Thursday, December 14, 2017

Damn, Girl-Hurrem Sultan, or Roxelana

Hurrem, sometimes known as Roxelana¹, was born Aleksandra or Anastasia Lisowska in Podolia Ukraine, which was then part of the Polish Kingdom. Not much is known about Hurrem's early life, however it is generally accepted that she was the daughter of an Orthodox Priest, and was carried off as a slave by Tartar raiders when she was about fifteen. She was then taken to Constantinople, where she entered the harem of Suleiman I as a servant.

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Hurrem
Now, it must be said that Ottoman harems weren't the sexy den of vice that many people envision today. While the harem was a place for the sultan's many concubines, it was also a place of political intrigue. The women in the harem wielded considerable power, particularly the sultan's mother and the mother of his heir. Additionally, concubines were frequently married off to advisers and other powerful men that the sultan wished to reward or win to his side. It was in this bed of intrigue that Hurrem flourished.

It didn't take long for Hurrem to be noticed by the sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Her fiery red hair, and pale skin made her stand out instantly. She was fearless and cheerful, and soon attracted Suleiman's attention. Both Hurrem and Suleiman were great lovers of poetry, and their surviving love poetry paints the picture of an affectionate couple completely devoted to each other. Hurrem was also very educated; she took full advantage of being the Sultan's concubine to learn Turkish, geography, and astronomy. She also dabbled in alchemy. It's hotly debated between historians if Hurrem was beautiful or not, but even if she looked like a troll, her personality would have attracted Suleiman. This is proved by the fact that Hurrem entered the harem in 1520, and by 1521, had born her first child to Suleiman.

Hurrem's meteoric rise through the harem ruffled more than a few feathers. As the sultan began to consult her more and more on matters of state, his advisers began to grumble, and spread rumors that Hurrem was a witch who had ensnared their sultan. Suleiman, unlike a certain contemporary, quickly executed anyone who accused Hurrem of witchcraft, but he could not entirely suppress the rumors.

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Suleiman the Magnificent
Additionally, Hurrem had rivals within the harem. Mahidevran, Suleiman's former favorite and the mother of his heir, was no great lover of Hurrem. She resented Hurrem's displacing her in the sultan's favor, and feared that Hurrem's influence over the sultan would impact her son's, Mustafa, chances of succeeding Suleiman as sultan. This dislike culminated in Mahidevran calling Hurrem 'sold meat', then physically attacking her, scratching Hurrem's face, and tearing out her hair.

However, Hurrem was no dummy. When the sultan called for her she refused to come, claiming that her scratched face and torn out hair made her unworthy to be in his presence. Suleiman, not used to being told no, stormed down to his harem to find out what was going on. When Hurrem told him what had happened with Mahidevran, Suleiman sent both Mahidevran and Mustafa to the province of Manisa.

The Ottoman custom of the time was that each concubine was allowed to have only one son, and when that son came of age he and his mother would be sent out to govern a province. However, she and Suleiman broke with tradition, having six children together--five sons and a daughter. As time went on, Suleiman became monogamous, and started marrying off his other concubines. After his mother's death in 1534, Suleiman once again broke with tradition, and married Hurrem in a magnificent ceremony.

The marriage of Suleiman was a fairly big deal. It had been hundreds of years since a Sultan had married. The women that bore the Sultan's children were considered concubines, not wives. This was because upon marriage the groom gave the bride a dowry that became her property. Marrying dozens of women became astronomically expensive. Additionally, having concubines prevented one woman from becoming too powerful, and holding too much sway over the Sultan. So when Hurrem became queen, the people became nervous.


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Ibrahim Pasha
Most nervous was Ibrahim Pasha, the Grand Vizier. Ibrahim had consistently supported Mahidevran and her son, which put Hurrem and her sons in danger. Hurrem wanted one of her sons to become sultan after Suleiman, and Mustafa was in the way of that. Ibrahim's continued support for Mahidevran and Mustafa, combined with his failures in the war against the Safavid peoples meant he was on thin ice with the sultan. When Ibrahim signed a document using the title of sultan, Suleiman ordered him executed, and Rustem, Hurrem and Suleiman's son in law, was installed in Ibrahim's stead.

Another person with every right to be nervous was Mustafa. He was incredibly popular with the people, and popular princes had led coups before. As he grew older Suleiman was, understandably, nervous that his son would overthrow him. Rumors of rebellion reached him, and in 1553, Suleiman had his eldest son executed.

Some people of the time, and many historians accuse Hurrem of having motivated Suleiman to execute his former friend and eldest son. They are convinced that it was her scheming that turned the sultan against his former favorites, and that she was ruthless in clearing the path for her sons to become sultan. While this may be true, there is no conclusive evidence that it is. There are very few written records from this time, and no records of conversation, or letters between Hurrem and Suleiman discussing the matter.

However, it would not have been out of character for Suleiman to have taken Hurrem's political advice. Hurrem was an intelligent woman, skilled in diplomacy and politics. While Suleiman was off at war, she kept him appraised of the goings on back in Constantinople. She had a vast network of spies, and Suleiman relied on her advice when dealing with internal and international affairs.

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Haseki Hurrem Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
There is significant evidence of Hurrem having played a role in the diplomacy of the Ottoman empire. There are letters between her and the Polish king Sigismund II in which Hurrem congratulates Sigismund on his ascension to the throne, and proposes a diplomatic relationship. In addition to that, Hurrem strengthened ties between the Ottomans and her homeland by helping to repatriate Polish slaves, and putting restrictions on the Tartar-Polish slave trade.

Hurrem also helped with the internal affairs of the Ottoman empire. She did a great deal of charity work--building hospitals, schools, and soup kitchens. She instituted one of the first schools for women, and was known for improving living conditions all across the empire. She was a great builder, and she had a magnificent mosque built in Constantinople. She was one of the few women to have her name inscribed on a building while her husband was still alive.

In 1558 Hurrem fell ill, and died. Suleiman grieved for his wife, and buried her in the mosque he had built, then commissioned a mosque, school, and women's market in her name. When Suleiman died in 1566, he was succeeded by their son, Selim II.

Because of her position as queen Hurrem was able to do a lot of good for the Ottoman Empire. Though historians rarely give her the credit, it is certain that Suleiman would not have achieved the title of 'the Magnificent' without her. The nearly fifty years of Suleiman's reign were some of the best in the Ottoman Empire, and Hurrem undoubtedly played a big part of that.

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Hurrem and Suleiman's love story has been turned into a rather
excellent television show called 'The Magnificent Century'.
It canbe found on Netflix.

Characters, left to right: Ibrahim Pasha, Hatice Sultan
(Suleiman's sister), Valide Sultan Hatun
(Suleiman's mother), Suleiman the magnificent,
Prince Mustafa, Mahidevran Sultan, Hurrem Sultan
Now, I probably don't need to say it again, but vicious rumors tend to follow powerful women because, well, misogyny, and Hurrem is no different. Hurrem's meteoric rise to power and the way the Sultan broke with tradition to be with her caused many people to accuse her of witchcraft, murder, and political intrigue. These rumors were spread to Europe by European ambassadors, and Hurrem was frequently used as a femme fatal character in literature.

These rumors have led many historians to paint Hurrem as a scheming villainess, possessed with self interest, and willing to murder anyone who stood in her way. While Hurrem was certainly no innocent, many of these accusations are based on hearsay. There are not many Ottoman documents from this time period, and most historians rely on reports written by European ambassadors, many of whom had never met Hurrem, and relied on rumors.


¹'Roxelana' was the name given to Hurrem by European ambassadors. It is general supposed to mean something along the lines of 'Russian'

Sources

Roxolana: "The Greatest Empresse of the East" by Galina Yermolenko
Hurrem Sultan- the Cheerful Rose of Suleiman, and a Powerful Woman of the Ottoman Empire
Hurrem Sultan, Suleiman's True Love
Roxolana, Wife of Suleiman the Magnificent
Roxelana (1504-1558)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Karl XII, the 'Alexander of the North' Has a Bad Decade

It's highly ironic that Karl (Often anglicized to Charles) XII¹ is referred to as the 'Alexander of the North', given that his reign saw the end of Sweden as an empire and significant global power. While Karl may have started out strong by conquering Denmark, Poland, and parts of Russia, he ultimately failed his country abroad and at home. A nickname that makes more sense is 'The Swedish Meteor'. Karl earned this nickname because of, you guessed it, his meteoric rise to power, and quick fall from grace.

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Karl on a horse
Karl was groomed to be king from a very young age. After his mother's death in 1693, Karl's father, Karl XI, took Karl with him everywhere, including him in royal progresses, meetings of the Riksdag, and other monarchical duties. Daddy Karl also saw to it that young Karl had the best tutors and religious mentors. When Karl XI died in 1697 the fifteen year old Karl was ready to assume the throne.²

When the power's abroad heard about Karl's ascension to the throne, many countries saw the Swedish Empire as ripe for the picking, especially after negotiations for a royal marriage between Karl and a Danish Princess broke down. Not wanting to waste the opportunity of a lifetime, Denmark, Poland-Lithuania, Russia, and Saxony banded together, and with promises from the Swedish nobility that they would start rebelling if a war started, this coalition started attacking Sweden from all sides.

However, young Karl was no dummy. He went on the offensive, and invaded Danish Zeeland, and at the Battle of Narva he took the Danes out of the war with one blow. It wasn't long before Karl's armies had driven the Russians and Saxons out of the Swedish provinces on the Baltic. With 3/4 of his enemies driven back, Karl turned his sights on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

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Karl not on a horse.
Many of these early achievements cannot be attributed directly to Karl. He was still young, and he didn't have a great deal of war experience. However, he was smart enough to listen to the advisers and generals left to him by his father. As time went on Karl became better at battlefield strategy, and many of his advisers died. By 1702 Karl was almost entirely in charge.

It was this year that Karl invaded Poland. Poland was a deeply divided country, and they were no match for the united Swedes. Karl overthrew the reigning monarch, Augustus II, and installed Pole Stanisław Leszczyński as king. Safe in the knowledge that Stanisław would do what he was told, Karl made Poland his base for invading Russia.

Now, Karl had been doing very well up until then. He'd been at war for the entirety of his reign, but had still managed to help with administrative decisions back at home. Had Karl decided that enough was enough, and gone back home he might have been remembered as a hero King who conquered vast swathes of territory, and subdued Sweden's enemies. However, in 1706 Karl made a fatal mistake--he invaded Russia.

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The Swedish Empire
We've discussed Karl's invasion of Russia before, so I won't go into too much detail here. But here's a brief summary: Karl invades western Russia, and reconquers the Baltic provinces that Russia had taken. The Russian soldiers scorch the earth behind them, and attack the Swedish baggage trains, leaving the Swedes without supplies. When they lost battles, the Russians withdrew further into Russia. Though Karl made it all the way to Moscow, lack of supplies forced him to turn back, and a Russian victory at Poltava forced Karl to flee to Turkey.

Turkey was a seemingly good place to seek refuge. The Turkish sultanate was friendly to the Swedes, and the Turks also had a beef with Russia. The Turks agreed to jointly attack Russia. However, though Karl requested another army from Sweden it never arrived, and efforts to attack Russia petered out.

In 1714 Karl left Istanbul for good, and headed to the Swedish provinces in Pomerania. His five years in Turkey had shifted Karl's priorities from expanding Swedish territory and punishing his enemies to merely keeping his empire intact, and making peace. Karl decided that ceding pieces of land, either for money or treaties, was the only way to go. He ceded vast swathes of Swedish territories, and lost others to various German kingdoms. In 1718 Karl was shot through the head while fighting the Norwegians. He died, leaving no children to succeed him.

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Death mask of Karl XII, also not on a horse.
Karl was a king of Sweden, who didn't actually spend all that much time in Sweden. He was deeply religious, and a highly intellectual man. He didn't drink alcohol or have affairs with women. His close relationships with his fellow soldiers have lead many historians to speculate that he may have been homosexual. Towards the end of his life he was reviled by his own people, and rumors that he was shot by one of his own men abound.

Karl is heartily disliked by most modern Swedes. Not only do they blame them for the loss of their empire, but they also blame him for the enormous amount of money and lives that his wars cost. Additionally, Karl XII has become an icon for far-right Swedish Neo-Nazi groups, which certainly doesn't boost his posthumous reputation.

¹I refer to him as 'Karl' rather than 'Charles' in this post because it makes very little sense to refer to a King of Sweden by an English name.
²Karl XI had arranged for a regency should he die before Karl XII came of age. However, due to internal fighting within the regency, the Riksdag asked Karl to assume the throne early.


Sources
Charles XII- King of Sweden
The Blazing Career and Mysterious Death of 'The Swedish Meteor'

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The California Sphinx

There's been a lot of exciting finds announced this week, Caesar's landing place in Britain, Iron Age human remains in Turkey, and a 3,000 year old tomb found in China. However, the most exciting (in my opinion) was the discovery of one of the lost sphinxes from the 1923 film set for the movie The Ten Commandments.

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Aforementioned Sphinx
In 1923 Cecil DeMille set out on an ambitious black and white film entitled The Ten Commandments.¹ It was an enormous undertaking. DeMille hired thousands of actors, and built a lavish set in the middle of the Californian desert. The set was designed by the popular French art deco designer, Paul Iribe, and included more than 20 sphinxes.

The film was a hit, but an expensive hit. The Ten Commandments grossed about $4.2 million at the box office, but cost about $1.5 million to make. At the end of filming the set was too expensive to dismantle, and DeMille didn't want to leave it in the desert for another movie studio to poach. So, he did the reasonable thing, and decided to bury it.

Years passed, and the set was almost forgotten about. However, in 1980 film director Peter Brosnan started searching for the set. He was able to get a $10,000 grant from the US government to start archaeological work. In 1990 he dug up the very first sphinx, and the Californian desert has been churning out more pieces of movie set ever since.

One of the remarkable things about this find is how well it was preserved. The sphinx was made of plaster, and was mostly intact. The paint was a bit chipped, but otherwise looked as good as it did in 1923. 


¹He later remade an expanded, colorized version of this film in 1956

Sources

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Damn, Girl-Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges was essentially the French Mary Wollstonecraft, if Mary Wollstonecraft had been a pacifist who published inflammatory material during one of the most violent times in history. Abolitionist, feminist, and children's rights activist, Olympe de Gouges fought for the rights of the disenfranchised during the height of the Reign of Terror through her pamphlets and plays. Though she remained a semi-loyal monarchist until her death, her writing was a big part of the French Revolution, and her writings on gender and racial equality continue to influence civil rights thinkers to this day.

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Olympe de Gouges
Olympe was born Marie Gouze in the French town of Montauban. The daughter of a butcher and a lady's maid, Olympe was given a cursory education, and was raised speaking the regional language of Occitan. Not much is known about her early life, but it is known that at age 17 she married Louis Aubrey, an officer in the French Army who was much older than her. Their marriage was short lived, with Aubrey dying only a few years later. While Marie and Louis did have a son, it was evidently an unhappy marriage, because after Louis died Marie moved to Paris, changed her name, and vowed never to marry again.¹

 Now named Olympe de Gouges--a mash up of her mother's first name and father's last name-- Marie set about trying to become a writer. Though she wasn't well read, and didn't have the most thorough of educations, Olympe was hardworking and determined By 1778 she had had her first play published.

One of Olympe's favorite mediums was the theater. She wrote around 40 plays, twelve of which survive, ten of which were published, and only 4 of which were ever produced. Writing exclusively for the Comédie Française, Olympe had to deal with the sexism of Comédie Française producers and actors, which severely hindered the publication and production of her plays during her lifetime.

Olympe's plays adhere to the proud tradition of theater as activism. Her plays covered the controversial subjects of the time--slavery, divorce, the immorality of debt imprisonment, political extremism, and inequality of the sexes. One of her plays, L'Esclavage de Nègres, ou l'Heureux naufrage [Black Slavery or the Happy Shipwreck] was sabotaged by both performers and outside protesters because of its controversial advocation for the freedom of African slaves.

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Dedication page of The Declaration of
the Rights of Women
Around the time of her arrival in Paris, rumors started flying that Olympe was the illegitimate daughter of the Marquis de Pompignan, or King Louis XV. While most likely untrue, these rumors gave Olympe access to the higher echelons of pre-Revolution French society. It was here where Olympe found patronage, and made friendships among the nobility that would influence her moderate, soft-monarchist views.

Olympe believed that a monarchy was essential to a country's survival, but she didn't believe in the French monarchy of the time. She repeatedly warned and entreated the House of Bourbon to treat its citizens, especially the women better. Her seminal work The Declaration of the Rights of Woman was even dedicated to Queen Marie-Antoinette, in hopes that the Queen would identify with Olympe's writing as a woman, and move for political change.

The Declaration of the Rights of Women was a direct, rage filled response to the glaring omission of women and women's rights in The Declaration of the Rights of Man. In it, Olympe revised the declaration, and gave specific rights to women that echoed the same rights assigned to men. In it, she also advocated for a revision of the marriage contract, and wrote her own marriage contracted which brought two people together in an equal union where property and children were shared.

Loyalty to the monarchy aside, Olympe's real loyalty lay with France. She abhorred violence, and believed that war was a violation of the social contract between nation and citizen. She repeatedly advocated for peaceful methods of resistance, and her thinking influenced the great activists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Olympe was considered a political moderate for her time, though being a moderate during the French Revolution isn't really saying much by today's standards. She often satirized political extremism in her writing, and condemned the political violence happening during the revolution. However, moderate or no, Olympe did eventually end up on the side of the revolution.

It was after the revolution that Olympe's writing switched from plays to pamphlet's, and her work became dangerously political. Her assertions that injustice against women was the root of societies ills, and criticisms of The Declaration of the Rights of Man brought her to the attention of the revolution. Her advocacy for equality of the sexes, and criticisms of Revolution leaders led to her imprisonment, trial, and eventual execution.

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The execution of Olympe de Gouges
Though she was executed for crimes against the revolution, Olympe was, in no way, unsuccessful. Not only has she had a lasting legacy, but she was successful in her own time. She heavily petitioned for the right to divorce through plays and pamphlets, and in 1792 France was the first country to legalize divorce. Civil rights were also given to illegitimate children, and a voluntary tax system proposed and outlined by Olympe was also adopted.

But not only successful in her own time, Olympe's legacy has impacted the world for generations. Along with Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe was one of the founding mothers of feminism. She encouraged women to band together, and identify as women, something that has influenced the modern idea of citizenship. Her work is studied among philosophers and feminists theorists today.



¹I have been unable to find any information on Olympe's son--Pierre Aubry de Gouges-- during this time. Whether or not he went to Paris with her is unknown, however he did end up serving as a General with the French Army in South America. If you have any further information about him, please share in the comments!

Sources
Olympe de Gouges Biography
Marie Olympe de Gouges Facts
Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793)
Welcome to Olympe de Gouges
Olympe de Gouges--French Writer