The Ottoman Empire
in the 17th Century
The Political Landscape Of The 17th Century
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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