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Esther Handali

(ca. 1590)

HANDALI, ESTHER (d. ca. 1590), most famous among several Jewish women, known as *kieras , who performed various services for the women of the royal harems in Istanbul. Handali, of Sephardi origin, worked with her merchant husband, Eliyah Handali, as an intermediary with the royal harem, buying and selling cosmetics, clothing, and jewelry. After her husband's death, and probably after the death of a previous kiera, the Karaite Strongilah, she began her independent activities in the harem of Sultan *Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–66). After the accession of Sultan Selim II to the throne Esther became the kiera of Nur Banu, Selim's beloved Venetian consort. This powerful and influential lady trusted and relied on her kiera, even when she became mother of a reigning sultan, following the accession of her son, Murad III (1574–95). Besides her services as supplier of luxury goods, Handali acted as a reliable intermediary, personal emissary, translator, and trustee at the highest levels, accumulating, during her many years at the court, a great fortune. Esther took part in Nur Banu's correspondence with the doge and senate of Venice. In a letter of December 18, 1582, written in Spanish, she mentioned some of her negotiating skills and discreet services on behalf of both sides. Nur Banu's two letters of September 1583 requested the Venetians to grant her kiera's son, Salamon, a permit to conduct a lottery in Venice of "certain jewels which are suitable for Franks" (Skilliter, The Letters, p. 526).

Hebrew sources emphasize Esther's generosity and her acts of charity both covert and public. She used her money and connections to assist the needy in the Jewish community of *Istanbul , supporting widows and orphans as well as destitute merchants, sponsoring scholars, and subsidizing publications of Hebrew books. Following the great fire in Istanbul (1569) many refugees found shelter in her house. Esther Handali probably died around the year 1590, at a time when another well-known kiera, *Esperanza Malchi , was at the peak of her power. Due to the inconsistency of the sources and the fact that kieras were not always mentioned by name, Malchi's murder in 1600 has been wrongly connected with Handali.


S.A. Skilliter, "The Letters of the Venetian 'Sultana' Nur Banu and her Kira to Venice," in: A. Gallotta and U. Marazzi (eds.), Studia Turcologica Memoriae Alexii Bombaci Dicata (1982), 515–36; M. Rozen, A History of the Jewish Community in Istanbul: The Formative Years (14531566) (2002), 205–7.

[Ruth Lamdan (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.