Telling Voices Authors

Story of smart slave girl

A girl born and raised in what is now western Ukraine, was, “abducted, snatched away, ” says Leslie Peirce,” Roxelana is what she was called by the Europeans but among the Ottomans she was called Hurrem, which means joyful, mirthful…somebody gave her that name…nobody knows what her real name was. Somehow she was brought to Istanbul where she was sold as a slave and it is not very clear how she made it to the palace of the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman I, the Magnificent…” Roxelana eventually became the Empress.

In her book called “Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire”, Peirce, a historian, says that even though the royalty initially did marry princesses around them and make alliances, the situation in Istanbul was different. “In central Asia it was believed every son had right to the kingdom, not just the eldest. If all sons were equal it was believed they could not share a mother. Once you have had a son, if you were a concubine, that’s it, you could not be in the Sultan’s bed any more. You take care of your son. I think that is why they moved from alliances with royal families to concubines who were from really “nobody” families…because you could not ask the princess to play this game. So by the end of the 15th century they are in this pattern where the women are non muslims and non Turkish. Some are prisoners of war and some like Roxelana are captured and sold into slavery.”

Training sons

Peirce continues, “Life was vexed for the concubines. They had no choice. They were forced into it. If their son did not make it, they lost everything for the son was their purpose in life…I write in the third chapter of the book that you may hate to be in the Sultan’s harem, but the training system was good, because the concubines had to be smart if they were training their sons to become sultans…women worked very hard…they had to be smart people understanding politics. It worked well because the sons were fighting outside the empire too. They figured the more they fought, the more capable they will be as emperors.”

This idea is incidental to the story told by the historian which says Roxelana was obviously so smart that even after she bore a son she remained the emperor’s concubine for the following six odd years in which time she bore more children. Eventually, the emperor married her.

The only part of the talk where one hears Peirce disbelievingly is when she tries to make a difference between slavery as it existed in America and slavery in the Ottoman empire. The difference she says is that the Americans, “…felt a pressure to free your slave, to emanicipate your slave…” Sorry, did I hear right? And that too in the story where a slave girl became a queen?

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 9:07:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/story-of-smart-slave-girl/article22174970.ece

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