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. []