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Betül İpşirli Argιt: Life after the Harem. Female Palace Slaves, Patronage and the Imperial Ottoman Court, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2020, XV + 277 S., ISBN 978-1-108-72625-2, GBP 75,00
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Rezension von:
Zeynep Y. Gökçe
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Veruschka Wagner
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Zeynep Y. Gökçe: Rezension von: Betül İpşirli Argιt: Life after the Harem. Female Palace Slaves, Patronage and the Imperial Ottoman Court, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2020, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 6 [15.06.2022], URL:

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Betül İpşirli Argιt: Life after the Harem

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While it has been an alluring topic for non-historians for centuries, the harem has remained an essential subject for research in Ottoman history. Nevertheless, study of the membership of this enchanting household is relatively scarce. Betül İpşirli Argιt, in her outstanding work Life After the Harem: Female Palace Slaves, Patronage, and the Imperial Ottoman Court fills this gap by presenting detailed information on manumitted female palace slaves and also contributes to the literature on slavery and gender in Ottoman history. To compensate for the scarcity of sources that prevent the creation of detailed biographies for each manumitted palace slave, İpşirli Argιt employs a prosopographical approach. Focusing on different aspects of the lives of manumitted slave women during the eighteenth and 19th century, such as marriage or charitable activities, the author sheds light on the daily lives of non-dynastic inhabitants of the palace, providing the reader with insight into the neglected actors of Topkapι. Therefore, this book sets a rare example of history from below where the lives of ordinary people are directly associated with those of great men.

The book has a very neat structure and contains a vast amount of original information. It begins with a very well written and engaging introductory chapter that specifies the methodology and the sources used, which extend from sharia records and registers to European travellers' accounts. The book is divided into six chapters. Each chapter begins with a detailed definition of the topic and continues with case studies and factual information that are supported with archival sources. The first chapter, "The Imperial Harem and its Residents" identifies the non-elite members of the harem by analysing their families, occupations, salaries and origins through extensive research. The general information provided in the first chapter equips the reader to read the following chapters. The author successfully reconstructs the harem hierarchy and provides a profound examination of the network of relations; she provides a clear picture of how harem slaves differ from other roles and how their lack of family ties affects their sense of belonging to the palace.

The second chapter, "Departure from the Imperial Palace and Changing Relationships with the Imperial Court," focuses brilliantly on the journey of manumitted female slaves and on the various ways that manumitted harem slaves maintain their relationships and bonds with the palace. As the author states, the patronage relationship between the manumitted slave women and the imperial court continues even after manumission. This chapter demonstrates several ways through which the relationship between manumitted slaves and the imperial harem continues. Another aspect that the author clearly illustrates relates to the cooperative relationships between the experienced manumitted slaves and the ones who had recently left the palace. Nevertheless, 'Continuing relationships among members of the court fostered group solidarity and the idea of belonging to a household' (88) might still be too hypothetical as an assumption, and the idea of belonging to a household might be anachronistic.

The third chapter describes marriage patterns of manumitted female slaves. The author shows the changing forms of manumitted women's relationships with the imperial court and the ways in which marriages influenced these relationships and brought a new role to women in the political structure. The author illustrates that through their marriages, manumitted female slaves may maintain their relationships with the imperial court while developing new political networks through their unions. The marriage patterns of ex-members of the palace, according to İpşirli Argιt, are fundamental, as these marriages allowed palace customs and habits to circulate and enlarge their influence and dominance. The author examines the husbands of 400 women in an extraordinarily detailed study, employing court registers, deed of trust of pious foundations, estate inventories and tombstones. From these close analyses, the author observes that women who had been sultans' concubines before manumission had a greater chance of marrying a husband with higher social status.

Residential Districts and Relations with Society, the fourth chapter, is a seminal part of the book. İpşirli Argιt shows that the districts where freed women resided depended on their former status in the imperial harem. One of the aims of this chapter is to present the relationship between the household locations and how the status of manumitted female slaves influenced the household's proximity to Topkapι. The author concludes that the manumitted palace slaves served as intermediaries and carriers of the traditions of the imperial palace to local society via marriages with free local men; she supports her hypothesis by displaying different cases from the sharia courts. She considers that these women play an essential role in transmitting court culture to the other members of the society, and marriage is one of the only ways that outsiders can learn how court culture functions.

The material world and the material possessions of palace women have always been an attractive topic. As one could expect, İpşirli Argιt's detailed work has an extensive part on the material world of the palace women. The fifth chapter, which focuses on estate records as primary sources, presents a very detailed picture of what women could purchase and how they did so, and it analyses how these women's possession of objects became Westernised. Through increasing diplomatic contacts with Europeans, the Ottomans became more fond of Western fashions and lifestyles, and this is illustrated through the records of luxurious goods possessed by manumitted women. İpşirli Argιt also presents evidence that manumitted palace women themselves owned their own slaves upon manumission. The study of the material world of these women allows the reader to observe that affiliation with the imperial court provided these women with high life standards.

In the final chapter, entitled "Charitable Activities: Architectural Patronage and Endowments," the author provides a fresh perspective that we could contextualise as representing different forms of dependency and agency. The dependent women and manumitted slaves are portrayed as dispensers of patronage through the endowment, contributing to their agency. As with other free Ottoman women, palace women endowed their property as waqfs, and their palace affiliation influenced these women to perform charitable activities. The author shows that these women contributed to the urban culture of İstanbul, as well as other cities, by building waqfs, schools or fountains. As was the case with marriage, as described in preceding chapters, these women became agents who brought palace culture to the local public and contributed to the legitimacy of the palace. İpşirli Argιt makes the strong observation that these charitable activities paved the way for manumitted palace slaves to acquire public respect. While the question whether they were publicly provided with appreciation through these endowments or the extent to which they served as transmitters of culture is debatable, the value of this work is beyond dispute.

In conclusion, this is an exceptionally well-researched book with a unique approach to an understudied aspect of an overstudied topic in Ottoman history. Although some of the assumptions are questionable, as the author chooses to make assertions and draw conclusions even where the sources are scarce, this book is incredibly successful in providing an informed survey of the after-palace lives of the neglected members of a splendid household; manumitted female slaves of Topkapι palace. It also proposes a number of important hypotheses regarding the ways in which palace culture and traditions were transmitted to local people, which I believe will lead to abundant opportunities for further research.

Zeynep Y. Gökçe