The place: Istanbul/Constantinople.
The Time: The Sixteenth Century
In the sixteenth century, the Ottoman empire was one of the few places in which the Jewish people were able to live in relative peace and where conversos (the secret Jews of Spain) could find refuge from the Inquisition. Because the Ottoman women of Istanbul/Constantinople (particularly the upper classes) did not go out in public nor did they involve themselves with business, the Jewish women were in a position to provide a valuable service to the aristocratic Muslim women by serving as their connection to the world outside the Harem.
Esther Handali earned her place in history by excelling in business and diplomacy. As was often the case in that time, Esther began her business career as an accessory to her husband, Eliya. Working together, the Handalis provided jewelry, fancy clothing and cosmetics to the Harem of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. After her husband’s death, Esther continued the business on her own. She came to be known as Esther Kira, the term Kira (which has multiple spellings) being the title of the economic agent for the harem.
As the conduit to the outside world for the women of the Harem, Esther gained tremendous influence and power. She acted as a secretary, translator, emissary and confidant to the Sultan’s Venetian consort, Nur Banu. She even facilitated correspondence between Nur Banu and the doge of Venice.
Esther’s interactions with the nobility of the Ottoman Empire brought her great wealth, which she generously shared with the Jews of Istanbul/Constantinople through her many acts of charity. She supported widows, orphans, failed merchants and scholars. After a terrible fire devastated Istanbul/Constantinople in 1569, Esther opened her home to many of the Jews who were left homeless.
*Esther Handali is often confused with a later powerful Jewish Kira, Esperanza Malchi, who was murdered.
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