Summary and book reviews of Seraglio by Janet Wallach


By Janet Wallach

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  • Hardcover: Jan 2003,
    336 pages.

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Book Summary

A mesmerizing novel based on the true story of Empress Josephine's cousin who, kidnapped at age thirteen, was given as a gift to the Turkish sultan, placed at the lowest level of the harem, and rose to become the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire.

Aimée du Buc de Rivery was still a child when she found herself in the hands of pirates while en route from France to her home in Martinique. The genteel young girl was a valuable commodity, and she was soon placed in service in a seraglio in Topkapi Palace—the Ottoman emperor’s private world. Brilliantly re-imagining Aimée’s story, biographer and Middle East expert Janet Wallach transports readers to the menacing yet majestic world of eighteenth-century Turkey. Seraglio provides a passionate glimpse of East-West history through one woman’s distinctly European eyes.

A Note From The Author
I began this book as a biography of Aimée du Buc de Rivery, the eighteenth-century girl from Martinique, cousin of the Empress Josephine, who was seized by pirates and sent to the sultan’s harem in Istanbul. There, at Topkapi Palace, she became the wife of one Turkish sultan and the mother of another. Her rise from lowly slave to valide sultan and her influence over her son, Sultan Mahmud II, one of the great reformers of the Ottoman Empire who turned Turkey toward the West, have intrigued generations of writers and scholars.

Yet the story has always been controversial. Was Aimée, in fact, the same person as the harem woman called Nakshidil? If so, when did she arrive in Istanbul, what was her relationship with Selim, and was she the real mother of Mahmud? I researched the subject for several years, visiting Topkapi and the impressive turbe where she is buried, and solicited the help of Ottoman scholars who combed the Topkapi Palace archives. Eventually, I had to concede that little specific information exists about Aimée/Nakshidil or, for that matter, any of the women in the Ottoman sultans’ harems. No journals or diaries were permitted inside the imperial harems, no contact was allowed with the world outside; the women’s pasts were deliberately erased, their futures defined by their rulers.

It was Father Chrysostome, the Jesuit priest, who told of the last rites given to Nakshidil on her deathbed. That the sultan’s mother was born a Christian was not unusual; it was her wish to die as a Christian, and her son’s acceptance of it, that set her apart. It was harder to prove that she was the missing daughter of the Martinique plantation family du Buc de Rivery, yet many students of Turkish history believe it to be true. And when Sultan Abdul Aziz journeyed to France in 1867, he was greeted with great enthusiasm by Napoleon III, who told the press that their grandmothers were related. What’s more, the sultan brought with him a miniature of Nakshidil that had a likeness to an earlier portrait of Aimée. And while in France, Abdul Aziz sent out word that he was looking for members of Nakshidil’s family.

This book will not end the debate over the origins of Valide Sultan Nakshidil. But I hope it will provide a glimpse of her mysterious life in the seraglio two centuries ago. Perhaps, too, it will shed some light on the Muslim world today, whether it is a handful of rulers ensnared in plots for power and succession or the millions of women who still live cloaked behind the veil.

From the 
Journal de France,
July 10, 1867

Sultan Abdul Aziz arrived in Paris this week for a state visit. As the first Ottoman emperor to visit France, he was given a warm welcome by the government, which provided him with a huge suite at the Elysée Palace and a staff to assist his own vast retinue of servants. Among the sultan’s wishes were hardboiled eggs at breakfast, napoleon pastries at lunch, chocolates in the evening, and private performances in his suite by the girls from the Folies Bergères. When asked why he had invited Sultan Abdul Azis to Paris, Emperor Louis Napoleon replied he was most curious to meet Sultan Abdul Azis because “we are related through our grandmothers.”


I first met Nakshidil on the day she arrived at Topkapi, in the summer of 1788, nearly thirty years ago. Several of us had been ordered to go to the seraglio pier: a corsairs' ship belonging to the bey of Algiers had docked and word had been sent ...

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About This Book
In 1788, Aimée de Buc de Rivery, 13-year-old Creole daughter of a prominent family in Martinique, was returning from convent school in France when her ship was captured by pirates. She was sold to a slave trader in Tunis who, in turn, sold her to the household of the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople, where she was initiated into his seraglio. The seraglio was a place of astonishing, disorienting weirdness: The several hundred women there led lives of unfathomable luxury and ease in what was essentially a prison. Forbidden to venture beyond the palace walls, watched day and night by court eunuchs, and denied even the rudiments of education, the women filled their days by bathing, receiving instruction (from the ...
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Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

The intrigue and drama of the palace are balanced by capable, authoritative prose and admirable restraint, resulting in a novel at once serious and enchanting.

Library Journal - Faye A Chadwell

The dialog is occasionally wooden, but Wallach (Desert Queen The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell) has chosen a sturdy foundation for her first novel. Conspiracies and coups abound, and the mixture of religion and politics is highly combustible. Recommended.

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