KIERA (also Kyra, Kira, Chiera ), a Greek title meaning "lady," given to women who handled the relations of the wives in the Ottoman sultan's royal harem in various external matters. In general these women were Jewish. They acted as commercial intermediaries between the women in the harem and the world beyond it and thereby gained the former's trust. It appears that there were at least two women with the name of Esther who held this position. One was mentioned during the first half of the 16th century, as confidant of the mother of Selim ii. Information is available on the activities of three kieras, and probably there are other Jewish women who filled the same position, but did not receive the title. The first known kiera was Strongilah (after her conversion her name was changed to Fatma (Fatima)) Kadin, who was apparently a Karaite from the Crimea. She was a daughter of Eliyah Gibor. She rendered various services to the ladies of the harem and became very close to Hafsa Sultan, the mother of *Suleiman the Magnificent, and died in 1548 after adopting Islam. When Suleiman ascended to the throne his mother managed to obtain for Strongilah and her descendants an exemption from taxes and permission to own non-Muslim slaves, The exemption, originally given in 1520/21, was reconfirmed in 1612, 1624/25, 1691/92, 1791/92, 1839/40 and 1867/68. Some of her children remained Jewish and appeared as a separate group in the poll tax registers with the designation "sons of Kurd" (one of her grandchildren).
The second kiera was Esther, the wife of the Jewish merchant Elijah *Handali, probably a Sephardi; she supplied jewelry to the women of the harem and rapidly became the confidant of Nur Banu, the favorite concubine of *Selim ii and the mother of Murad iii (1574–95), and died in about 1590. She was certainly active before 1566. She exerted a decisive influence in court and state affairs during the second half of the 16th century. She attained powerful influence and special status. Her activity reached its climax with the settlement of a diplomatic conflict between the Ottomans and the Venetians during the 1580s and in the arrangement which granted several commercial privileges to the Venetians. In appreciation of this the Venetian government authorized her to organize a lottery in the city. In internal affairs of state, Esther assisted several individuals in purchasing honorific titles and positions – a trend which began to develop toward the close of the 16th century. She thus gained many friends for herself in the upper Ottoman circles, but also some enemies. In the Jewish community she was renowned for her generosity and extensive support of scholars and authors (e.g., the physician Samuel Sullam and R. Isaac *Akrish); she assisted Jewish merchants when the government sought to conspire against them; she even intervened in order to prevent the enforcement of Sultan Murad iii's decree to destroy the Jewish community throughout the empire. After the great fire of 1569, she gave shelter and aid for a long period to many of the survivors. Samuel Sullam, who published a book she sponsored, wrote in the introduction that she had spent her entire fortune on charity. Through their mother her sons also amassed great wealth and obtained special privileges, mainly in the form of exemptions from taxes. The eldest leased the customs duties of the capital, *Istanbul, and enjoyed a special status among both the Jewish and foreign merchants.
The third kiera was Esperanza *Malchi (or Malkhi), who served as agent for Safiye, the consort of Murad iii and the mother of Mehmed iii (1595–1603). She played some part in a correspondence between Safiye and Queen Elizabeth i of England. She addressed at least one letter, in Italian, to Elizabeth in 1599, in which she identified herself as a Jewess. In this letter she dealt with the exchange of gifts between the two queens and suggested that in the future Elizabeth should not send jewels but rather cosmetics and fine cloths of silk and wool and advised Elizabeth to deliver these items for the Queen Mother only by her own hand. It is difficult to distinguish Handali from Malki except in a few documents in which their full names appear. It seems that the kiera was murdered on April 1, 1600, at the hands of rebellious, sword-wielding soldiers on the staircase of the house of Halil Pasha, the kaimakam of Istanbul. Enormous wealth was confiscated from Malki's estate after her death. Her fall occurred suddenly in 1600, and according to various testimonies it made a depressing impact on the Jewish community of Istanbul. It was due to several simultaneous factors: the rapid devaluation of the Ottoman currency which, among other things, was the cause of great discontent within the army; the extensive wealth of the family which attracted the attention of Sultan Mehmet iii, who was in need of money; and the desire in various army and government circles to undermine the influence of the sultan's mother. The immediate cause of Malki's downfall was her intervention in a military appointment – she proposed a candidate of her own for a position which had been promised to someone else. The sipahis (cavalry) of the sultan, who sought to undermine the influence of the sultan's mother, rebelled on this occasion and demanded that Malki be handed over to them. The sultan gave his consent. The sipahis subsequently seized Esther and her eldest son and executed them. The second son disappeared and the third converted to Islam. All of the family's property was confiscated by the sultan's treasury.
Jewish kieras must have continued to serve the ladies of the imperial harem in the 17th century. In 1622, an unnamed Jewish woman with connections to the sister of Sultan Osman ii (1618–22) was mentioned as having been involved in promoting the candidacy of Locadello to the office of governor of Moldavia. In 1709, another unnamed woman was believed to have helped the Jewish physician Daniel de *Fonseca pass on information to the mother of Sultan Ahmed iii (1703–30) in order to bring about an Ottoman-Swedish alliance against Russia.
Rosanes, Togarmah, 3 (1938), 65–66, 280–4; 4 (1934), 188–89; A. Galanté, Esther Kyra d'après des nouveaux documents (1926); J.H. Mordtmann, in: Mitteilungen des Seminars fuer Orientalische Sprachen, 32:2 (1929), 1–38; W. Foster (ed.), Travels of John Sanderson in the Levant 1584 – 1602 (1931), 85–86, 185, 188, 201–4; C. Roth, House of Nasi, Doña Gracia (1947), 105–6, 202; idem, Duke of Naxos (1948), 200–2, 347; add bibliography: S.A. Skilliter, in: S.M. Stern (ed), Oriental Studies, 3. Documents from Islamic Chanceries, First Series (1965), 119–157; S.W. Baron, Social and Religious History, 18:145–146; A. Levy, in: A. Levy (ed), The Jews of the Ottoman Empire (1994), 29–30; L. Bornstein , Ha-Hanhaga shel ha-Kehillah ha-Yehudit ba-Mizrah ha-Karov (1978), 29, 391–92.; M.A. Epstein, The Ottoman Jewish Communities and their Role in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (1980), 185; M. Rozen, in: Michael, 7 (1982), 195; idem, A History of the Jewish Community in Istanbul, The Formative Years, 1453 – 1566 (2002). 204–205, 207, 262, 280; L.P. Pierce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (1993), 18, 40, 59–63, 78–79, 121, 126, 223, 225–226, 230, 277.
[Cecil Roth and
Aryeh Shmuelevitz /
Leah Bornstein-Makovetsky (2nd ed.)]