During the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a period of about 130 years when the Ottoman Empire was ruled or greatly influenced by the women of the harem. This period is called the Sultanate of Women and the reasons for their influence were the same as in many other countries of the time. The Emperors were either minors, incompetent to rule, or simply had great respect for their mothers as in the case of Suleiman the Magnificent and his mother Ayşe Hafsa Sultan.
Ayşe Hafsa Sultan (1479 – 1534), was the consort of Selim I and mother of Suleiman the Magnificent. From 1513 to 1520, Hafsa Sultan resided with her son Suleiman in Manisa (now in western Turkey) while he was the administrator of the area. She is responsible for the building of a mosque, primary school, college, and a hospice in Manisa where there is a monument honoring her. She also initiated the “Mesir Festival” which is still in practice today. After Suleiman came to power in 1520, she was one of the most powerful people in the empire. Pietro Bragadin, the Venetian ambassador to Suleiman’s court, noted that he saw “a very beautiful woman of 48, for whom the Sultan bears great reverence and love.”
Ayşe Hafsa Sultan was the first woman honored with the title Valide Sultan. The Valide Sultan was the title given to the mother of the Sultan. The title Haseki Sultan was given to the mother of a prince. The Valide Sultan had the most powerful position in the royal harem followed by the Haseki Sultan of the heir apparent. However, it was always possible for the Haseki Sultan to lose favor and her position in the harem, such as when Hürrem Sultan was given favor over Mahidevran Sultan.
Hürrem Sultan (c. 1500 – 1558) was born Alexandra Anastasia Lisowska, or Roxelana, in the town of Rohatyn in what was then the Kingdom of Poland and is now in western Ukraine. The area was often subject to raiding by Crimean Tatars, and during one raid Roxelana was taken captive and sold as a slave. Taken to Istanbul, she was selected for Suleiman’s harem. Hürrem caught the attention of Suleiman, and encountered the jealousy of Mahidevran Sultan, one of his favorites and the mother of the heir apparent Mustafa. One day Mahidevran beat Hürrem badly and was banished to a provincal town with her son.
As the new favorite, Hürrem asked to be instructed in Islam. Suleiman approved this and when she said she wished to convert he was happy. After her conversion however, she told him that she couldn’t sleep with a man who wasn’t her husband. After a time, he agreed and made her his wife. Suleiman obviously favored her a great deal to do this, but he eventually went a step further and freed her so that she became his actual legal wife. This was rare and gave Hürrem great influence.
Hürrem gave birth to five of Suleiman’s children, including the future Selim II. At least two letters Hürrem wrote to the King of Poland survived and some historians believe that she influenced Suleiman to curb Tartar slave-raiding in her homeland. Active in charitable works, she established a soup kitchen, a mosque, two Koranic schools, and a women’s hospital. She has inspired novels, paintings, and musical works, including Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 63.
Another of Hürrem’s children, Mihrimah Sultan (1522 – 1578) followed in her mother’s footsteps (pictured at the top of the post). At the age of 17, Mihrimah was married to Rüstem Pasha the Grand Vizier under her father. The marriage appears to have been an unhappy one and Mihrimah continued the practice of traveling with her father throughout his empire. It is even written in Persian literature that she went into the Battle of Gizah with him on an Arabian stallion named Batal.
Mihrimah had considerable resources. She was a patron of the arts and promised to build 400 galleys at her own expense for her father in a campaign against Malta. When her father died, she lent 50,000 gold sovereigns to her brother Selim. Her power wasn’t just in gold, however. By the time Selim II came to power, his mother had died, so Mihrimah took on the role of Valide Sultan for him. In addition to encouraging her father to launch the campaign against Malta, there is also evidence that, like her mother, she wrote letters in a diplomatic capacity to Sigismund II, the King of Poland.
One meaning of her name, Mehr-î-Mâh, is “Sun and Moon.” There is a lovely legend about Mihrimah. Two mosques bear her name in the area of Istanbul, Mihrimah Mosque and Iskele Mosque. Both were built by Mimar Sinan, Selim’s chief architect and an admirer of his daughter. It is said that he fell in love with her and built the second of the two mosques, Mihrimah Mosque in Edirnekapi, at his own expense without palace approval. The legend says that if you stand with a clear view of both mosques on the Spring Equinox (March 21, also her birthday), you will see that as the sun sets behind the minaret of the mosque in Edirnekapi, the moon will rise between the two minarets of the larger mosque.
Kösem Sultan (1589 – 1651) was the orphaned daughter of a priest on the island of Tinos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. Her given name was Anastasia, and it is unsure how she got to Constantinople, but at the age of 15 she was a slave in the royal harem.
Kösem Sultan endured very tumultuous times during her life. She was the second wife of Ahmed I who came to power when he was only 13. Ahmed broke with the tradition of fratricide and instead sent his brother Mustafa to the old palace at Bayezit with his grandmother Safiye Sultan. This set the stage for several coups following his death at the age of 27.
Mustafa came to power when Ahmed died, but was displaced by a coup which put Osman II, the son of Ahmed’s first wife, in power. Osman was assassinated by the Janissaries, giving Mustafa a second chance, but Mustafa was mentally unstable and unable to rule. This led to his deposition by Kösem Sultan’s son Murad IV.
Murad was only 11 when his reign began and Kösem was appointed Valide Sultan and the official regent for her son. From 1623 to 1632, she ruled the empire, attending meetings of the cabinet (Divan) from behind the curtain. She continued this even after Murad reached his majority in 1632. During the time that Kösem ruled there were many problems, invasions, revolts, and rebellions. The Janissaries even stormed the palace and killed the Grand Vizier in 1631. Murad decided to exert his power and hopefully avoid the fate of Osman. This he did, but he died of natural causes in 1640.
On his death bed, Murad ordered the execution of his mentally unstable brother, Ibrahim, but the command was not carried out and Ibrahim became the Sultan. He was unofficially called Ibrahim the Deranged because of his mental condition and largely stayed out of politics at first leaving rule of the Empire again in the hands of Kösem. He was deposed and eventually strangled in Constantinople in 1648.
Kösem’s sons who ruled with her as regent.
When Ibrahim was deposed, Kösem presented her grandson Mehmed IV to the Divan as emperor, basically declaring herself regent again. Mehmed was only six years old and it was his mother Turhan Hatice who was Kösem’s undoing. Turhan Hatice should have been named Valide Sultan as the new Sultan’s mother, but Kösem took over. A power struggle ensued. Kösem planned to dethrone Mehmed and replace him with another grandson, possibly one with a less ambitious mother, but her plan was unsuccessful. Instead, she was assassinated leaving the regency in the hands of another powerful woman, Turhan Hatice, who happened to have been a slave captured by Crimean Tartars and sold into the harem.
Although the Empire did not flourish under Kösem’s rule, she was mourned for 3 days. She was remembered for her charity work and for the fact that she freed her slaves after 3 years of service.
The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire by Leslie Peirce
The Private World of Ottoman Women by Godfrey Goodwin