Book Review: Empress of the East, by Leslie Peirce

The rise from slave girl to empress of Roxelana, wife of Suleyman the Magnificent in the Ottoman Empire.

Roxelana was able to induce the Sultan to set aside hundreds of years of tradition.

Leslie Peirce was, until recently, Silver Professor and Professor of History at New York University. She is an award-winning author who specialises in the history of the Ottoman Empire. This latest book examines the rise from slave girl to empress of Roxelana, wife of Suleyman the Magnificent.

Roxelana, a Christian, was captured as a girl, probably in Ruthenia which is now part of Ukraine, and taken as a slave to become a concubine to the Sultan. The usual practice was that once a concubine had had a son, she would retire from court and spend the rest of her life educating and training her son, often in a faraway province, in the hope he would become the next Sultan. However, Suleyman broke with tradition and married Roxelana and they had five sons and one daughter and she remained at court all her life.

Because of the secrecy of the court and the Islamic beliefs requiring women to remain out of the public eye, source material must have been in short supply for the author. Peirce is thus unable to follow the usual chronological structure in Roxelana’s biography but rather provides limited highlights of her life with more detail of the socio/political life of the Ottoman court.

What is clear is that Roxelana must have been a remarkable woman to induce the Sultan to set aside hundreds of years of tradition to marry her and have more than one son with her. This naturally led to jealously amongst the mothers of other sons, especially the second favourite Mahidevran Sultan who followed the traditional path of leaving court with her son when he came of age. There was also, of course, political jealousy and rivalries between Roxelana and the Sultan’s advisers who resented her influence.

This ill feeling towards the Empress resulted in many one-sided histories of her over the centuries, often suggesting she was some kind of evil influence on the Sultan. Peirce’s work presents a far more balanced and interesting view of Roxelana’s life and times. Subsequent Sultans returned to a more traditional path and did not marry.

Despite the title, the book’s focus is on the wider history of the period rather than the Empress herself, with many diversions which do not always add to the story but rather distract from it as the narrative pace decreases and is, at times, repetitive.

In spite of these drawbacks Peirce has an engaging writing style and provides many interesting details of a period which deserves to be better known when one considers the impact the Ottoman Empire had on the world right up to World War I.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: October 2018
RRP: $39.99

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