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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

The Ottoman Empire
in the 17th Century




The Political Landscape Of The 17th Century

At the dawn of the 17th century, the Middle East and North Africa were divided between two major empires. To the east, in central Asia, lay the Safavid empire of Persia. To the west and north lay the Ottoman empire of Turkey.

During the mid-16th century, the Turkish sultan known as Suleyman the Magnificent added much territory to the Ottoman empire through conquest. By the end of the century, the empire spanned much of eastern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, and the rest of North Africa. It also encompassed the major holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina. Suleyman's major defeat came when he attempted to take the city of Vienna, but even so he was left with a vast empire of power and wealth.

This era also marked a high point of Ottoman architecture, as the great architect Sinan designed spectacular mosques and other buildings. Today, Suleyman's mosque, which was designed by Sinan, remains one of the more fascinating tourist attractions in Istanbul.

By the time the 17th century began, the Ottoman empire had reached its high point, and was slowly beginning to decline. Armies from the Austrian empire to the west and the Russian empire to the northeast harried the edges of the Ottoman borders, in their own attempts to acquire power and territory. In the latter half of the 17th century, the Ottomans began to lose ground.

At this time, many Jews were living under Ottoman rule, having fled the cruel persecution of the Inquisition in Western Europe. They found the world of Islam to be much more tolerant, more welcoming.




Suleyman's time marked the rise of power of certain women in the empire: the Sultan's Kadins (wives) and his mother, the Valide. The harem of the Ottoman Sultan became famous for its beauties.

The typical Muslim dwelling was segmented into two major sections: one for the men, and one for the women and children. Men from outside the family were allowed to visit the men's side of the household, but the women's side was haram, forbidden, which is how it came to be named the harem. The intent was to protect the women and children of the household from inappropriate attentions by outsiders.

A screen between these two sections of the household allowed women to view the activities on the men's side without themselves being seen.

Together with the household staff, women took care of routine household duties of cooking, cleaning, gardening, etc. The men would typically come home for lunch, then return to their work. During the afternoon, the women found time to socialize with their female family members, friends, and relatives. Often, this socializing would include playing music and dancing for each other.



What the Women Wore

Through trade caravans and military movement, cultural details such as clothing, music, dance forms, and recipes were carried throughout the Ottoman empire. For this reason, many similarities developed between the lifestyles of Turkish women and those of women in other parts of the empire.

The illustration to the right comes from an Italian book titled Costumi Orientali (Oriental costume), published in the 17th century. Click on it to see more detail.

Although not visible in this picture, pantaloons were worn as an undergarment. They were very full — 60 inches across the width of each leg. Drawstrings were used at the waist. At the ankle, the lower edge could either pulled up into a drawstring, or it could be gathered to a cuff that buttons or hooks. Cuffs were typically embroidered.

Over the pantaloons women wore a skirt, with a sash tied at the hips. On their upper half, they wore a sheer V-necked blouse with full sleeves. Over this was a hip-length coat, flared below the waist.

Synthetic fibers such as nylon did not exist in the 17th century! Most clothing was made from cotton or silk. Designs in the fabric consisted of solid colors, stripes (which were worn vertically on the body), and tapestries. The fabric was not sheer.

Ottoman Woman




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