I write this post as a specialist of Islamic art history, who mostly works on late medieval (12th to 15th centuries) architecture in the eastern Mediterranean (including the Ottoman Empire), Iran, and occasionally Spain. For the past four years, I taught Islamic, Byzantine, and medieval European art history at Pomona College, usually in classes with students ranging from first years to seniors, and with only a few art history majors. Starting in fall 2020, I will teach Islamic art history at Princeton University. The discussion below relates to an introductory survey of Islamic art, open to all undergraduate students regardless of year or major, and without prerequisites.

As we discuss art and architecture in the medieval and early Islamic world, the question of slavery often comes up, frequently by way of patrons who were themselves enslaved at some point in their lifetime. Students are often struck by what appears to them as a contradiction between a person’s enslaved status, and their ability to commission luxury objects and expensive buildings connected to charitable foundations. A main pitfall of discussing enslaved elite individuals is to forget that these people are still enslaved, with all the trauma and violence encountered during their lives once captivity began. Further, as discussion starts, it is central to acknowledge that there is a vast section of the enslaved population in the Islamic world who we do not see when adopting the perspective of patronage, namely those performing agricultural labor, and those who were enslaved household servants. While these sections of the enslaved population at times appear in illustrated manuscripts, a discussion of such works would be the subject of another post, and best left to a specialist in Islamic painting.

This post focuses on discussing enslaved patrons of Ottoman architecture. Large numbers of both male and female enslaved people lived in the Ottoman court context. In lecture, I have found it helpful to introduce a number of monuments first, and then address the differences in status among their patrons. It works well to compare the sabil-kuttab of Yusuf Agha in Cairo with a building commissioned by an enslaved woman in the Ottoman palace, and another commissioned by a grand vizier who emerged from the kul system.

The kul system was another form of elite slavery in the Ottoman context, applied exclusively to men. It was tied to recruiting young boys from Christian communities in Ottoman-ruled territories, converting them to Islam, and raising them in the palace service for military and administrative roles. This human levee system was known as devşirme (pronounced dev-shir-me). Members of the kul could rise to high office, including that of grand vizier, the highest-ranking official after the sultan. Those in such high rank could be married to the sultan’s sisters and daughters, a tactic that the Ottomans used to replace dynastic marriages. While all of these boys were given Muslim names, some of them maintained contacts with their families of origin, who could rank in social status from farmers to Christian aristocrats. This class of enslaved Ottomans was legally not enslaved in the same way as women or harem eunuchs, but the fact remains that they were not free, and hence bound to the sultan. As an introduction, students can read chapter 1 in Gülru Necipoğlu’s book on architect Sinan, which explains the kul system.

The mothers of Ottoman princes and sultans, who could become powerful patrons, were often enslaved women. Beginning in the early sixteenth century, the Ottoman sultans rarely married, and dynastic marriages to members of other Muslim dynasties were abandoned in favor of using enslaved women as the mothers of potential successors. Enslaved women living in the palace could be selected for sex with the ruling sultan or adult princes – sexual violence would have been part of these interactions, as the women had no choice in the matter. If children were born, the mother rose in status, particularly if she gave birth to a son and potential successor. Leslie Pierce’s study of Hürrem Sultan, an enslaved woman from present-day Ukraine who became the wife of Sultan Süleyman (r. 1520-66) after giving birth to several children, works well for undergraduates, and can be assigned in tandem with a discussion of architecture commissioned by her. (Hürrem Sultan’s case is exceptional in that Süleyman legally married her.)

The Ottoman slave trade was wide-ranging, relying on pirates in the Mediterranean, networks of enslavers in East Africa, the Caucasus, as well as the regions to the north of the Black Sea as places were people were enslaved. As a result, a wide range of racial and ethnic groups made up the Ottoman enslaved population, and a binary between white enslavers and Black enslaved people does not apply. This is a topic that can be introduced by using the related primary source, which raises questions of both race and gender. A discussion of gender is complicated by the fact that among the enslaved men were eunuchs, like Yusuf Agha, the chief of the Black harem eunuchs who is discussed in the primary source. (There was also a corps of white eunuchs who served the sultan, while the Black eunuchs were responsible for administering and guarding the women’s quarters of the palace.)

These concepts are complicated and quite abstract, so working to understand them through buildings and patrons’ biographies is productive. The abundance of Ottoman record keeping means that we have plenty of information on elite enslaved people, but only after they were brought to the Ottoman palace. That by itself can be a topic of discussion: what do we know about enslaved people and their lives? What perspectives do primary sources give us? (And I include buildings and their inscriptions in that.) What types of information remain out of reach?

Unfortunately, recent studies on enslaved eunuchs in the Ottoman context do little to discuss race and gender, to the point that I would not assign them to undergraduates in an introductory course. For advanced undergraduates who have taken some classes in Islamic history or art history, or who are Middle Eastern/ Near Eastern/ Islamic studies majors taking a seminar, I might feel differently but have not tested this yet, and would need to supplement with other studies of eunuchs in pre-modern contexts. For the introductory course to Islamic art history, the primary source about Yusuf Agha and a chapter from Peirce’s book about Hürrem Sultan are a good basis to get started. For a more advanced class, Peirce’s earlier book on the Ottoman harem is also essential.

Contributed by Patricia Blessing. This contribution CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Suggested Primary Sources

Suggested Readings for Students

For undergraduates at all levels:

  • Necipoğlu, Gülru. The Age of Sinan: Architecture and Culture in the Ottoman Empire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. Use p. 27-46 for an introduction to the kul system.
  • Peirce, Leslie P. Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

For advanced undergraduates, especially majors in art history or Middle East/Islamic studies:

  • Fetvacı, Emine. Picturing History at the Ottoman Court. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. Pp. 149-188.
  • Kafadar, Cemal. “A Rome of One’s Own: Reflections on Cultural Geography and Identity in the Lands of Rum.” Muqarnas 24 (2007): 7–25.  
  • Peirce, Leslie P. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Raymond, André. “The Sabil of Yusuf Agha Dar al-Sa‘ada (1088/1677) According to Its Waqf Document.” In The Cairo Heritage: Essays in Honor of Laila Ali Ibrahim, ed. Doris Behrens-Abouseif, 223-233. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2003.
  • Thys-Şenocak, Lucienne. Ottoman Women Builders: The Architectural Patronage of Hadice Turhan Sultan. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

Suggested Readings for Teachers

  • Hathaway, Jane. The Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Harem: From African Slave to Power-Broker. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Excellent administrative history, but race and gender are not sufficiently addressed.
  • Foreman, P. Gabrielle et al. “Writing about Slavery/Teaching About Slavery: This Might Help” community-sourced document, https://naacpculpeper.org/resources/writing-about-slavery-this-might-help/, accessed 17 June 2020. For terminology to discuss slavery.