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Biography’s place in the study of sixteenth century Ottoman imperial women – Zhara Adal

The individual lives of sixteenth century imperial women are neglected in Ottoman studies. Scholars have usually focused on their notable achievements rather than their individual lives and identities. For example, Leslie Pierce’s The Imperial Harem (1993) describes the position of imperial women in the Ottoman Empire by highlighting their noteworthy contributions through the role of the favourite (haseki) and Queen Mother (valide).1 Pinar Kayaalp’s The Empress Nurbanu (2018) studies the role of the valide along with Sultana Nurbanu’s (d.1583) architectural patronage.2 Muzaffer Ozgules’ Women Who Built the Ottoman World (2017) and Lucienne Thy-Senocak’s Ottoman Women Builders (2006) argue that imperial women used architecture to represent their political power in the public sphere, such as Turhan Sultan’s (d.1683) fortresses in the Dardanelles which showed the empire was protected by a powerful Sultana as well as Sultan.3   

Part of this scholarly focus may reflect the lack of evidence about sixteenth century imperial women. This makes it extremely difficult for historians to research and write comprehensive biographies. For example, the life of Hurrem Sultan (d.1558), wife of Sultan Suleyman (r.1520-1566) and known to be the first haseki of the empire, is often interpreted through her architectural patronage, and incomplete European and Ottoman accounts which characterise her as ‘wicked’ and ‘devilish’.4 While these accounts do give us a glimpse of her life and role she played in the empire, they mainly portray her in a negative light. It is hard to discern any certainties about her life and personality when drawing on sources characterised by hatred and criticism.  

Pierce’s Writing Biography (2020) acknowledges the problems of constructing a sixteenth century imperial woman’s biography.5 She notes Ottoman documentation lacks texts descriptive or evaluative of their personalities, and documenting many of their actions were not common. The writing of some other women survive, such as Nurbanu, who was haseki to Sultan Selim II and valide to Murad III between (1566-1583). Susan Skilliter’s Letters of the Venetian Sultana (1982) explores and translates Nurbanu’s correspondences with Venice.6 Pierce notes the majority of information about imperial women has come from European sources which were more descriptive of their personalities and lives. But systematic archiving of their letters was not a common practice in the sixteenth century Ottoman World. Instead, Pierce’s solution to creating a biography is to use all the available sources and to carefully re-examine previous evidence to arrive at new conclusions, ultimately creating a comprehensive biography.  

Another approach is to create the biography of an imperial woman episodically. For example, there is very little documented about Nurbanu’s life before she became valide in 1574, making it impossible to create a full and comprehensive biography. But there are lesser-known aspects of her life which add context to her notable achievements. For example, Nurbanu’s dealings with ambassadors Contarini and Barbigo (1583), which facilitated cordial relations with Venice and the Ottoman Empire, were characterised by gift exchange through the exchange of luxury fabrics, robes, and gowns.7 Although seemingly mundane compared to her more pronounced military involvement, it is an important aspect of her life and is rarely acknowledged by historians. Descended from two prominent Venetian families, the gift exchange with Venice showed her maintaining links to her Venetian identity.8 The episodic approach means historians can accommodate lack of evidence without having to fit lives into a chronological biography.  

‘New biography’ methods influenced by scholarship on race, gender, and postmodernism are also useful in uncovering the lives of Ottoman imperial women.9 My research uses intersectional theory which stresses the multidimensionality of marginalised subjects’ lived experience, paying attention to factors such as gender or ethnicity as well as how they overlap.10 Within Ottoman studies historians often homogenise imperial women or even confuse them with each other due to their similar nature. Nurbanu and Safiye (d.1603) are often mistaken for each other in the historiography due to both being prominent hasekis and valides during the late sixteenth century (Safiye was Nurbanu’s successor). However, intersectionality is useful as we can explore the individual identities of imperial women and gain an understanding of their differences as well as their similarities.  

An example of my use of intersectionality within Ottoman studies is to use the inter-categorical approach which allows for the exploration of diversity within the category of ‘female concubine’. Such an approach would emphasise Nurbanu’s privilege and heritage as well as her gender. Nurbanu was confined to the harem, shielded from the public eye, and used to make heirs for the dynasty. This was the case for all concubines who entered the harem. However, despite fitting into the category of ‘female concubine’, Nurbanu’s Venetian heritage was distinctive. Other women were captured from the Balkans and surrounding Black Sea region and were not from prominent families. Her distinct heritage enabled Nurbanu to have a special relationship with Venice. This included correspondences with the Senate, favouring Venice in military affairs, and the exchange of gifts. Other women did not have access to these sorts of connections.  

My research emphasises the usefulness of intersectionality to the study of Ottoman imperial women. Intersectional theory as a part of the biographical method allows scholars to establish imperial women as individuals, who conformed to the identity of ‘female concubine’ but also diverged.  

Zhara received her masters from Queen Mary University of London in 2022 with a focus on medieval Islamic history. She is currently researching the lives of sixteenth century Ottoman imperial women and how to write their biography. Other interests include the military and social history of the sixteenth and seventeenth century Ottoman Empire.  

Image of Nurbanu by Jean-Baptiste Ange Tissier from wikicommons.