WHAT IS THE SULTANATE OF WOMEN?
The Sultanate of Women was the time when wives and mothers of sultans ruled the empire. From 1566, when Suleiman the Magnificent died, until 1683 – there were nine different Ottoman sultans. But, several of them were children when they came to the throne. So, their mothers ruled from the harem, as regents with absolute power.
I find this fascinating for two main reasons:
– In a predominantly male Ottoman society, sultans ran the empire, together with their viziers. Women were usually not seen in public.
– The second reason is far more impressive. Apart from one person that I will mention in this post, all other women arrived to the Topkapi Palace as young slaves. Then, through careful selection and with a bit of luck, they became sultan’s favourites, bore them children and in some cases became their legal wives. In other words, former slave women ruled the empire, together with Grand Viziers, who were mostly slaves too.
It’s fascinating when you think about the Sultanate of Women in this way.
Most visitors to Istanbul only see the most famous historic monuments: Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar. But, Ottoman Istanbul is much more than just these iconic sites.
There are many interesting angles that you can follow when you explore the city. I hope that this post will inspire you to visit the sites that I am going to mention and that you will properly understand their historic context and significance.
The women that I am talking about are: Hürrem Sultan, Mihrimah Sultan, Nurbanu Sultan, Safiye Sultan, Kösem Sultan and Turhan Hatice Sultan.
Two more women – Handan Sultan and Halime Sultan – appeared in that period too, but they had less influence. Additionally, I couldn’t find any historical site in their name.
Hürrem’s life was – more or less – the life of a fairy-tale princess. Ottomans captured her at a young age and took her to the Topkapi Palace, as a slave. But, she became one of the most powerful women in the Ottoman history.
Suleiman the Magnificent loved her so much that, because of her, he broke many established rules of the Ottoman dynasty. Hürrem Sultan derived her power from Suleiman’s love and played an active role in the state affairs of the Ottoman Empire.
So, which rules of the Ottoman dynasty did Suleiman break?
Suleiman married Hürrem in a magnificent ceremony in either 1553 or 1534. The marriage broke the 200-year old custom of the Ottoman empire according to which the sultans should not marry their concubines. Thus, Hürrem became Suleiman’s legal wife.
Interestingly, Orhan Gazi was the last Ottoman sultan that married and he ruled the empire 200 years earlier.
Additionally, Hürrem was the first sultan’s favourite to receive the Haseki Sultan title. That title elevated her to the status higher than that of the Ottoman princesses, equal to the Empress title in European courts.
Ottomans used this title for further 100 years, primarily during the Sultanate of Women era. In addition to being freed from slavery, the Haseki Sultan title elevated Hürrem, the former slave, to one of the highest societal positions.
Next, Hürrem had six children with Suleiman and one of her sons – Selim – became the sultan, after his father’s death. But, she never held the Valide Sultan title, because she died much earlier.
This broke another rule of the Ottoman harem: one concubine mother – one son. Suleiman allowed Hürrem to have more than one son, in fact she gave him five sons.
One more tradition that Suleiman broke because of Hürrem was that she remained in the imperial palace in Istanbul all her life. Traditionally, the sultan’s sons would leave the harem and the palace at the age of 16 or 17, to govern faraway provinces, in preparation of becoming sultans one day.
The mothers would also leave with their sons and would come back to the Topkapi Palace only if their son became the new sultan. But, Hürrem stayed in the palace with her youngest hunchback son Cihangir.
Finally, Hürrem moved from the Old Palace to the Topkapi Palace. Fatih Sultan Mehmed (Mehmed the Conqueror) issued a decree that specifically banned women from living in the Topkapi Palace, because that’s where they conducted the government business.
Considering all this, Suleiman the Magnificent must have loved her very much.
There are several important historic sites related to Hürrem, that you can easily visit. One of them is the Hürrem Sultan Hamami (bath), between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
It means that everyone walking between these two sites passes by the Hürrem’s hammam. But, I don’t think that many people know its history. Its spectacular location underlines Hürrem’s power, significance and influence.
The beautiful Haseki Hürrem Sultan Fountain is attached to the hammam.
The second major historical site in Hürrem’s name is the Haseki Sultan Mosque, together with the surrounding complex and includes two madrasas, a fountain and a hospital for women.
Unfortunately, they were renovating the mosque when I went there and I couldn’t get inside. But, I took several photos of the entrance and of the mosque from the outside. This complex is in Aksaray, far from the old centre, so you have to specifically go there to see it. I will certainly make sure to visit it in the future, when I go back to Istanbul.
It was the first complex that the new chief imperial architect Sinan constructed in Istanbul and also the third biggest, after the Fatih and the Süleymaniye mosques. This further underlined her great status.
She died in 1558 and is buried in a mausoleum behind the Süleymaniye Mosque. If you visit the mosque, make sure that you also visit her beautifully decorated mausoleum.
Of all women that I mention in this article, Mihrimah Sultan was not a slave. As the only daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent and Hürrem Sultan, she was the most powerful princess in history of the Ottoman empire.
Mihrimah’s power came from two sides. First of all, she was Suleiman’s beloved daughter, plus she had a very powerful mother. She lived at the time when the Ottoman Empire reached its peak and flourished under the Suleiman’s reign.
Next, Mihrimah married Rüstem Pasha when she was 17 years old. Rüstem Pasha (Rustem-Paša Opuković) was devşirme, either Serbian or Croatian slave, who became Suleiman’s Grand Vizier.
Together with Hürrem and Rüstem Pasha, she may have been involved in a demise of her half-brother, Şehzade Mustafa.
Mustafa was Suleiman’s oldest son, whom he had with Mahidevran Sultan. Mustafa was the first in line to become a sultan, after Suleiman’s death. Had that happened, as per the established fratricide custom, all Mihrimah’s full-brothers would’ve been certainly executed.
But, Suleiman killed Mustafa in 1553, because he thought that Mustafa was going to rebel against him. In the end, her full-brother Selim became the new sultan and killed, at the time, the only remaining full-brother Bayezid.
She commissioned two imperial mosques in Istanbul in her name. The chief imperial architect Sinan constructed both of them.
Photos in this post are of the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Üsküdar, on the Asian side of Istanbul. Sinan completed it in 1548.
The second mosque is at the Edirne Gate, in the Fatih district of Istanbul. Interestingly, it never occurred to me that there could be two Mihrimah Sultan mosques in Istanbul. I found out about the second mosque much later, when I did some research for this post.
Also, the second mosque is close to the Fatih and the Yavuz Sultan Selim mosques. I could’ve easily visited it, but who would’ve thought that there could be yet another monumental imperial mosque in the same area. Well, I will go there when I go back to Istanbul.
The fate of women in the imperial palace changed when sultans died. Thus, Mihrimah was safe while her brother Sultan Selim II was alive. But, he died in 1574.
It’s very likely that Mihrimah remained in the Topkapi Palace and shared power with new Valide Sultan – Nurbanu Sultan, the mother of Sultan Murad III.
Additionally, Mihrimah was certainly more powerful than Murad’s wife – Safiye Sultan.
Mihrimah died in 1578. She is buried next to her father, Suleiman the Magnificent, in a mausoleum behind the Süleymaniye Mosque. She is the only one of his six children buried with him.
One more slave girl that held the ultimate power in the Ottoman Empire was Nurbanu Sultan. She was the legal wife and Haseki Sultan of Sultan Selim II.
After Selim’s death, she became Valide Sultan, as the mother of Sultan Murad III.
There are different theories about her origin. Most likely, she was from the Venetian Republic and her original name may have been Cecilia Venier-Baffo. Interestingly, she was very pro-Venetian during her nine year regency. The Republic of Genoa hated her because of that. This fact also points at her probable Venetian origin.
Beautiful and intelligent, Nurbanu was the favourite consort of Sultan Selim II.
The same as Hürrem Sultan, she remained in the Topkapi Palace during Selim’s reign. Selim often asked Nurbanu for her advice on various subjects, because he respected her good judgement and she acted as his adviser.
In fact, she was so formidable that, according to some sources, she effectively ran the empire between 1574 and 1583, together with the Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha.
When Sultan Selim II died, she hid his body for 12 days, which allowed her son Şehzade Murad to reach Istanbul from Manisa and take power. Thus, she prevented anyone else from sitting on the throne.
When her son became the new sultan, she became Valide Sultan, the highest position for a woman within the Ottoman Empire.
You can visit two historic sites with her name and both are in Üsküdar, on the Asian side of Istanbul.
One of them is the magnificent Atik Valide Mosque. The chief imperial architect Sinan constructed it, together with the surrounding complex.
He built the mosque in 3 stages. He did the first version of the mosque between 1571 and 1574.
The second version was done between 1577 and 1578, when Sinan enlarged the initial mosque, to reflect Nurbanu’s elevated Valide Sultan status.
The final stage of construction took place between 1584 and 1586, after Nurbanu’s death.
In addition to the mosque, there is also a madrasa, a hadith college, a school for Quran recitation, an elementary school, a dervish convent, a hospital and a hospice that includes a guest-house and double caravanserai.
The complex was one of the biggest at the time.
Not far from the mosque, you can find the Atik Valide Hammam. The bath-house is still working.
That day when I visited the mosque and the hammam, it was too hot, otherwise I would’ve gladly spent an hour or two in the historic hammam.
Maybe I’ll do it next time, if I ever go back there.
The bath-house was built in 1579 and restored in 1985.
Also, there is a separate entrance for women, the same as in every other hammam in Istanbul.
Nurbanu Sultan is buried next to her husband Sultan Selim II.
The mausoleum is next to Hagia Sophia. At the time, Hagia Sophia was the imperial mosque.
Nurbanu was the first wife of a sultan to be buried next to her husband, because that wasn’t the Ottoman tradition.
Interestingly, there are no markings, although you can probably guess that Selim’s and Nurbanu’s coffins are in the centre of the mausoleum.
In any case, the mausoleum is very beautiful and you should visit it, especially if you are visiting Hagia Sophia. The interior decoration is done with the exquisite Iznik tiles.
The next powerful woman in the Sultanate of Women was Safiye Sultan. She was Haseki Sultan and the chief consort of Sultan Murad III. She became very powerful after Nurbanu’s and especially after Murad’s death. Her son became the new sultan – Mehmed III – and she became Valide Sultan. It means that she also held two most powerful titles within the Ottoman Empire.
Safiye lived in the Topkapi Palace during the reign of seven sultans: Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II, Murad III, Mehmed III, Ahmed I, Mustafa I and Osman II.
She held the ultimate power between 1595 and 1603 and ran the empire together with Gazanfer Ağa, the Chief White Eunuch.
Safiye Sultan started to construct the Yeni Mosque/New Mosque in the Eminönü district in Istanbul, in 1597. This mosque is one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks. But, her son died in 1603 and she lost power. The construction of the mosque stopped for decades.
Sultan Ahmed I, who came to power after her son, didn’t have any interest in it. Rather, he commissioned and constructed the most magnificent of all mosques in Istanbul – the Blue Mosque.
I couldn’t find any other historic site in Istanbul that’s related to her, although there is a mosque with her name in Cairo, the Al-Malika Safiye Mosque.
The New Mosque was under restoration when I was in Istanbul and I couldn’t visit it. A photo of the mosque in this post is from one of my previous visits.
I will visit it when I go back to Istanbul, hopefully they will finish the works by then.
Safiye Sultan is buried in the mausoleum of Sultan Murad III, next to Hagia Sophia.
You should also visit this mausoleum, to see magnificent images created with beautiful Iznik tiles.
Kösem Sultan, or Mahpeyker Sultan, reigned with supreme control and was undoubtedly one of the most famous women in history of the Ottoman empire.
Kösem also arrived to the Topkapi Palace as a slave, but she soon became Haseki Sultan as the favourite consort and later the legal wife of Sultan Ahmed I.
After his death, she became Valide Sultan, as the mother of Sultan Murad IV and Sultan Ibrahim.
A series of events in Sultan Ahmed I’s early reign enabled Kösem to prosper within the imperial harem.
After the death of Sultan Murad III in December 1603, Ahmed became the new sultan. Additionally, Safiye Sultan lost her status and she moved to the Old Palace in January 1604.
Ahmed’s mother, Handan Sultan, became Valide Sultan, but she died a year later. As Kösem was Haseki Sultan at the time, she took the top position within the imperial harem.
Sultan Ahmed I died in 1617, at the age of 27. At the time of his death, Ottomans abolished fratricide and implemented a new “Rule of Elderness”.
Kösem may have had something to do with this new policy. She would’ve certainly wanted to prevent the killing of her young sons. After Ahmed’s death, his half-brother become Sultan Mustafa I.
But, Kösem lost her status in the harem, she was no longer Haseki Sultan.
Mustafa’s mother, Halime Sultan, became new Valide Sultan. However, Mustafa was deposed due to his poor mental health.
After that, Ahmed’s oldest son, whom he had with another woman, became Sultan Osman II, but he was killed by Janissaries in 1622.
Mustafa came to the throne once again, but the Ottomans removed him after just over a year and locked him in a cage, until his death.
After all these events, Kösem’s oldest son became Sultan Murad IV, at the age of 11. She became Valide Sultan and as Murad was too young to rule, she became the official regent, until 1632.
But, she ruled the empire during the most of Murad’s reign and attended the meetings of Divan (the cabinet) behind a curtain.
After Murad’s death, her mentally unstable son Ibrahim became the sultan, whom Ottomans deposed and killed, with Kösem’s consent.
After Ibrahim, Kösem’s seven years old grandson became Sultan Mehmed IV. She declared herself regent for the third time and ruled supremely for 3 years.
According to the rule, Mehmed’s mother, Turhan Hatice Sultan should’ve become Valide Sultan. But, she was overlooked because she was young and inexperienced.
In the power struggle, Turhan Hatice Sultan probably ordered Kösem’s assassination, three years into the Mehmed’s reign.
There are several historic sites, related to Kösem Sultan, that you can visit in Istanbul. One of them is the Çinili Mosque in Üsküdar. I can easily say that, although small, this mosque is the most beautiful of all mosques that I saw in Istanbul.
There is also the Çinili Hammam nearby.
She constructed the Büyük Valide Han in the Bazaar Quarter of historic Istanbul.
Unlike the other places that I visited, the Büyük Valide Han is completely authentic.
It seems that they’ve never done any restoration and, when you enter, you can see a lot of various traditional business.
It’s not a typical tourist site, which makes it even more interesting.
Kösem is buried in the Sultan Ahmed I mausoleum, next to the Blue Mosque.
TURHAN HATICE SULTAN
After Kösem’s death, Turhan Hatice Sultan became Valide Sultan. Her son, Sultan Mehmed IV was 6 years old when he became the sultan, so Turhan ruled the empire as the official regent.
She had the supreme power. She was the only Valide Sultan that shared the running the empire with her son, in which she surpassed Kösem. Her son loved her, respected her and considered her his co-ruler.
Turhan finished the construction of the New Mosque, that Safiye Sultan had started nearly half a century earlier.
The complex was finished in 1665 and it also included a school, a fountain, the nearby Egyptian spice market and a mausoleum.
The New Mosque was the first imperial mosque built by a woman.
Thus, the Sultanate of Women ended with her death.
She was the last woman within the Ottoman empire with such immense power.
She is buried in a mausoleum opposite the New Mosque, together with her son Sultan Mehmed IV.
Not far from the New Mosque, you can also visit the Turhan Hatice Sultan Fountain.
This is a story of women that ruled the Ottoman Empire during the Sultanate of Women period. In my opinion, it’s fascinating.
There is a lot of history in this post, but I hope that it will inspire you to visit these sites. Hopefully, you will be able to better understand their significance, especially after you’ve put them in their proper context.