This is the transcript of episode 4.5 of my podcast series on, and leading up to, Thomas Dallam, the Elizabethan organ builder who sailed to Constantinople with a gift for the Sultan. You can listen to the episode here or through the usual podcast services.
Welcome to Human Circus, and to my second try at a mini episode. My first didn’t actually manage “mini,” but it did convince me that my other episodes were too long and led to me shortening those up a little, so it did serve a purpose. Today, we’ll see how close to mini I’ve managed. Once again, if you’re enjoying the podcast, please keep listening after the episode to hear how you can help keep it going. Thanks very much to Carol R and Tiny M for their recent donations and helping this episode get out to you.
Today I want to tell a short story, a story of a rise to power, wealth, and influence within the perilous context of the Topkapi Palace in 16th century Constantinople. It’s the story of a Jewish woman named Esperanza Malchi, the world which she flourished in, the heights she reached, and the violence that eventually consumed her. Unfortunately, there is no great wealth of source material on Malchi, but, as always, there are a number of interesting things to talk about along the way. We’ll begin with the time she was born into.
As you’ve heard in other episodes, the Ottoman world was not a homogenous one. This was true in the early days of the Osmanlis making raids on neighbouring Turkish Beyliks or into Balkan Europe, and it’s certainly true here in the 16th century, from its soldiers, to its capital city’s citizenry, to its palace. Working in and around the palace could be found, among others, Jews from post-expulsion Spain, Venetian converts to Islam, slaves from the Balkans and Caucasus, eunuchs from the Nile region, and Christians who came to be united with family members already serving under the sultan. Interestingly, conversion from Christianity to Islam ran somewhat along gender lines as while men were required to convert to advance their careers or gain their freedom, women could remain Christian even if they married a muslim man. The long and the short of all this was that the Ottoman Empire was strikingly international in character, a place where a Norfolk merchant named Samson Rowlie would govern the finances of Algeria under the name Hassan Aga, where one of the most powerful men in the palace was a Venetian eunuch who had taken the name Gazanfer, where a convert born of a Genoese noble family would become Grand Vizier, and where you might meet Esperanza Malchi.
Malchi’s rise to prominence was a product of her connection to Murad III’s Haseki Sultan, his chief or favourite consort, Safiye, and Malchi and Safiye lived at a time when a leading role in the palace harem, home to female servants, slaves, relatives, and concubines, had quite a bit of power attached to it.
It had not always been so. Earlier sultans, commanding their empires from the field and at the head of their armies, had tended to dispatch the mothers of princes off to the territories where the princes were to govern. Those women were thus kept away from any central levers of power and from the sultans’ traveling courts. But starting with Suleyman’s wife Hurrem in the 1530s-50s, and more definitively with her son Selim II’s Haseki Sultan, Nurbanu, things had started to change.
The empire had essentially ceased to expand, and, following Suleyman, the sultans were not abroad leading armies; they were, as we heard of Murad in previous episodes, getting increasingly comfortable at home. It was becoming more and more a sultanate of the palace. And it was becoming what is often referred to as the sultanate of women.
When Murad III became sultan and brought Safiye and the rest of his household to the capital, his mother, Nurbanu, also moved into the Topkapi Palace, taking her place in lavishly built new apartments in its harem, which quickly expanded during this period; Murad, a far cry from the sultans of the past who had taken council on campaign from their grand viziers and other men, took up residency there, and influence moved away from the viziers and ministers and into the harem from which the Kizlar Aga, the chief African eunuch, along with Nurbanu and Safiye, wielded growing power.
This is a period where you have the Venetian ambassador noting that Safiye and Nurbanu governed everything, and you had to “depend on them, or at least not have them against you.” “Governed everything,” was perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but the harem was by this point selling political appointments and controlling the enormous wealth of former sultans. Connection with the women within its walls was also seen as the path to establishing something like a transmitted nobility for the political slave class.
So we have a change in the empire, with the end of its expansionist phase, and a change in the habits of Sultans, with rule from the back of a horse or a military camp moving to rule from the domestic comforts of the palace and the harem; and we have a series of women seizing the opportunities these changes presented to, by some accounts, dominate an era of Ottoman rule. That domination is really going to come to fruition in the 17th century when child heirs to the sultanate will grow up while their mothers see to the business of empire, but here in our story is when it begins. Safiye herself will grow in stature until it will be said that her son the Sultan, then Mehmed III, was really not a ruler, but only an administrator, and that Safiye and her inner circle of court women and senior eunuchs were truly in control.
The interesting thing about all this power, though, was that it was held by people who were, in a sense, prisoners, however luxurious their cells, or palace, may have been. And yet, if these cells may have limited their physical movement, there were certainly avenues by which the outside world reached in to them, and ones by which those in the harem reached out and acted upon it. Looking at the efforts of a variety of foreign rulers, merchants, representatives, and ambassadors to engage with the women of the palace, the picture that emerges is one of networks of dwarves, mutes, eunuchs, and servants, all cultivated for proximity to the harem; and among these figures, one that stands out to me is the kira.
The kira was a woman who acted as a kind of financial agent for the women of the harem. She would bring them jewelry, clothing, cosmetics, and other goods; she would provide secretarial services to them, writing and sending correspondence, and sometimes, it seems, be something of a confidant. She might act as a go-between, conducting dealings with ambassadors, as the kira Esther Handali did, carrying messages to and from the Venetian bailo. She might play the game for her own ends, as Handali also did, bringing the bailo’s presents and petitions in and the letters out, but also passing along the goings-on of the palace and regularly receiving gifts from the Doge of Venice. She might, as it was rumoured Malchi had done, siphon off gifts intended for one ruler or another. She might, as Malchi did, write to the Queen of England.
Esther Handali died in mid-December, 1588, though there is some disagreement over the year, after 3 months of illness at the conclusion of which she was unable to leave her bed. Until the end, she received letters from Safiye, asking after her health or asking her to tell the Venetians to tear down their castles near the borders. Handali’s own final letter is said to have been a request for more cushions. Sometime after she died, Esperanza Malchi took her place with Safiye.
I would very much like to be able to tell you in detail of Malchi’s beginnings, of where she was from and by what turns her life had taken her to this point. However, details are maddeningly hard to come by here. Handali had come to the position first as a partner in her husband’s business; he had been a merchant and she initially brought his goods into the harem and then, following his death, proceeded independently as she was well established by that point. However, there’s no such mention when it comes to Malchi; we hear of sons, but not a husband. Perhaps she had worked with Handali in her dealings with the Venetians and that’s how she’d gotten close to Safiye; maybe she’d already been providing similar services to other ladies of the harem. But that’s just speculation. Perhaps the Jewish population of the city might give us some clues.
Constantinople had a very large Jewish population by this point, and its arrival can be traced in rough forms: forced resettlement following the Ottomans’ capture of the city, Ashkenazi Jews arriving from central Europe in the early 15th century, large numbers of Sephardic Jews following the expulsion from Spain in the late 15th century and more from Portugal after forced conversion and then the inquisition, and then, like a wave moving west to east, building intolerance in the 16th century Italian states pushing families, some of whom had moved from Spain and Portugal, to leave, many headed for Ottoman lands, and many of those for Constantinople. I have sometimes seen Malchi described as Italian and other times as Spanish born, and I’m not entirely sure if she was in fact born in Spain and lived in Italy for some time before coming to Constantinople or if instead the idea that she had any Italian connection at all comes of her being confused with Handali, which often seems to have happened. Malchi could have arrived in Constantinople from Iberia with the “New Christians,” the forced converts, many of whom sought to leave behind their double lives in the 1550s and 60s, but this is, again, speculation. For now, it looks like we’ll have to accept her somewhat mysterious origins and move on, to find Malchi’s role in the city of Constantinople.
Actually, we’ve already seen something of her role in past episodes. Though I haven’t pointed her out, Malchi has had her hands in our story already. When Edward Barton’s ship finally came in last episode, when the Ascension appeared on the horizon and eased, for a time, his anxiety over the necessary gifts, I mentioned that there were presents not just for the sultan but for a broad range of important figures, and some seemingly unimportant ones. One of those receiving gifts was, of course, Safiye.
Safiye was said to have been delighted with her present which consisted of a picture of Elizabeth set with rubies and diamonds, some gilt plate, some garments of golden cloth, and a case of silver and gilt bottles. She was delighted enough to send word to Barton asking what she might send in return and, following his recommendation, to send gowns of golden cloth, a Turkish girdle, and a thank you note. This exchange between the two royal women was handled on Elizabeth’s end by Edward Barton and on Safiye’s by Esperanza Malchi.
It was an important relationship that Malchi was facilitating. The English, like the other sides in this diplomatic game, were very aware of the importance of cultivating Safiye as an ally, and they perhaps had a bit of an advantage here, for a queen might write directly to Safiye where a king could not. And there would be more communications, more gifts sent between the two. The ship carrying Thomas Dallam would carry a magnificent carriage worth 600 pounds and Safiye responded with “a robe, a sash, two gold-embroidered bath towels, 3 handkerchiefs, and a ruby and pearl tiara,” and, perhaps more importantly, a letter in which she promised to act on Elizabeth’s behalf: “I will take action in accordance with what you have written. Be of good heart in this respect. I constantly admonish my son … to act according to the treaty. I do not neglect to speak to him in this manner. God willing, may you not suffer grief in this respect.”
Malchi felt confident enough in her position, that she also actually wrote to Elizabeth in her own name. She offered her services to the foreign monarch and requested she be sent “rare distilled waters of every kind for the face and odiferous oils for the hands… .” It seems a bit presumptuous, even if the waters and oils were intended for Safiye, but Malchi had every reason to feel confident. She had by all accounts amassed quite a fortune by this point, working as Safiye’s financial agent. She’d gained contracts for herself and her sons, acquired the rights to lucrative tax farms, apparently including the sheep tax and the Christian tax, and invested successfully in trade. Her wealth at the time was immense, and, apparently, so was her power.
A secretary at the English embassy later wrote of this period that “… the whole government of the Empire rested in the hands of one [Malchi], a young and audacious woman, by the extraordinary favour and love of the Queen Mother so that nothing was left to the counsel and order of the Vizier and grave Seniors, but was first to receive approbation and authority from her; the black eunuchs gave laws to all, and the cabinet councils were held in the secret apartments of the women; and there were prescriptions made, officers discharged, or ordained as were most proper to advance the interest of this Feminine Government.” And there’s more, implying, among other things, a sexual relationship between Malchi and Safiye. Whatever the accuracy of all of this, Malchi had become a very visibly successful player in a particularly dangerous game within the sultan’s palace.
As I alluded to in an earlier episode, the Sultan was often at the mercy of janissaries or the sepahis, the palace cavalry, rising up and violently expressing their displeasure, and when that happened, you didn’t want to be the one they blamed for inflation or whatever other financial difficulties had stirred them up. Even being a favourite of the Sultan himself couldn’t save your life if things turned against you. In 1603, the very powerful Kapi gAazi or chief of the white eunuchs, was beheaded before Mehmed and this despite his alliance with Safiye and the Sultan’s tearful efforts to save him.
Just as power and powerful patrons were no protection, when you died, the family you’d protected, supported, and found positions for, was exposed to the hungry forces that waited only for their opportunity. That Kapi gAazi’s brother was killed 4 months later, and there are countless examples of this sort, where the fall of the most powerful member of the family is quickly followed by the deaths of others. To be without power in Malchi’s world was to be exposed to the whims of those who held it, but to have it yourself seems to have been to march down the night streets with a lit torch, a beacon for hungry eyes and a temptation to be torn away.
I have seen in one source that Mehmed granted to Malchi the profits of the Sepahi, and, if this is true, it seems hard to imagine he could not predict the results; perhaps this was even his way of getting rid of her. But probably, no such direct infringement would have been necessary to excite their anger. Malchi was said to be the agent through which Safiye received her bribes, there were those stories that Malchi and a clique of senior eunuchs and harem women were running the empire, and then there was the perennial issue of the debased currency in which the Sepahi were paid. When the palace cavalry rose up again in March of 1600, the targets of their wrath were Malchi and her allies. I have seen what happened next told a few different ways, though they all come to the same place.
It is sometimes said that when the violence broke out, a terrified Mehmed and Safiye immediately turned Malchi out of the palace, giving up the one the angry soldiers desired as sultans had done before them and would do again. This version then has her fleeing for the Black Sea by boat but being intercepted and pulled ashore. Other tellings have her dragged from her house. Sometimes it is said that she was taken to the Grand Vizier’s palace, and that he, unawares that his own doom was only a few years off, signalled from within that they may do what they wanted with her; sometimes she is said to have hidden herself within his palace only to have him give her up, caving to the pressure of the Sepahis at his door, or perhaps only feigning the appearance of resisting that pressure at all. Sometimes she is said to have been stabbed to death in his yard.
There are variations on a theme here, but they come to much the same thing. She was brutally killed and her body torn apart, in some tellings by dogs in the public square where she was dragged to, in some by soldiers who cut her into pieces and are said to have carried those pieces about the city, displaying them for all to see. Her head was taken on a pike and her right hand nailed to the door of a qadi, or judge, who was said to have often kissed it and sought favour from her. Malchi’s family didn’t escape unscathed either. Her eldest son was head of the customs office in the port, no doubt a position that his mother had arranged for him, and he died with her, or perhaps the following day. In one telling his large, fat, body is laid out next to hers in the square for the dogs to eat, but they will not do so, clearly, I think, a way of writing his corruption into the story, his dead body made unhealthy by the immoral nature of his acts when alive.
Another element to this act of violence is the anti-semitic one. Constantinople had a large Jewish population, as I touched on earlier, and many of them successfully built careers as Malchi did within the conjoined worlds of the palace and the port, but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this was entirely a place of peace and comfort where all religions were equal. Jews were frequently subject to sudden “taxes” imposed by soldiers and in the events around Malchi’s death, an English member of the embassy noted that the soldiers carrying the pieces of her body specifically menaced Jewish citizens with them and that in the days that followed the Jews of the city did not dare come out of their houses for those that did were beaten and stripped of their clothes.
The killing, however, seems to have wound down after that. The angry Sepahi demanded of Mehmed the heads of a chief eunuch, a captain of the garden, and a financial administrator, along with the banishment of Safiye, but they were apparently calmed with the Sultan’s promise to “counsel his mother and correct his servants.” Rebellious soldiers were not punished for this sort of uprising. Rather, it seems to have become somewhat expected by this point, so long as it was directed against pawns, even very powerful ones, and not queens or kings. The blood of Malchi and her son had been enough to satisfy this particular uprising.
In a few years, it would the janissaries turn to revolt, and so it would continue. But it will have to continue without you and I. We’re going to pause here. When you hear from me again, it will at last be the preparations and departure of Thomas Dallam that we’ll talk about. He’ll be bound for the port of Constantinople, to stumble unwittingly into the games of death and diplomacy that were proceeding there, and he’ll be accompanying one of those incredibly important presents. Remember that Edward Barton is at this point dead, and his replacement, Henry Lello waits anxiously for the shipment that will allow him to kiss the sultan’s hand and be recognized. He will have to wait just a little longer.
Thank you for listening. If you have questions, comments, or compliments, you can find me through twitter @circus_human or by email at email@example.com
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