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Elif Kırankaya

Sigrid Kaag avant la lettre: Women played a significant role in eighteenth-century diplomacy

With her Veni research, investigator Rosanne Baars from the Institute of History aims to demonstrate that women played a role in the eighteenth-century diplomatic circles of the Ottoman Empire. ‘We already know that one woman led the entire embassy.'

'When you look at the historical accounts, they often say that one ambassador spoke with another or that they jointly concluded a treaty,' Baars explains. 'In reality, it's much more nuanced. The ambassador was supported by a whole network of embassy staff, many of whom had families in Istanbul. Many of these family members contributed to information gathering, for example, by visiting places where men had less access.'

Although most women were not paid for their work, that does not mean it only took place in the informal circuit. 'For example, we know of an ambassador couple that divided their tasks in the morning,' says Baars. 'One went to the French embassy, and the other went elsewhere. In the evening, they exchanged what they had heard. Another woman practically managed everything at the embassy because her husband preferred sitting in his study reading about excavations in Troy.'

Lower on the ladder

While stories about these high-ranking women are relatively easy to find, the same cannot be said for women lower on the social ladder. 'There are many diaries and letters in European archives, including in The Hague,' Baars says. 'In some cases, they have been examined, but I think much more attention could be paid to that diplomatic world. For instance, I suspect that many women also had administrative tasks. They received the same education as their brothers, and they had to play their part.'

Cosmopolitan city

In addition, the ego documents provide an interesting glimpse into eighteenth-century Istanbul. 'It has somewhat disappeared from our collective consciousness, but at that time, 34 percent of the population in Istanbul were Christian,' Baars explains. 'While in Europe the borders became stricter, people of various religions and nationalities mingled there. In the strict Islamic framework of Istanbul, the Christians created an elegant world filled with balls, parties, and concerts as was fashionable in Europe.'

These contrasts raise the question of how all these groups interacted with each other. 'What influence, for example, does religion have on evaluating information?' Baars wonders. 'And what does it mean if a friend of yours works at a different embassy, while both of you are trying to gather information that can benefit your country? These are the kinds of questions I hope to provide answers to in a book in a few years’ time.'

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