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When I decided to write a novel set in Greece and Turkey during the final years of the Ottoman Empire, I was faced with the problem of how to take my female protagonists out of the cloistered world of domesticity to justify their importance and influence in the wider community. Whether it is because I am a child of the sixties and of the feminist revolution, or by living amongst other cultures, I am not sure, but I have never doubted the influence of women in society, especially those living in a patriarchal society such as the Ottoman Empire is often thought to have been. History is filled with women who have risen to power against all odds.
Khourrem – the laughing one – later known as Roxelana, or Rossa in Istanbul because of her Russian background, was one such woman. Originally a Christian slave from the Ukraine, Roxelana found herself in Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s harem. By using not only her beauty, but also her infectious personality, she quickly rose to prominence and used her influence to banish her rival – Suleiman’s consort at the time, along with the heir to the throne – to a far province in the empire, plotted to have the Grand Vizier Ibrahim assassinated and convinced Suleiman to marry her, thus guaranteeing her male children next in line to the throne. At the height of her power Roxelana commissioned the Ayasofya Haseki Hamam – the public bathhouse designed and built by the great architect Minar Sinan which was built on the site of the Baths of Zeuxippus.
Roxelana was not the only woman to use her beauty and political wiles to further her own ambition. The Greek, Laskarina Bouboulina, is another but for a very different reason. Born in 1771 inside a prison in Constantinople, Bouboulina rose to become a Greek naval commander, heroine of the Greek War of Independence in 1821. She was also an admiral of the Imperial Russian Navy. For Greeks, her name is synonymous with patriotism, bravery and freedom. Such was her importance that banknotes bear her portrait and streets are named in her honour throughout Greece. Whilst we think of young girls playing with dolls, the strong and by all accounts, stubborn Bouboulina, showed a passion for the sea and ships. She married twice. Both husbands were killed during sea battles against marauding pirates. After inheriting her husbands’ fortunes and with seven children to care for, Bouboulina used her fortune and experience to build warships of her own, the most famous being the Agamemnon, the largest fighting ship of the Greek War of Independence. Tragically, for all her exploits she met an untimely death in 1825. In a family dispute concerning the elopement of her son with the daughter of the Koutsis family, she was fatally shot by an unknown assassin. Bouboulina was fearless and she was admired.
Many Greek women showed that same bravery, standing shoulder to shoulder with their menfolk to fight and die against the Turks. Much later, during the Nazi occupation of Greece in 1941, women again chose to risk everything for that famous motto of the Greek War of Independence – Freedom or Death. Their bravery is revered and an inspiration to us all.
For most women, a career was unheard of. Enlightened families did encourage an education of sorts for their daughters although never to the same extent as for their sons. A girl’s education was usually confined to the arts. For some this was music and there are numerous accounts of talented girls in the Serail who distinguished themselves and took their place in the orchestra of the Imperial Harem. There was, however, one area where almost every woman strived to be the best – embroidery. The Ottoman Turks had such a passion for decoration that the greatest of craftsmen were held in the highest esteem – often venerated in the works of great poets. Textile art, in particular embroidery, was one of the finest of all Ottoman decorative arts and in a traditional society where art was elevated to a divine status, it was one of the few areas in which a woman was encouraged to excel.
With the arrival of artists attached to the retinues of Western ambassadors, from as early as 1559, illustrations of Turkish dress filtered back to European capitals and found favour with the wealthy, educated classes. Lady Montagu (1689-1762), wife of the English ambassador, and Miss Julia Pardoe and la Baronne De Fontmagne in the nineteenth century, were all invited into the harems and left detailed descriptions of the clothing. Much later, great couturiers such as Paul Poiret and Christian Dior were inspired by Ottoman costume and embroidery.
So it was not a difficult choice to place my protagonists into this world of exotic textiles. Anyone who excelled would have been greatly respected, their names on everyone’s lips and doors into another world opened up for them.
In my next blog, I will talk more about Ottoman and Greek embroidery.