The Private World of Ottoman Women
  • Book Title:
 Private World Of Ottoman Women
  • Book Author:
Godfrey Goodwin
  • Total Pages
205
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PRIVATE WORLD OF OTTOMAN WOMEN – Book Sample

Contents

  • List of Illustrations
  • A Note on Pronunciation
  • Genealogy of the House of Osman
  • Acknowledgements
  • Foreword Introduction
  • The Coming of the Nomads
  • The Wanderers
  • Home and the Peasant 4. Trade and Wealth
  • Bedfellows
  • The Chrysalis Cracks 7. The Final Decades
  • 8. The Seeding of Western Culture
  • Notes Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Introduction – Heiresses of Eve

The Ottomans came out of Asia to rule from the Danube to the Nile. They had settled first in Anatolia and married the women of the villages. Some remained nomads and were faithful to their clans: and there were the sultans and their central government who married slaves.

Peasants continued to toil as they had always done under their old masters while townsfolk sought prosperity through crafts and trade. Whatever the man might do, it was the woman who cared for the family and worked long hours as well. Without her there could have been no future. This was equally true of Europe.

Apart from the life of the wealthy in Istanbul, this book concentrates on the people of the Balkans, Thrace and Anatolia. In these provinces ordinary women endured 600 years of hardship and trouble, raised their children, mourned their dead and, in doing so, developed those courageous personalities which dominate this account.

It is with an ever-growing awareness of the mercilessness of the struggle to survive that one can understand what it meant to be alive, to marry and to give birth.

 One is not surprised that superstition made more sense than reason in the loneliness of the country but it also flourished in the noise and strife of great cities. Wherever she might be, the mother developed the republic of the home, achieving family love out of the conflict around her, the equal of any man. And this, with their enduring respect for her, her sons well knew.

On high were the princesses and the great ladies who achieved political power. Many of them had personalities so strong that, intellectually, they are still alive. Much more is recorded about life in the palace than in humble homes, but even from these much can be deduced: and yet more as the research moves into the nineteenth century and reveals a plethora of conflicting accounts of what it meant to be alive in the last years of the Ottoman empire. Veils come and go, our heroines are stricken and dumbfounded, homes are burnt and crops are pillaged: but there was no one who could forsake the struggle. It was just as well, because without them there would have been no Ottomans at all.

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In neither the medieval east nor west was there a place for individuals except for symbolic heroes and heroines and gilded figures of power. Later these became people with a history who, if they spoke, had their speeches rewritten for them by biased partisans or nineteenth-century historians and poets. As for the common herd, they remained the common herd.

They were not thought of as personalities but as loiterers on the road of life, formed by circumstance and subject to circumstance. The women in this book lived, suffered, achieved, failed and most certainly died: as did most of their children before reaching adulthood. Some of them were born into fortunate homes and very few achieved a place in history because they had beauty and wit.

In village terms, marriage for women had some of the characteristics of a guild in the sense that women worked like a clan to achieve its consummation. With the implacable approach of maturity, it was essential for a girl to be taught needlework and possibly spinning and weaving. She would already know how to cook, tend animals and garden.

 At about the age of 15 this meant that the burden or, if she were fortunate, the pleasure of marriage and its fulfilment were at hand; in spite of learning about sex as if by eavesdropping rather than explanation in physical terms.

There were three periods in a woman’s life – childhood, maternity and widowhood. This meant that she had a sense of place and a socially necessary duty within a relatively simple society. Badly paid child weavers can also be seen as students of older women and as having a humble place within the social structure.

No one could escape the destiny of disciplines without which a community could not survive let alone develop. And such a destiny was as true of one sex as another. The struggle to survive left little time to develop a questioning mind: it was easier to consult the past, real or imaginary.

There is a self-evident difference between a society living in the present and the past and one that is aware of, and ponders, the forces of change and danger: still more so when the sexes have achieved equality. Moreover, villages declined and towns and cities grew.

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 The village was no longer a unity when there were strangers in the next street or even in one’s own apartment. The sense of unity was further disrupted by the need to travel to work with people of like skills but with no communal or family relationships. Moreover, life was no longer seasonal and working hours never varied.

The lives of most wealthy Ottoman women are only recorded on gravestones as fighters for the Faith and little else. Their names repeat themselves. Their headstones may be pretty with flowers but they are dumb. Dumber still are the rough stones that marked a common peasant grave and the man fared no better than his wife.

If a number of men loved their wives and felt impoverished without them, many accounts agree that far more of them only felt the loss of a worker, a nurse, a cook and a pillow. This was because they had sought company with fellow men and not with other women than the wives who served them. That they were unaware of their deprivation did not make it any the less. This deprivation was an intellectual arthritis which was reflected all over life in the Ottoman world and no less in central and western Europe at the time.

Criticism of Ottoman society should be seen in the context of the times. This was more than some western travellers could achieve. One grows weary of the carping of even so great an archaeologist as Sir William Ramsay.

The intellectual chauvinist personified could not understand why his wife got on so well with people in Anatolia whom he saw as near savages and who interfered with his work, which he had not thought of explaining to them.

Travellers often appear to have had no knowledge of their own countries so that their condemnation of the galleys or brutal punishments in Turkey in the seventeenth or eighteenth century ignores the hulks in Britain or that discipline in the British army or navy was maintained by flogging.

The seventeenth-century historian Evliya Çelebi, who was an inveterate traveller, was horrified by the cruelty of justice in Iran: what he would have said to the hanging of 10-year-olds for theft in England before the nineteenth century can only be left to the imagination.

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Then there were books which concocted myths such as the ‘tragedy’ of Sultan Abdülhamit II’s (1876-1909) daughter – which never happened, since she was alive and entertaining friends in the 1920s, long after her supposed murder.

There was the redoubtable Aimée, cousin (or even sister in one account) of Josephine, the first wife of Napoleon. She was said to have been captured by pirates and married to the sultan, becoming the mother of Mahmut II (1808–39) and the inspiration behind his reforms: the truth is that the inspiration came from Selim III (1789–1807).

We have to thank the misuse and falsification of evidence for this weird story by the romantic writers Hervé and Morton among others. Aimée’s signature on the marriage register shows, however, that she was home in France two years after her supposed son was born, which would have been impossible if she was incarcerated in the Harem. 1 As for the palace at Topkapı, derivative accounts for the fires of fancy brewed tureens of nonsense….

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