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Günnaz Çaşkurlu: Osmanlι Sarayιnda Sanatçι Cariyeler. IV. Mehmed Dönemi / 1677 - 1687, İstanbul: Ötüken Neşriyat 2020, 198 S., ISBN 9786051559308
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Turkana Allahverdiyeva
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Veruschka Wagner
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Turkana Allahverdiyeva: Rezension von: Günnaz Çaşkurlu: Osmanlι Sarayιnda Sanatçι Cariyeler. IV. Mehmed Dönemi / 1677 - 1687, İstanbul: Ötüken Neşriyat 2020, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 6 [15.06.2022], URL:

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Günnaz Çaşkurlu: Osmanlι Sarayιnda Sanatçι Cariyeler

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Günnaz Çaşkurlu's Artist Concubines in Ottoman Court, The Period of Mehmed IV, 1677-1687 focuses on Ottoman palace harem organisation, its functions and its characteristics, with a secondary concentration on concubines' duties, daily lives, training and education. Çaşkurlu refers to artist concubines, she has in mind musicians (on various instruments), actresses, acrobats, singers and dancers. This book, the author's Ph.D. thesis, mostly relies on archive documents and provides quite detailed research on artist concubines of the harem; we find out their names, the training that they received and the fees paid to their trainers inside or outside of the palace.

Because Çaşkurlu herself is an art historian, she is mainly interested in artist concubines and the artistic education in harem that was given to the more gifted during the last 10 years of Mehmed IV's reign, 1677-1687. This book is a sophisticated contribution to the study of elite slavery in the Ottoman palace towards the end of the 17th century. Considering that this specific period of Mehmed IV's rule has not been adequately studied before this point, this book is all the more valuable as source for Ottoman studies on gender and elite slavery.

Çaşkurlu's main objective is to revise the clichéd, unrealistic and exaggerated views of the harem in the eyes of Westerners. She seeks to correct/or object to these long-established Orientalist views. She argues that the depictions of harems as the centre of Eastern sexuality and polygamy as found in the writings and paintings of Western travellers and diplomats does not reflect reality. Çaşkurlu suggests a new perspective using newly detected archive documents.

Çaşkurlu finds that those concubines were not necessarily (only) sex slaves. Challenging a long-established view on harem concubines (odalisques), she shows that when concubines were brought to the palace, they would receive an education according to their skills. Some would complete their education successfully and be promoted to various administrative positions in the harem, and others would receive artistic education according to their skills. Some of these concubines would become the mother of a prince (Haseki sultan) or possibly the mother of a sultan (Valide sultan) which would give them immense authority to influence the state, both inside and outside of the palace.

A main point of interest in the book is Çaşkurlu's discovery of documents that describe the kinds of artistic training (acting, playing musical instruments, acrobatic training and dancing) that harem concubines received. Another interesting finding is that not all concubines were educated in the palace. For instance, Usturacι Mehmed and others trained concubines at their homes and then sold them to the palace at high prices. Likewise, some musicians, such as Çöğürcü Osman Ağa, who resided outside of the palace were paid to train concubines in their homes.

Overall, the book has two main parts: the first part presents a sophisticated history of the harem as a court institution, followed by a detailed study of the origins, legal status, education, duties and daily lives of harem concubines following brief information on harem life of Mehmed IV.

The main contribution of the book comes in the second part, which deals with artist concubines of the Ottoman palace. Çaşkurlu examines the Kuyûd-ι Mühimmât collection kept at Ottoman Archives (The Directorate of State Archives of the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey) which includes financial records, land registration, palace administration and janissary salaries, which contain 200 years of data almost without in disruption. This collection also contains rich information on the wages paid to the educators of concubines and the prices of concubines bought for the harem. The Ceyb-i Hümayûn registers of the Topkapι Palace Archive were also utilised to extract information on harem expenses.

The author also draws on the writings of European travellers and diplomats about the harem. The writings and depictions of Murad III's doctor Domenico Hierosolimitano, Thomas Dallam, the Venetian diplomat Ottaviano Bon, Albertus Bobovius, the traveller Jean Baptiste Tavernier and I. M. D'Ohsson are important sources for Çaşkurlu's representation of the institution of the harem in general and in Westerners' eyes. The memoires of women who lived in harems in the 19th century are the most important sources, but Çaşkurlu also criticises some historians for using later writings to describe early harems, which has led them to over-generalisations.

Leslie Peirce's The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire examines the political power of harem women in such the established structural hierarchical organisation inside the Ottoman palace over a rather longer time period, in contrast to Çaşkurlu's focus on only trained artist concubines in only a 10-year period. For students of Ottoman elite slavery, it would be wise to use Çaşkurlu's contribution to try to understand the life and training of female concubines before entering the harem and then to look again at Betül Ipşirli Argιt's Life After the Harem: Female Palace Slaves, Patronage, and the Imperial Ottoman Court to see what elite palace slaves' lives looked like after they left the harem.

In a nutshell, Çaşkurlu's findings and use of archive materials are outstanding contributions to Ottoman gender studies, culture and art studies (financed by the state) and elite slavery studies. However, as, in the introduction, the author begins with rather strong objections to Western/Orientalist views of the harem, readers might expect equally strong presentation of a new view to replace these long-established and mistaken views to bring forth a new perspective on the harem. However, the main argument of the book seems ultimately to be that concubines of the harem were not only sex slaves (odalisques), but also dancers, musicians, singers and actresses financed by the state. Although these findings are impressive and interesting, it is not clear whether they are sufficiently strong to bring a new perspective to the topic. First, since it deals with only ten years of harem, it is impossible to generalise or expand the findings to a wider time span. However, on the other side of coin, Çaşkurlu claims, the Western view of the harem was historically fantasised, sexualised and distorted. To change these Orientalist views, further thorough studies are necessary that deal with every aspect of the harem over a larger time span.

Overall, the book addresses historians of Ottoman Empire, Ottoman elite enslavement, life in the harem and gender studies. Unquestionably, Çaşkurlu seeks to challenge and revise Orientalist views of the harem to some degree, and hopefully, the author will present her further studies and arguments with more insightful research for the readers in the future.

Turkana Allahverdiyeva