The Sultanate of Women

Forget any idea that all the members of the harem were downtrodden females subject to their husband’s every whim! For a period of around 130 years in the 16* and i7′”centuries a handful of powerful women defied such casual stereotyping and played a major role in the running of the Ottoman Empire. All of them had been born outside the Empire and only converted to Islam once absorbed into the harem.

The first was Hurrem Sultan (c.1510-58), the only legal wife of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and better known to the West as Roxelana (“the Russian”). Born in what was then Poland (now Ukraine), she was captured as a slave by the Crimean Tatars and ended up in Istanbul where she succeeded in ousting the Sultan’s favorite concubine and giving him five children. She was responsible for the magnificent Haseki Hurrem Sultan Hamam in Sultanahmet Square (LINK), and is buried in the grounds of the Suleymaniye (LINK).

Next in importance was Nurbanu Sultan (c.1525-83). Venetian-born and a relative of the Doge, she was captured by Turks and ended up in the harem of Sultan Selim II (“the Sot”) where she became his favorite wife. As co-regent for Murad III she pursued such a pro-Venetian policy that the powerful Genoese traders in Galata came to hate her. Her death in 1583 looked thoroughly suspicious.

Finally, Bosnian-born Kosem Sultan (1589-1651) became the wife of Ahmed I and then co-regent for her son Murad IV, effectively running the empire for him. When he was succeeded by his feeble-minded brother ibrahim, Kosem continued as the power behind the throne, then when he was in turn succeeded by her grandson, seven-year-old Mehmed IV, she openly became regent again, a situation which persisted until her murder in 1651. She was probably the most powerful Ottoman woman ever to have lived.

Nurbanu Sultan (IMAGE)
Kosem Sultan (IMAGE)
Hurrem Sultan (IMAGE)

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