Peirce's work is easy to follow and provides a good look into the workings of one of the most fascinating times in Eastern history. This is much more of a textbook than a historical novel, but if you're passionate about learning this will read well for you. Thoroughly well researched and remarkably sensitive to the needs of the layman, Peirce's work is easy to follow and provides a good look into the workings of one of the most fascinating times in Eastern history.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Merve K

    Osmanlı imparatorluğu'ndaki harem olgusunun çok ayrıntılı bir incelemesi. Yazar, Türk olmamasına rağmen tarafsız bir şekilde sadece gerçeklere bağlı kalarak çok iyi bir çalışma hazırlamış. Osmanlı hanedanda kadınların rolünü ve zaman içinde değişimini kaynak göstererek anlatmış. Sanki bir roman okuyormuş gibi çok keyifle okudum. Tarih seven herkesin okuması gerekir. Tavsiye ederim. Osmanlı imparatorluğu'ndaki harem olgusunun çok ayrıntılı bir incelemesi. Yazar, Türk olmamasına rağmen tarafsız bir şekilde sadece gerçeklere bağlı kalarak çok iyi bir çalışma hazırlamış. Osmanlı hanedanda kadınların rolünü ve zaman içinde değişimini kaynak göstererek anlatmış. Sanki bir roman okuyormuş gibi çok keyifle okudum. Tarih seven herkesin okuması gerekir. Tavsiye ederim.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Domino

    Chill read, lays out the info in a very straightforward way. Kinda wish it went more in-depth on the day-to-day life of living in a harem which I picked the book up for, but for the tidbits it shared, it made it worth reading.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ila

    3.5 stars

  23. 4 out of 5

    Baris

    3.5 yıldız... Osmanlı'nın özellikle 15. ve 16. yüzyıllarının saray hayatı ve yönetiminde kadınların rolüne dair derli toplu bir çalışma olmuş. Özellikle "gaza" ideolojisinin bitimi, bürokratik devlet algısının yükselişi ve hükümdarlık aura sı gibi Osmanlı klasik döneminin belli başlı gelişmeleri ile "hasekilik" ya da "valide sultanlık" mefhumlarının ilişkisine dair kayda değer gözlemler var. Lakin böyle detaylı ve doyurucu bir çalışmanın kadın çalışmaları (hatta feminist) kuramıyla hiç ilgilenme 3.5 yıldız... Osmanlı'nın özellikle 15. ve 16. yüzyıllarının saray hayatı ve yönetiminde kadınların rolüne dair derli toplu bir çalışma olmuş. Özellikle "gaza" ideolojisinin bitimi, bürokratik devlet algısının yükselişi ve hükümdarlık aura sı gibi Osmanlı klasik döneminin belli başlı gelişmeleri ile "hasekilik" ya da "valide sultanlık" mefhumlarının ilişkisine dair kayda değer gözlemler var. Lakin böyle detaylı ve doyurucu bir çalışmanın kadın çalışmaları (hatta feminist) kuramıyla hiç ilgilenmemesi kitabı biraz yavan kalıyor. ayrıca kitapda şeyhzade mehmet'in kösem'in oğlu olmadığının iddia edilmesi gibi küçük bilgi hataları, yahut Kanuni'nin şeyhzade Bayezid'e yazdığı, aslı günümüz Türkçe'sine yakın olan ünlü mektubunun çeviride saçma sapan bir anahaber Türkçe'sine çevirilmesi gibi lokal çeviri katliamları var.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Salama Bin Amro

    worth to be read

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    This is quite possibly the worst book I've ever read. This is quite possibly the worst book I've ever read.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Peter Casey

  27. 4 out of 5

    Dee

  28. 5 out of 5

    Ro Ags

  29. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

  30. 5 out of 5

    Inès

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