Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire by Leslie Peirce: A Book Review

Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire
Author: Leslie Peirce
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography
Publisher: Basic Books
Release Date: September 19, 2017
Pages: 354
Source: This book was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: The extraordinary story of the Russian slave girl Roxelana, who rose from concubine to become the only queen of the Ottoman empire.

     In Empress of the East, historian Leslie Peirce tells the remarkable story of a Christian slave girl, Roxelana, who was abducted by slave traders from her Ruthenian homeland and brought to the harem of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in Istanbul. Suleyman became besotted with her and foreswore all other concubines. Then, in an unprecedented step, he freed her and married her. The bold and canny Roxelana soon became a shrewd diplomat and philanthropist, who helped Suleyman keep pace with a changing world in which women, from Isabella of Hungary to Catherine de Medici, increasingly held the reins of power.

     Until now Roxelana has been seen as a seductress who brought ruin to the empire, but in Empress of the East, Peirce reveals the true history of an elusive figure who transformed the Ottoman harem into an institution of imperial rule.

     My Review: Roxelana is one of history’s most controversial figures. She was an unlikely girl who rose at great odds to become Suleyman’s wife. However, Roxelana has been known for her ruthlessness and was the cause of many of her rivals’ deaths. However, in Empress of the East, Peirce has contradicted many of the rumors that have circulated about Roxelana for centuries, and she has given us a portrait of the true Ottoman queen.

     Roxelana was a young girl from Ruthenia who was captured by slave traders. She was given as a gift to the Ottoman sultan, Suleyman. Roxelana, with her beauty, intelligence, and vibrant personality, quickly caught Suleyman’s eye. It was not long until she became his favorite. Suleyman broke the the tradition of the Ottoman harem by forswearing all other concubines. Roxelana gave Suleyman six children. Suleyman eventually freed her and married her. As queen, Roxelana became the most powerful woman in the Ottoman empire. She was a politically-adept diplomat and a philanthropist. Many of her philanthropist works would become her lasting legacy.

     Peirce does a great job in portraying Roxelana. Roxelana was a woman that knew how to make the best of her situation. She was determined and ambitious. She could also be jealous and temperamental. Despite these flaws, Peirce emphasizes Roxelana intelligence and her charitable work. She had an interest in the poor and the hungry. She was also very religious in her new faith and built many mosques. Therefore, Peirce brought out a balance in Roxelana’s character between the questionable and the positives.

     Overall, this was a fascinating biography of Roxelana. Roxelana’s story is very intriguing, and her rise to be empress was eye-opening. Empress of the East made for compelling reading, and it gave me a deep understanding of the Ottoman empire. Roxelana’s contemporaries were Isabella of Hungary, Catherine de Medici, and Elizabeth I. It is sad that she is often overlooked during a time of great queens. I recommend Empress of the East, not only to people interested in the Ottoman Empire or the Renaissance, but also to people who admire these other women as well. Roxelana has been maligned by her contemporaries. Hopefully, by reading Empress of the East, we can see her in a more positive light.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars 


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