Gifting the Harem: Gendered Gifts Between the Ottoman Sultana and the English Queen – Mathilde Alazraki

“If She will never cease from (sending) such letters which foster the increase of sincerity and love (…) I shall endeavor for Her aims.” This sentence concludes the letter that the Ottoman Sultana Safiye (c. 1550-1621) wrote to Elizabeth I in 1593, in response to the English Queen’s own letter and gift that were sent to the Ottoman harem earlier in the same year.

            When thinking about the exchange of diplomatic gifts in the early modern period, one rarely thinks of women as active senders and receivers of gifts, and even less of women sending gifts to each other. And yet, looking at the remarkable example of the correspondence between Elizabeth I and Safiye can tell us how gendered gifts, offered by and specifically aimed at women, facilitated diplomatic relationships at a time when the rest of Europe and the Ottoman Empire were at odds on a religious, cultural, and linguistic level.

            To fully grasp the influence of gendered gifts in the economic and diplomatic partnership between England and the Ottoman Empire at the end of the sixteenth century, it is first necessary to understand the uniqueness of the period that led to the correspondence between Elizabeth I and Safiye. The Ottoman Sultana, favorite concubine of Murad III (r. 1574-1595) and mother of his heir Mehmed III (r. 1595-1603), ruled the harem as Hasseki (favorite) and Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan) during the “sultanate of women”, a time in Ottoman history when the Hasseki and Valide held unprecedented political power in foreign and domestic affairs between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries1.Safiye herself was known to correspond with European actors such as the Venetian ambassador in Constantinople2, and even with Queen Catherine de Medici3, making the harem a true place of diplomatic exchange. Thus, when Elizabeth I, freshly excommunicated by the Pope in 1570, initiated a trade deal with the Ottoman Empire to fight the Catholic Habsburg hegemony around the Mediterranean, her ambassador Edward Barton suggested that the Queen send a gift to the Sultana in order to win her favors. Befriending Safiye would allow Elizabeth and her ambassador in Constantinople to achieve their political and economic goals in the Ottoman Empire more easily, and it is with this hope that “a jewel of her majestie picture, set with some rubies and diamonds4 was sent to the royal harem.

            Critics like Tracey Sowerby have written on the mnemonic and metonymic role that royal portraits played in early modern gift-exchange5. The portrait, through its metonymic function, represented a part of Elizabeth and her kingdom which would be displayed in the royal harem of Constantinople, visually signifying the diplomatic ties between England and the Ottoman Empire. But this portrait also served an even more straightforward purpose: by looking at it, Safiye would know what Elizabeth looked like, making the English Queen and their friendship commensurable – to build on Subrahmanyam’s idea of “commensurability”6 – in spite of the geographical, linguistic, cultural and religious gap separating them.

According to Richard Wrag, an Englishman who arrived in Constantinople aboard the same ship as Elizabeth’s gift, Safiye enjoyed the picture so much that she immediately sent for the English ambassador Edward Barton to have her own gifts and letter brought to Elizabeth. The gifts included “a sute of princely attire being after the Turkish fashion”.7 It is here significant to point out that, though Muslim tradition prevented Safiye from sending back her own portrait, she still chose to send an Ottoman costume, which served the same mnemonic and metonymic function as the royal portrait, bringing a part of the Ottoman harem to the English court in London. The luxury gift of the Ottoman dress thus allowed Safiye to become equally commensurable to Elizabeth, who would be able to see and wear in London the same type of clothes as the Sultana in Constantinople.

            Subrahmanyam tells us that “there is a tendency to think of cultural incommensurability as particularly acute at moments of encounters, when two disparate (and perhaps historically separated) politico-cultural entities come into contact.”8 And yet, looking at the exchange between Safiye and Elizabeth can help us see how two historically different powers came together in the early modern period through common economic and political interests against the Catholic Habsburg hegemony, and how female gift-giving practices helped strengthen diplomatic relationships between Protestant England and the Ottoman Empire. While diplomatic studies in the English language have historically been permeated by a Eurocentric tendency to think of cosmopolitanism in the form of a white Christian man reaching out toward the rest of the world, Elizabeth and Safiye’s correspondence is a perfect example of how two women from different cultural, religious and even linguistic worlds fostered curiosity, friendship and peace-building through the gifting of gendered luxury items on a global scale.

Mathilde Alazraki

  1. Maria P. Pedani, ‘Safiye’s Household and Venetian Diplomacy’, Turcica 32 (2000), pp. 9-32, p. 10. []
  2. Luca Molà, ‘Material Diplomacy: Venetian Luxury Gifts for the Ottoman Empire in the Late Renaissance,’ in Global gifts: The Material Culture of Diplomacy in Early Modern Eurasia, ed. Biedermann et al., (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 73-77. []
  3. Pedani, ‘Safiye’s Household’, p. 16. []
  4. Richard Wrag, ‘A description of a voyage to Constantinople and Syria,’ in Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques And Discoveries Of The English Nation, ed. Richard Hakluyt (Glasgow: Glasgow University Press, 1904), vol. 6, p. 102. []
  5. Tracey A. Sowerby, ‘Negotiating the Royal Image: Portrait Exchanges in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Diplomacy,’ in Early Modern Exchanges, Dialogues Between Nations and Cultures, 1550-1750, ed. Helen Hackett (New York: Routledge, 2016), p. 125. []
  6. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Courtly Encounters: Translating Courtliness and Violence in Early Modern Eurasia (Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 4-6. []
  7. Wrag, ‘A Description’, p. 102. []
  8. Subrahmanyam, Courtly Encounters, p. 7. []

Oriental Gifts and the Commensurability Question: Starting with the Terminology – Ladan Niayesh

“Fetch me the handkerchief: my mind misgives!” (William Shakespeare, Othello, act 4, sc. 3). This exclamation by the Moorish hero of Shakespeare’s tragedy of cultural meltdown has always struck me as the epitome of the misunderstanding around his ill-fated love gift to Desdemona. As she sticks to her talk of Cassio in the desperate hope of changing the subject of the lost handkerchief, she does not realise how the two are one and the same in her husband’s “misgiving” mind.

The example of Othello’s “mis-given” Egyptian gift going the wrong way down the interpretation lane draws our attention to how much gifts are by essence not just material objects and commodities. Rather, they are symbolic objects in performance, whose safe journeys and successful receptions depend, in the words of Felicity Heal, on a “proper understanding between the transacting parties”, or at least “a measure of ‘cultural agreement’” between them if they hark from different cultural spheres, like the emblematic Moorish-Venetian couple of Shakespeare’s play.[1]

In effect, gifts exchanged in a transcultural context open up material “contact zones” – to use Marie-Louise Pratt’s linguistic analogy[2] – where opportunities for understanding or misunderstanding the Other can arise. Behaving like full-fledged actors of social relations, metonymic gifts like Othello’s handkerchief perform and negotiate the terms of inclusion or exclusion of the parties they represent.

Taking the measure of the interpretive protocol which characterises a transcultural gift beyond its sheer material form takes us to the heart of the “commensurability” debate with which Sanjay Subrahmanyam opens his Courtly Encounters, devoted to forms of interstate and interimperial relations in early modern Eurasia.[3] The larger problem of the compatibility of standards between politico-cultural entities coming into diplomatic contact in the period – if such is the way we understand “commensurability” in that context – is too vast to deal with in the short span of this blog entry. But for the purposes of launching the reflection on Oriental gifts, one preliminary we need to examine is the compatibility of standards in terminology, so as to be aware of matches and mismatches.

A one-size-fits-all term, “gift” does not necessarily cover the wide array of social and hierarchical performances inscribed in its counterparts in Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal realms in the early modern period. For the sake of brevity, I will restrict my examination to the examples of two widely used terms in that context, “Peshkash” and “Khilat”, but conclusions reached about those two can be extended to other similarly specialised terms.

“Peshkash” is defined by the OED as “a fine or present made to the ruling authority on receiving an appointment or an assignment of revenue”, with a first attested usage in 1619 in documents related to the East India Company. It thereby suggests the practice of gifting as a circuit of bribery that the Company needs to enter in order to secure trading privileges in the East in the tough economic context of global competition. But looking at the term’s Persian etymology opens up a different avenue, involving not just value for money, but a hierarchical performance, since the term literally means “drawing, carrying forward” a gift, hence implying a protocol of humility for that special “gift presented by an inferior to a superior”. “Peshkash” is therefore more aptly to be understood, not as a neutral “gift” of value in a monetary transaction, but as a symbolic tribute or mark of fealty towards a ruler and a system. “Peshkash” thus creates a form of bonding and becomes a rite of integration for the newcomers in the system, who place themselves under the protection of the sovereign and get tolerated in the land by his special favour. Failure of the protocol and the performance of ritual going with the gift would mar its symbolic value and social function.

At the opposite end of the social spectrum of performance, “Khilat” is defined by the OED as “a dress of honour presented by a king or other dignitary as a mark of distinction to the person receiving it; hence, any handsome present made by an acknowledged superior”, with a first attested usage in 1684, taken from the English translation of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s account of his travels to Mughal India. Here again, we need the Persian and Arabic etymology to see the performance beyond the gifted robe, since the Arabic radical Khal’ involves emptying out and disrobing. The ritual suggested here is that of the ruler bestowing a garment just taken off his own body. This metonymic gift is therefore to be understood as part of his public persona of power and authority that he accepts to share with an acknowledged vassal. The gift of the khilat thus opens up the “imagined community” – to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase –[4] around the sovereign to make room for the foreign element getting formally naturalized and integrated.

Gifts, like languages, are about sharing, understanding, and bonding. Rhetoric of service and symbolic performance are part and parcel of the function of a gift in situ, and we need to take them into account systematically when addressing the specificity of Oriental gifts in our larger project for this blog and any future research derived from it. Failure to fully do so would lead us to the same communicational dead-end as Shakespeare’s “misgiving” Moor of Venice.

Ladan Niayesh

[1] Felicity Heal, The Power of Gifts: Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 23.

[2] Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone”, Profession (1991), pp. 33-40.

[3] Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Courtly Encounters: Translating Courtliness and Violence in Early Modern Eurasia (Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 4-6.

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

“Diasporic Blackness and Modernity” – In conversation with Maboula Soumahoro (Associate Professor, Université de Tours), Deborah Thomas (Professor, University of Pennsylvania) – 13 nov 2020

Maboula Soumahoro is an Associate Professor in American Studies at Université de Tours. Formerly, a visiting Professor at Bard College (Bard Prison Initiative) and a visiting scholar at Columbia University, her work addresses political and religious movements in the Black Diaspora, namely the Nation of Islam and Rastafarianism, in the first half of the 20th century. In this talk, she will discuss her recent book Le Triangle et l’Hexagone: essai sur une identité noire (2020) to give a reflexive account of her trajectory as a working-class scholar of Ivoirian descent, racialized as Black and of her position on racism, anti-racism, identity and belonging
in contemporary France.

Deborah A. Thomas is the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology, and the Director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the former Editor-in-Chief of the prestigious journal American Anthropologist. Her several books, articles and films address race, postcolonialism, globalization and violence in Jamaica. Based on her latest book Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, Witnessing, Repair (2019), in this presentation, she will analyze the subjective impact of politics and State violence in 20th and 21st century Jamaica so as to address post-colonialism,
imperialism as well as grassroots and party politics.


Gifting the East from the Early Modern to the Modern Period

Ladan Niayesh, Stéphanie Prévost, Marine Bellego

As commodities endowed with symbolic value and involving social circuits of allegiance and power, gifts played a crucial role in Britain’s involvements with the East ever since the English entered the competition for global markets and colonies in the 16th century. Looking through the lens of gift-giving as a strategy for conducting international trade and diplomacy helps us refine our understanding of the history of Britain’s transactions with its various Eastern interlocutors, from the proto-imperial Tudor stage to the high age of the Empire in the 19th century.

In a seminal essay entitled Le Don (1925) on gift-giving primarily in archaic societies, Marcel Mauss analysed the gift as ‘a system of total prestations’, which relied on three interrelated obligations: to give, to receive and to reciprocate, and spoke to economic logics, but also to realms of politics, morality and law (Mallard, ‘The Gift as Colonial Ideology’, The Journal of International Political Theory, 2018). French sociologist Alain Caillé has recently proposed adapting the definition of gift-giving to modern societies in Anthropologie du don. Le tiers paradigme (Paris: La Découverte, 2007 [2000]),124). He proposes the following definition: ‘any provision of goods and services carried out, without guarantee of reciprocation and with a view toward creating, maintaining, or regenerating a social bond’. Such an approach makes room for exploring contexts of solidarity, cross-cultural encounters and miscounters, as well as the boundaries between the economies of market and bribery. It also invites us to compare the rhetoric of patronage and cultural (dis)agreements over it in different systems, and to consider the shifts of power relations between individuals and groups over time, including in British imperial contexts.

As part of the “Eastern Ways, Eastern Voices” programme of our research group at the LARCA, we plan a series of blog entries and online sessions on the topic of “Gifting the East” over the coming months, in preparation for a research event and a publication on the topic in 2021-22. Following the broad definition by Caillé, we will pay attention to what is being given, to what bonds it creates/dislocates/disrupts, to contexts of giving (ceremonies, loci, spaces, etc.). Our focus will include global/translocal circulations of gifts, as well as their display, insofar as the latter can be a way to strengthen or reframe the social bonds established by gift-giving over time. Our programme being also inspired by Harry Lieberson’s The Return of the Gift (2011), it will pay attention to the changing value of gift-giving as a performance, and to the gift as a material object that changes its meaning over time (for instance with tensions between imperial and postcolonial contexts). In particular, we will consider contexts in which a gift, once received, may be gifted again with added, sometimes different, possibly contradictory agenda. By looking at actors and processes involved in gift-giving, we will pay special attention to the legal/ political etc. personality of those who give and who receive. Our reflection will include the role of civil societies/NGOs in the context of diplomatic gift-giving and will appraise their relations with States (collaborations, tensions, etc.).

Overall, the programme approaches gifts and gift-giving transhistorically and will also bear the imprint of thing theory to reinforce our broad conceptualisation of gifts beyond objects. We mean to further detect the social bonds that gifts allow, as well as ‘to better register the agency of things’ (Bruno Latour, Tanner Lectures, March 2014) as potentially fully-fledged actors of social relations. In terms of method, the programme will be an occasion to think about how concepts from anthropology can (or cannot) be used historically (Christophe Granger (dir.), À quoi pensent les historiens, 2013).

Participants: Ladan Niayesh, Stéphanie Prévost, Marine Bellego, Mathilde Alazraki, Alice Decouvelaere.

1er février 2019 / 1 February 2019 : Les récits d’esclaves II/ Slave Narratives II

(The seminar was then titled « EHDLM-Paris Diderot » Nos theories, nos pratiques).

Participant : Michaël Roy, (Université Paris Nanterre), a présenté son livre (prix SAES-AFEA) Textes fugitifs : Les récits d’esclaves au prisme de l’histoire du livre (Lyon : Presses de l’ENS, 2018)

Modération/ Commentator : Thomas Constantinesco (LARCA, Université Paris Diderot).

Salle 830, 12h30-14h.

10 novembre 2018/ 10 November 2018 : La carte à l’épreuve de la photographie et de la littérature

(The seminar was then titled « EHDLM-Paris Diderot : Nos théories, nos pratiques”).

Jordi Ballesta (Université Jean Monnet, Lyon),
David Lowenthal, à travers l’Amérique vernaculaire : voyage photographique et enquête extensive,
Julien Nègre (ENS LSH Lyon), Cartes et cartographies dans les textes de Thoreau

Modération/ Commentator : François BRUNET (LARCA, Université Paris Diderot). Séminaire commun avec « Frontières du littéraire »

Salle 830, 12h-14h

20 juin 2018/ 20 June 2018 : Writing from the Margins : Political Masculinities and Separatists (Auto) Biographies in Cameroon,

(The seminar was then titled « EHDLM-Paris Diderot : Nos théories, nos pratiques »)

Participante : Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué (Baylor University), invitée par Mélanie Torrent dans le cadre du colloque « Cameroon ». Séminaire commun avec « Frontières du littéraire ».

Salle 830, 17h-19h


2 février 2018/ 2 February 2018 : Les récits d’esclaves, I/ Slave Narratives I

(The seminar was then titled « EHDLM-Paris Diderot : Nos théories, nos pratiques » )

Participant.e.s :
Thomas Constantinesco (LARCA, Université Paris Diderot),
Sandrine Ferré-Rode (Université Versailles St-Quentin),
Claire Parfait (Université Paris XIII),
Marie-Jeanne Rossignol (LARCA, Université Paris Diderot).

Modération/ Commentator : Michaël Roy, (Université Paris Nanterre)

Salle 830, 12h30-14h