Sultanate of Women
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Sultanate of Women

The Sultanate of Women is a fascinating period of time in the Ottoman history. It started in approximately 1533, when Suleiman the Magnificent married the love of his life – Hürrem Sultan. It ended in 1683, with the death of Turhan Hatice Sultan.

 

 

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 became padishahs. 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, slave women ruled the empire, together with Grand Viziers, who were mostly slaves too.

It is fascinating when you think about the Sultanate of Women in this way!

Most visitors to Istanbul only see the most famous historical monuments: Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar. But, the 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 will mention and that you will properly understand their historical 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. Also, I couldn’t find any historical site in their name.

 

 

HÜRREM SULTAN

 

Hürrem’s life was – more or less – the life of a princess that you would read in a fairy-tale. The 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 active role in state affairs of the Ottoman Empire.

So, which rules of the Ottoman dynasty did Suleiman break?

 

Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı - Sultanate of Women
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hammam

 

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 did the same and he ruled the empire 200 years earlier.

 

Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı - Sultanate of Women
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hammam

 

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. The 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.

 

Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hammam - Sultanate of Women
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hammam

 

Next, Hürrem had six children with Suleiman and one of her sons – Selim – became a 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.

 

Haseki Hürrem Sultan Fountain - Sultanate of Women
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Fountain

 

One more tradition that Suleiman broke because of Hürrem was that she remained in the imperial palace in Istanbul all her life. Traditionally, 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. 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.

 

Haseki Hürrem Sultan Fountain - Sultanate of Women
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Fountain

 

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.

 

Haseki Hürrem Sultan Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Mosque

 

There are several important historical 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 anyone 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.

 

Haseki Hürrem Sultan Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Mosque

 

The beautiful Haseki Hürrem Sultan Fountain is attached to the hammam.

 

Haseki Hürrem Sultan Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Mausoleum

 

The second major historical site in Hürrem’s name is the Haseki Sultan Mosque, together with the surrounding complex and includes two madrasas, the fountain and the hospital for women. Unfortunately, they were renovating the mosque when I went there and did not allow visitors inside. However, I took several photos of the entrance and of the mosque from the outside. But this complex is in Aksaray, far from the old historical centre, so you have to specifically go there to see it. I will certainly make sure to visit it in the future, simply because I couldn’t see it this time round.

 

Hürrem Sultan - Sultanate of Women
Hürrem Sultan

 

It was the first complex that the new chief imperial architect Mimar Sinan constructed in Istanbul and also the third biggest, after the Fatih and the Süleymaniye Mosques. This also underlines her great status.

 

Haseki Hürrem Sultan Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Mausoleum

 

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.

 

Haseki Hürrem Sultan Mausoleum
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Mausoleum

 

 

MIHRIMAH SULTAN

 

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 the history of the Ottoman empire.

 

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Mihrimah Sultan Mosque

 

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.

 

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Mihrimah Sultan Mosque

 

Next, Mihrimah married Rüstem Pasha when she was 17 years old. Rüstem Pasha was devshirme, a Croatian slave, who became Suleiman’s Grand Vizier.

 

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Mihrimah Sultan Mosque – Main Entrance

 

Together with Hürrem and Rüstem Pasha, she may have been involved it a demise of her half-brother Şehzade Mustafa.

 

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Mihrimah Sultan Mosque

 

Mustafa was Suleiman’s oldest son, whom he had with Mahidevran Hatun. 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 have certainly been executed.

 

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Mihrimah Sultan Mosque

 

But, Suleiman killed Mustafa in 1553, because he thought that Mustafa would rebel against him. In the end, her full-brother Selim became the new sultan and killed, at the time, his only remaining full-brother Bayezid.

 

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Mihrimah Sultan Mosque

 

She commissioned two imperial mosques in Istanbul in her name. The chief imperial architect Mimar Sinan constructed them both.

 

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Mihrimah Sultan Mosque

 

Photos in this post are of the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Üsküdar, on the Asian side of Istanbul. Mimar Sinan completed it in 1548.

 

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Mihrimah Sultan Mosque

 

The second mosque is at the Edirne Gate, in the Fatih district of Istanbul. But, 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.

 

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Mihrimah Sultan Mosque

 

The second mosque is close to the Fatih and the Yavuz Sultan Selim Mosques. I could have easily visited it, but who would have thought that there could be yet another monumental imperial mosque in the same area. Well, I will go there next time when I am in Istanbul.

 

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Mihrimah Sultan Mosque

 

The fate of women in the imperial palace changed when sultans died. .So, Mihrimah was safe while her brother Sultan Selim II was alive. But, he died in 1574.

 

Mihrimah Sultan Fountain - Sultanate of Women
Mihrimah Sultan Fountain

 

It is 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 Sultan - Sultanate of Women
Mihrimah 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.

 

Mihrimah Sultan - Sultanate of Women
Suleiman the Magnificent Mausoleum

 

 

NURBANU SULTAN

 

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.

 

Atik Valide Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Mosque

 

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 out at her Venetian origin.

 

Atik Valide Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Mosque

 

Beautiful and intelligent, Nurbanu was the favourite consort of Sultan Selim II.

 

Atik Valide Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Mosque

 

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.

 

Atik Valide Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Mosque

 

In fact she was so formidable that according to some sources, between 1574 and 1583, she effectively ran the empire together with the Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha.

 

Atik Valide Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Mosque

 

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 the power. Effectively, 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.

 

Atik Valide Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Mosque

 

You can visit two historical sites with her name and both are in Üsküdar, on the Asian side of Istanbul.

 

Atik Valide Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Mosque

 

One of them is the magnificent Atik Valide Mosque. The chief imperial architect Mimar Sinan constructed it, together with the surrounding complex.

 

Atik Valide Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Mosque

 

He built the mosque in 3 stages. He did the first version of the mosque between 1571 and 1574.

 

Atik Valide Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Mosque

 

The second version was done between 1577 and 1578, when Mimar enlarged the initial mosque to reflect Nurbanu’s elevated Valide Sultan status.

 

Atik Valide Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Mosque

 

The final stage of construction took place between 1584 and 1586, after Nurbanu’s death.

 

Atik Valide Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Mosque

 

In addition to the mosque, there is also the madrasa, the hadith college, the school for Quran recitation, the elementary school, the dervish convent, the hospital and the hospice that includes the guest-house and double caravanserai.

 

Atik Valide Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Mosque

 

The complex was one of the biggest at the time.

 

Atik Valide Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Mosque

 

Not far from the mosque, you can find the Atik Valide Hammam. The bath-house is still working.

 

Atik Valide Fountain - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Fountain

 

It was too hot that day when I visited the mosque and the hammam, otherwise I would have gladly spent an hour or two in the historical hammam.

 

Atik Valide Bath-House - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Hammam

 

Maybe next time, if I ever go back there again.

 

Atik Valide Bath-House - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Hammam

 

The bath-house was built in 1579 and restored in 1985.

 

Atik Valide Bath-House - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Hammam

 

Also, there is a separate entrance for women, the same as in every other hammam in Istanbul.

 

Atik Valide Bath-House - Sultanate of Women
Atik Valide Hammam

 

Nurbanu Sultan is buried next to her husband Sultan Selim II.

 

Sultan Selim II Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Sultan Selim II Mausoleum

 

The mausoleum is next to Hagia Sophia. At the time, Hagia Sophia was the imperial mosque.

 

Sultan Selim II Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Sultan Selim II Mausoleum

 

Nurbanu was the first wife of a sultan to be buried next to her husband, as that was not the Ottoman tradition.

 

Sultan Selim II Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Nurbanu Sultan

 

Interestingly, there are no markings, although you can probably guess that Selim’s and Nurbanu’s coffins are in the centre of the mausoleum.

 

Sultan Selim II Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Sultan Selim II 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 exquisite Iznik tiles.

 

Sultan Selim II Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Sultan Selim II Mausoleum

 

 

SAFIYE SULTAN

 

The next powerful woman in the Sultanate of Women was Safiye Sultan. She was Haseki Sultan and 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.

 

New Mosque - Sultanate of Women
New Mosque

 

Safiye Sultan started construction of 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, did not have any interest in it. Rather, he commissioned and constructed the most magnificent of all mosques in Istanbul – the Blue Mosque.

 

Sultan Murad III Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Sultan Murad III Mausoleum

 

I couldn’t find any other historical site related to her in Istanbul, although there is a mosque with her name in Cairo, the Al-Malika Safiye Mosque.

 

Sultan Murad III Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Sultan Murad III Mausoleum

 

The New Mosque was under restoration when I was in Istanbul and closed to visitors. The photo of the mosque in this post is from one of my previous visits. I will visit it next time when I am in Istanbul, as hopefully they will finish the works by then.

 

Sultan Murad III Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Safiye Sultan

 

Safiye Sultan is buried in the mausoleum of Sultan Murad III, next to Hagia Sophia.

 

Sultan Murad III Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Sultan Murad III Mausoleum

 

You should visit this mausoleum too, to see magnificent impressions created with beautiful Iznik tiles.

 

Sultan Murad III Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Sultan Murad III Mausoleum

 

 

KÖSEM SULTAN

 

Kösem Sultan, or Mahpeyker Sultan, reigned with supreme control and was undoubtedly one of the most famous women in the history of the Ottoman empire.

 

Çinili Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Çinili Mosque

 

Kösem also arrived to the Topkapi Palace as a slave, but 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.

 

Çinili Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Çinili Mosque

 

A series of events in Sultan Ahmed I’s early reign enabled Kösem to prosper within the imperial harem.

 

Çinili Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Çinili Mosque

 

Following the death of Sultan Murad III in December 1603, Ahmed became the new sultan. With the death of her son, 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.

 

Çinili Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Çinili Mosque

 

Sultan Ahmed I died in 1617, at the age of 27. At the time of his death, the Ottomans abolished fratricide and implemented the new “Rule of Elderness”. Kösem may have had something to do with the new policy. She would have 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.

 

Çinili Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Çinili Mosque

 

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 once again came to the throne, but the Ottomans removed him after just over a year and locked him in the cage until his death.

 

Çinili Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Çinili Mosque

 

After these events, Kösem’s oldest son became Sultan Ahmed 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 most of Murad’s reign and attended meetings of Divan (the cabinet) behind a curtain.

 

Çinili Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Çinili Mosque

 

After Ahmed’s death, her mentally unstable son Ibrahim became the sultan, whom the Ottomans deposed and killed, with Kösem’s consent.

 

Çinili Mosque - Sultanate of Women
Çinili Mosque

 

After Ibrahim, Kösem’s 7 year 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 have become Valide Sultan. But, she was overlooked because she was young and inexperienced.

 

Çinili Bath-House - Sultanate of Women
Çinili Hammam

 

In power struggle, Turhan Hatice Sultan probably ordered Kösem’s assassination, three years into the Mehmed’s reign.

 

Büyük Valide Han - Sultanate of Women
Büyük Valide Han

 

There are several historical 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 have seen in Istanbul.

 

Büyük Valide Han - Sultanate of Women
Büyük Valide Han

 

There is also the Çinili Hammam nearby.

 

Büyük Valide Han - Sultanate of Women
Büyük Valide Han

 

She constructed the Büyük Valide Han in the Bazaar Quarter of historical Istanbul.

 

Sultan Ahmed Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Sultan Ahmed Mausoleum

 

Unlike other places that I visited, the Büyük Valide Han is completely authentic.

 

Kösem Sultan - Sultanate of Women
Kösem Sultan

 

It seems that they have never done any restoration and when you enter, you can see a lot of various traditional business.

 

Sultan Ahmed Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Sultan Ahmed Mausoleum

 

It is not your typical tourist site, which makes it even more interesting.

 

Sultan Ahmed I Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Sultan Ahmed I Mausoleum

 

Kösem is buried in the Sultan Ahmed I mausoleum, next to the Blue Mosque.

 

Sultan Ahmed I Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Sultan Ahmed I Mausoleum

 

 

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.

 

New Mosque - Sultanate of Women
New Mosque

 

She had 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.

 

New Mosque - Sultanate of Women
New Mosque

 

Turhan finished the construction of the New Mosque that Safiye Sultan had started nearly half a century earlier.

 

Turhan Hatice Sultan Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Turhan Hatice Sultan Mausoleum

 

The complex was finished in 1665 and also included the school, the fountain, the nearby Egyptian Spice market and the mausoleum.

 

Turhan Hatice Sultan Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Turhan Hatice Sultan Mausoleum – Entrance

 

The New Mosque was the first imperial mosque built by a woman.

 

Turhan Hatice Sultan - Sultanate of Women
Turhan Hatice Sultan

 

Thus, the Sultanate of Women ended with her death.

 

Turhan Hatice Sultan Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Turhan Hatice Sultan Mausoleum

 

She was the last woman within the Ottoman empire with such immense power.

 

Turhan Hatice Sultan Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Turhan Hatice Sultan Mausoleum

 

She is buried in the Turhan Hatice Sultan mausoleum opposite the New Mosque, together with her son Sultan Mehmed IV.

 

Turhan Hatice Sultan Mausoleum - Sultanate of Women
Turhan Hatice Sultan Mausoleum

 

Not far from the New Mosque, you can also visit the Turhan Hatice Sultan Fountain.

 

Turhan Hatice Sultan Fountain - Sultanate of Women
Turhan Hatice Sultan Fountain

 

This is the story of slave women that ruled the Ottoman Empire and in my opinion, it is 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 also be able to better understand their significance, especially after you have put them in their proper historical context.

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