|How does an illegitimate Venetian girl become the wife of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire? What was her life like? What kind of power does she wield, and how? “The Mapmaker’s Daughter,” a fictionalized memoir of Cecilia/Nurbanu, the real-life Venetian captive who became wife and then mother to Sultans, seeks to answer those questions.
Cecilia/Nurbanu, in Katherine Nouri Hughes’s retelling of her story, is an exceptional girl who becomes one of the most powerful women in the world. The daughter (illegitimate, we later discover) of an older Venetian nobleman and a young Venetian woman who possessed the then almost-magical ability to draw maps, Cecilia loses first her father, then her mother, and then, at the age of 12, her freedom, when Barbarossa raids her home and takes her captive, delivering her to the harem of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Cecilia is pretty, but much more importantly than that, she is literate, and not only literate, but brilliant. She is pulled out of the regular harem population and assigned to learn to write in Arabic, and then to be the study companion of the Sultan’s favorite son. She converts to Islam and gains the name Nurbanu, becomes the concubine and then the wife of the heir-presumptive, and finally the Queen Mother. Her path, however, is not one of uninterrupted upward progress: there is death, the birth of daughters (a tragedy for a concubine), and a terrible dying command from Suleiman that she must decide whether to fulfill or not, knowing that either way she risks tearing apart her family and their empire.
“The Mapmaker’s Daughter” is not an exceptionally long book, and the narrative style is fairly straightforward, but it is densely filled with details, making it a rich, slow read. It conveys the flavor of the 16th century, its barbarism and its simultaneous striving for science and enlightenment, with a naturalness that appears effortless but is in fact difficult to achieve. Nurbanu and her family are not modern people in 16th-century dress, but of their era, which they accept and yet also rebel against, not questioning the system of concubinage, for example, but attempting to make it more humane. Cecilia/Nurbanu herself is a brilliant creation, a gifted intellectual with a love for science who, on finding herself a concubine, manages to work within the confines that have been placed upon her to become educated herself, and to instill in her children a love for science and technology as well. The 16th century was a heady time of exploration and discovery, in the Ottoman Empire as in Europe, and Cecilia/Nurbanu’s story gives a sense of a society that is still medieval, but on the brink of becoming the modern world that we know today. Fans of intellectual historical fiction, and readers looking for books on influential female figures, will be well served by this book.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.