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Reign of Women (1520–1683)

Reign of Women (1520–1683)

A 150-year period in the Ottoman Empire when women close to the reigning sultans—mothers, wives, daughters and consorts—exercised exceptional power, often determining domestic policy, negotiating with foreign governments, and acting in the role of regent, as well as leaving architectural monuments to their success.

In the long history of the Ottoman Empire, lasting into the early decades of the 20th century, a relatively brief period is known as the Reign of Women, during which the empire reached its cultural, political and territorial apogee. The significance of the term is a subject of some dispute, since many historians describe the extraordinary political influence held by women during this period as a sign of "decline." In the East as well as the West, women are more commonly blamed for their mistakes than praised for their accomplishments in the political realm, and terms like "ruthless" or "devious" are applied to their eradication of rivals or punishment of foes, while the same behavior in men is termed "decisive" and "authoritative." What is unquestionable, in examining the Reign of Women, which lasted from approximately 1520 to 1683, is the degree of power exercised by women in determining foreign and domestic policy and influencing succession to the Ottoman throne, as well as indulging, in the manner of their male counterparts, in the erection of a few lasting monuments to themselves.

The Ottoman Empire began with the conquest of the city of Constantinople by Mohammed II the Conqueror in 1453. His victory ended the Byzantine Empire which had existed as a Christian kingdom for a millennium after the fall of Rome. At its peak, during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, Ottoman territories bridged the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa; its armies occupied Greece, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, part of Hungary, Moldavia, and some of the area around the Black Sea, as well as parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt. Under Ottoman rule, the standard of living was much higher generally than in Europe, and urban life was much more pervasive. Silks, spices, baths, libraries, monuments and other accoutrements of civilization were common to its cities. The ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts that would later spark the European Renaissance were then being carefully preserved in the libraries of the Middle East and Islamic Spain, making the empire's scholars the preservers and purveyors of what was then understood of classical science, mathematics, medicine, literature, and art.

The role of women in the upper echelons of this culture has been largely underestimated, partly because of a misunderstanding of its social structure. European women have always been more highly visible in public life, while in the Muslim world, seclusion has been the ideal. In wealthy homes at least, women lived in harems, segregated from men, and when they went into the public, they appeared veiled. In the West, it has therefore often been assumed that women's influence did not extend beyond the family into the political and economic life of their country, when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

To understand about harem life, what is important is to recognize the economics underlying the institution. Since only the wealthy could afford to cloister women and to procure the castrated men known as eunuchs to guard them, the segregation of women was a sign of affluence that only the rich could afford. Among the Muslim poor, women still lived in one-room houses with their male family members and worked alongside them in shops or fields, or at their cottage industries. Among the wealthy, men were also separated from society in some ways. Young males seeking to rise in government service entered the "imperial harem" or the "honored harem" for their training, and when wealthy men were seen in public, they were usually surrounded by a retinue that limited their contact with the general populace. Princes or heirs to the throne often lived separate from the women's harem, in a guarded part of the palace known as the "cage," which could restrict their activities more severely than those of the women.

Contrary to popular perceptions, the imperial harem was not simply a bordello filled with women who lived to fulfill the sultan's every demand. Harems have even been compared with nunneries, since many who lived there remained celibate, never called upon to fulfill any conjugal duties. In addition to housing a sultan's wives or concubines, the harem would be home to his mother, sisters, and children as well as any unmarried or divorced family members. It was a woman's world, ruled by the sultan's mother and, in the event of her death, by his wife or chief consort. Its residents oversaw the large number of servants who maintained it, trained new women when they first entered there, and educated the children born and raised there, including the future sultan.

To some degree, the imperial harem contributed to the ascendancy of women. Segregation gave them their own administrative structure, allowing them to rule themselves. Ruling sultans were far less fearful of their wives, mothers, and daughters than they were of brothers and sons. Many women of the harem became trusted advisors, then came to exercise power in their own right.

The rise to power of the imperial harem is one of the most dramatic developments in … the Ottoman Empire. From almost the beginning of the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent … high-ranking women of the Ottoman dynasty enjoyed a degree of political power and public prominence greater than ever before or after.

—Leslie P. Peirce

The practice of polygamy inherent in harem life also contributed to female ascendancy, in that it created a unique bond between mothers and children. While the father in a polygamous household was responsible for all his wives and children, the mothers worked and schemed to secure the best future for their own children. Since a woman could rule only through her son, she had to ensure that he reached adulthood in order for her to gain power. The struggle for survival and success was thus a common bond between mothers and sons, and not usually broken by marriage or succession to the throne. When a sultan came to power, his mother became the second-most powerful person in the empire. During the Reign of Women, she was sometimes the most powerful. The downside of this aspect of harem life was the frequency of fratricide, removing brothers or half-brothers seen as potential rivals for the throne.

The harem life also allowed some women to achieve power by growing enormously rich. Under Islamic law, women received a dowry, and specified shares in the property of deceased relatives were set aside for the female members of the household. Islamic women were thus guaranteed economic independence that was often greater than many Western women enjoyed. As property owners and litigants in property, they might attain status equal to or greater than some men. Since the sultan held the territory of the empire as his personal domain, royal women benefited from the notion that all members of the dynasty were entitled to a share of the family wealth. One sultana, for example, was assigned the income from 23 villages in the province of Egriboz. In addition to agricultural holdings, it was not unusual for these women to own real estate and business establishments in urban areas. Personal wealth was also acquired in the form of jewels and luxury items received as gifts from the sultan and ambassadors of foreign countries. The mother of one sultan was reported to have 20 chests of gold coins at the time of her death, in addition to agrarian lands and urban properties. Such wealth might be used to pay and supply armies, influence government officials, build monuments, or engender popular support.

Apart from the effects of harem life they held in common, the sultanas who ruled during this 150-year period shared a number of traits. Most were foreign-born captives who entered the imperial harem as young slaves. The Ottoman Empire was a multinational entity, quite accepting of outsiders, and slavery was considered a temporary condition to be overcome; and overcome they did. Most of these women had forceful personalities, engendering great loyalty in their husbands, sons, and daughters, and most were willing to be ruthless to keep their power. They were intelligent survivors.

Many historians begin the Reign of Women with Roxelana (c. 1504–1558), also known as Hurrem or the laughing one. (See also separate entry on Roxelana.) The wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566, Roxelana was probably the daughter of a Ukrainian priest. Captured as a child and sold into slavery, she perhaps came to the royal harem as a gift to Suleiman. After winning his favor, she eventually became his wife, the first woman actually married to a sultan in more than 200 years. She gave birth to five sons and a daughter, Mihrimah , who also became powerful. At a time when a fire partially destroyed the harem in the Old Palace, women and children had long lived completely separate from the rest of the household. Roxelana took advantage of the event to move into the sultan's residence, in the Grand Seraglio, a dramatic break with tradition.

The reign of Suleiman was marked by conquest, and his armies were kept busy occupying much of the Mideast and even parts of Europe. In 1521, he captured Belgrade and occupied part of Hungary; in 1526, his troops killed King Louis II of Hungary in the battle of Mohács; in 1527, his troops sacked Rome; in 1529, they invaded Austria and almost took Vienna. There were also frequent battles with Venice and the coastal towns of Italy. All this time that Suleiman was in the field, Roxelana was his chief advisor and surrogate ruler. She learned to write Turkish so she could report events in the capital as well as advise him, and Suleiman trusted her as he trusted no one else to carry out his orders. At one point, Roxelana had Ibrahim, her husband's vizier, executed for disloyalty, and married her daughter Mihrimah to Rüstem, a vizier of her own choosing. Mother, daughter, and son-in-law eventually conspired in the assassination of Mustafa, the crown prince and eldest son of Suleiman by another woman, so that Selim II, Roxelana's son, could inherit the throne.

From time immemorial, monuments have attested to an individual's prominence and resources. In the Ottoman Empire, the buildings ordered constructed by women and dedicated to them were generally religious in nature—mosques, schools, and mausoleums—although a smaller number of bridges, caravansaries or inns, bazaars, and hospitals were built at their command. Mosques, in particular, were associated with female patrons. In the Ottoman period, 953 mosques were built in Istanbul alone, and 61 of these were built by or for women. Of the 448 buildings designed or renovated by the wellknown architect Sinan, 39 were constructed for women. Tomb towers were also major undertakings, requiring substantial resources and labor that indicated the resources a builder could muster; following the downfall of the Byzantines, these structures were also a political statement, indicating the dominance of Islam over Christianity.

In Istanbul, Roxelana oversaw the building of the Haseki complex. Though it was not on an imperial scale because its mosque had a single minaret (royal mosques have two minarets), the surrounding complex made it a grand architectural venture. In the mid-1550s, a splendid bath was built in her honor—located on the imperial axis formed by the royal palace, the famous Hagia Sophia, and the premier imperial mosque—with chambers for both women and men, built to serve the staff and worshippers at the mosque. Similar, though smaller, complexes bearing Roxelana's name were also built in Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina. Caravansaries and bridges were other monuments to her power and munificence. When Roxelana died in 1558, the bereaved Suleiman buried her in his mosque, and constructed another mosque, school, and hospital in Istanbul in her memory. The number of these structures as well as their ornate character testify to the power Roxelana exercised in her lifetime.

Royal princesses, like mothers and consorts, could sometimes enjoy physical proximity to the sultan and be members of his palace's inner circle. Under the sultans, it became customary for royal princesses to be married to top-ranking diplomats and grand viziers. If their spouses died or were executed for some wrongdoing, they might be married to a new candidate, resulting in a series of husbands. It was not uncommon for a princess to be pivotal in the redistribution of royal power through divorce and remarriage. Like their mothers, they were considered more trustworthy than a sultan's sons or brothers, which further enhanced their power. Mihrimah (1522–1575) was the only daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent and Roxelana, and the most powerful royal princess of the Ottoman Empire. She is said to have been responsible for the decision of the Ottoman government to seize the island of Malta, paying out of her own fortune to outfit 400 ships.

Mihrimah (1522–1575)

Princess of the Ottoman Empire. Name variations: Mirhrimah. Born in Constantinople in 1522; died in Constantinople in 1575; only daughter of Roxelana (c. 1504–1558) and Suleiman or Suleyman the Magnificent (c. 1494–1566), sultan of the Ottoman Empire (r. 1520–1566); married Rüstem, chosen by her mother as her father's vizier; children: Aysha Humashah .

Along with her mother and husband, Mihrimah formed a powerful coalition which influenced domestic and foreign politics. She was the most powerful royal princess of the Ottoman Empire, especially after the death of her mother in 1558, when she became Suleiman's closest advisor.

In 1558, after the death of Roxelana, Mihrimah took her mother's place as her father's closest advisor. Her central role followed the custom of keeping male heirs far from the throne; sultans fearful of coups often plied their sons with alcohol, drugs, and women, a poor preparation for their future leadership. Selim II, Mihrimah's brother and heir to the throne, was known throughout his life as "Selim the Sot." Mihrimah, in contrast, maintained her influence through many reigns, and when she died in 1575 her nephew Murad III had her buried next to her father, Suleiman, an honor not granted even to Roxelana.

One of the Ottoman Empire's wealthiest women, Mihrimah also built monuments which endure to this day. From her dowry and inheritance, she amassed a huge fortune which she used in the construction of buildings and the endowment of charitable foundations. Most of the monuments built by these powerful sultanas had a philanthropic purpose, which were religious, educational, or charitable in nature. Many were located in poor or outlying areas, and some were built especially to aid women. For example, Roxelana's Haseki mosque complex was built near the Women's Market, far from the center of the city or any other mosque. Mosques often included soup kitchens, primary schools, and hospitals, serving as viable community centers as well as religious institutions. The sultanas' concern for the welfare of women is further reflected in the many charities they endowed to help orphans, prostitutes, and other unfortunate women.

Two major mosques were constructed to bear Mihrimah's name, as well as bathhouses and medreses (colleges). Designed by Sinan, the renowned architect of the day, both mosques have two minarets, signifying Mihrimah's royal status. The second of these, the Edirnekapi mosque, has been called one of the most revolutionary buildings of Ottoman architecture, a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman.

In societal terms, these royal women set a standard of behavior for the empire, especially in the concern they demonstrated toward their less-advantaged sisters and their occasional intervention in women's interests. Sah Sultana, for instance, an aunt of Mihrimah and the sister of Suleiman, was married to Lutfi Pasha, a grand vizier. According to accounts of the period, Sah protested against her husband's inhumane treatment of a prostitute when he had the woman's genitals mutilated. When Lutfi asserted that he would continue to punish prostitutes in this way, his wife lost her temper, and he beat her. Sah Sultana then divorced him, ending not only the marriage, but Lutfi's career, since Suleiman dismissed his former brother-in-law from further government service.

Nurbanu Sultana (1525–1583) was another important link in this chain of powerful women. Said to be the illegitimate daughter of two noble Venetian families, she was captured as a slave in 1537, and quickly followed in Roxelana's footsteps by marrying Roxelana's son Selim II (r. 1566–1574). In the imperial harem, Nurbanu became Selim's favorite consort. She gave birth to his first child, a daughter (name unknown), then gave birth to two other daughters (names unknown) and a son, Murad III. Like her powerful mother-in-law, Nurbanu learned to use the intricacies of the Ottoman court to her advantage. Since Selim II was a weak ruler, Nurbanu quickly filled the power vacuum, deciding domestic policies and affairs of state, and is said to have worked particularly to ensure special trading rights for Venice, her native land.

When Nurbanu's son, Murad III (r. 1574–1595), came to the throne, her power became more formalized. Murad created the title valide sultan, or mother of the sultan, expressly for her, and during his reign he publicly acknowledged his mother as the second-most powerful person in the empire, following his announcement with a grand public procession. Nurbanu sat regularly on Murad's council of state and concerned herself with all questions of government. In 1577, she also initiated the most ambitious monument built during the Reign of Women: a complex called the New Mosque of the Valide Sultan, built on the shore of Istanbul's famous Golden Horn. The project, not completed until after her death, endures as a testament to her ambitions. When Nurbanu died, a weeping Murad accompanied his mother's coffin on foot, an unprecedented display of affection. He buried her next to his father, Selim II.

Safiye (d. 1603) was chief concubine during the reign of Murad III. Originally of Venetian origin, she was a daughter of the governor of Corfu. Murad had 20 sons and 27 daughters with a number of women, but Safiye remained his favorite consort. Although she resented his other concubines, she procured beautiful slaves for her husband to maintain her own influence, and in later years she became his sole companion as well as his main political advisor. After her son Mohammed III (r. 1595–1603) ascended the throne, her power increased. In 1590, Giovanni Moro wrote of her, "with the authority she enjoys as mother of the prince, she intervenes on occasion in affairs of state, although she is much respected in this, and is listened to by His Majesty, who considers her sensible and wise." When the sultan was away on military campaigns, she exercised the full power of regent, and she was particularly determined to look after the interests of her native Venice. During one of the frequent altercations between Constantinople and Venice, it is said that she prevented an Ottoman attack on St. Mark's, and she is credited with obtaining favorable trading rights for Venetian merchants. She corresponded on diplomatic matters with Catherine de Medici and Queen Elizabeth I , but she was unpopular with the army and did not long survive her son's death in 1603.

Sah (fl. 1500s)

Ottoman princess. Name variations: Sah Sultana. Born around 1490; daughter of Selim I the Grim, Ottoman sultan (r. 1512–1520) and Hafsa (d. 1534); sister of Suleiman or Suleyman the Magnificent, Ottoman sultan (r. 1520–1566), and Hatice ; aunt of Mihrimah (1522–1575); married Lutfi Pasha (a grand vizier).

Nurbanu (1525–1583)

Ottoman valide sultana. Name variations: Nurbanu Sultan; Nurubanu Sultana. Born Cecelia Venier-Baffo in Venice in 1525; died in Constantinople in 1583; illegitimate daughter of two Venetian noble families; married Selim II the Drunkard (also known as Selim the Sot), sultan of the Ottoman Empire (r. 1566–1574); children: three daughters (names unknown), and Murad III (1546–1595), Ottoman sultan (r. 1574–1595).

Nurbanu, born Cecelia Venier-Baffo, was captured as a slave in 1537. She entered the imperial harem and eventually married Selim II, son of Suleiman the Magnificent and Roxelana . She became valide sultan (mother of the sultan), the most powerful woman in the empire, when her son Murad III ascended the throne in 1574. Murad unhesitatingly accepted her advice, making Nurbanu the empire's true ruler until her death in 1583.

Safiye (d. 1603)

Ottoman sultana. Name variations: sometimes referred to as Baffa Sultana. Probably born in Venice with the maiden name of Baffa, though birth date unknown; assassinated in Constantinople in 1603; favorite consort of Murad III (1546–1595), Ottoman sultan (r. 1574–1595); children: Mohammed III (1566–1603, also seen as Mahomet, Mehmed, Mehemmed, Mehmet, Mohammed, and Muhammed), Ottoman sultan (r. 1595–1603).

Safiye, sometimes referred to as Baffa, entered the imperial harem as a young girl after being captured as a slave. She was the favorite consort of Murad III and the mother of Mehmed III. She personally corresponded with Elizabeth I of England and pledged assistance to the English in affairs of state and trade; she also acted as regent during the rule of Mehmed III, starting in 1595.

Kösem (1589–1651)

Ottoman sultana. Name variations: Kosem Sultan or Sultana; Koesem; Kösem Mahpeyker. Probably born in Greece in 1589; assassinated in Constantinople in 1651; third wife of Ahmed I, Ottoman sultan (r. 1603–1617); children: daughters Ayse, Fatma, Hanzade , and perhaps Gevherhan ; sons Murad IV (1609–1640), Ottoman sultan (r. 1623–1640), and Ibrahim, Ottoman sultan (r. 1640–1648); grandson: Mohammed IV (1641–1691, also seen as Mahomet, Mehmet, Mehmed, Mehemmed, Mohammed, and Muhammed), Ottoman sultan (r. 1648–1687).

Kösem became valide sultan when her son Murad IV ascended the throne in 1623; she remained valide sultan when her second son Ibrahim became sultan in 1640. Kösem continued her political role under the reign of her grandson Mehmed IV (r. 1648–1687) until she was strangled by Hadice Turhan Sultan, consort of Ibrahim.

Kösem (1589–1651) exercised power the longest during the Reign of Women. Greekborn, she was the third wife of Ahmed I (r. 1603–1617), the mother of a large number of Ahmed's children, and eventually his only sexual partner. Christoforo Valier said of her in 1616, "She can do what she wishes with the King and possesses his heart absolutely, nor is anything ever denied to her." Two of her sons became sultans: Murad IV (r. 1623–1640) and Ibrahim I (r. 1640–1648). Her daughters Ayse, Fatma, Hanzade , and perhaps Gevherhan , and their husbands, played a role in her acquisition of power by supporting Kösem in her extensive political dealings. The need for Kösem as a stabilizing force was especially important, since both Murad and Ibrahim were unstable, deranged, and often cruel men. To consolidate her power, she allied herself with a faction of Janissaries, the fierce Ottoman troops, bribing them with precious metals she had melted and distributed from the palace treasury. She maneuvered every change of grand vizier and accession to the throne. After Ibrahim was deposed in 1648, Kösem continued as regent for her grandson Mohammed IV, under the title of Buyuk Valide (Grandmother). Her power finally ended in 1651, when she was strangled on the orders of her daughter-in-law Hadice Turhan .

The most powerful and wealthy of the valide sultanas, Kösem oversaw the construction of the most modest mosque. It was built in the first year of Ibrahim's reign, when none of the concubines of this sole male member of the dynasty had become pregnant. At this point, the extinction of the Ottoman dynasty seemed a real possibility, which may explain why this complex is so unassuming. But Kösem also built a large han, or Ottoman office building, which includes shops, offices, and storage space for artisans, tradespeople, and traveling merchants, at the center of the city. Known as the Valide Han, it is the grandest of its kind in the capital.

Hadice Turhan (1627–1683) was the last of the powerful sultanas. She began her ascent to power during the reign of Ibrahim (r. 1640–1648), by managing to attract his attention and giving birth to his first son, Mohammed IV (r. 1648–1687). Unstable and corrupt, Ibrahim spent many hours watching naked girls dive for pearls and rubies that he tossed into a large marble pool while his mother Kösem ruled the empire. He is said to have torn the young prince from Hadice's arms and thrown him into a pool to drown, but the child survived. Hadice's mother-in-law, Kösem, had by this time been de facto ruler of the empire for many decades and was Hadice Turhan's chief rival. When Ibrahim died and Mohammed IV ascended to the throne, Hadice Turhan should have become valide sultan, but Kösem continued to hold onto her rule. After waiting for three years, Hadice Turhan finally had the old woman strangled and assumed her place as the second-most powerful person in the Ottoman Empire. Far more interested in hunting than in governing, Mohammed IV left ruling to his mother, and the empire flourished under her administration, largely through her selection of some of the ablest viziers of the period. In 1683, her death was noted with the words: "the great pillar of the state has passed away."

It is not surprising that Hadice Turhan decided to complete the New Mosque of the Valide Sultan, begun earlier by Nurbanu. This was the first mosque built by a woman to join the ranks of the imperial mosques, equal in the religious hierarchy to the famous Hagia Sophia. Hadice Turhan's New Valide Mosque featured a large and imposing matriarchal tomb, comparable to the patriarchal tomb Suleiman had built for his mosque. Inside it, her catafalque occupies the most prominent position, with her son, Mohammed IV, buried at her feet and four sultans—Mustafa II, Ahmed III, Mahmud I, and Osman III—buried below him. Attached to the main tomb is a structure known as The Tomb of the Ladies which is filled with palace women, and many princes and princesses are buried in the gardens. More people are said to be buried in and around this tomb than is the case with any other in Istanbul except Suleiman's. The endowment for its maintenance specified that 157 individuals be employed as caretakers.

The complex surrounding the tomb includes the mosque, mausoleums, fountains, bathhouses, and the famous Egyptian bazaar, an L-shaped market made up of 86 shops and six gates. The mosque, like Nurbanu's, included a library. Nurbanu's library was the first established by a woman in Istanbul and held her private collection, which included 16 superb Qur'ans. Turhan's personal interest in the libraries is on record in an imperial command, issued in 1662, for books to be transferred from the palace treasury to the New Valide Mosque and two smaller mosques. Mosque libraries, endowed to support large staffs of calligraphers, artists, bookbinders, and other artisans, were centers of learning for the religious staff and visiting religious students.

Hadice Turhan (1627–1683)

Sultana. Name variations: Turhana Sultana; Turkan Sultan. Probably born in Russia in 1627; died in Constantinople in 1683; consort of Ibrahim, Ottoman sultan (r. 1640–1648); children: Mohammed IV (1641–1691, also seen as Mahomet, Mehemmed, Mehmed, Mehmet, Mohammed, and Muhammed), Ottoman sultan (r. 1648–1687).

Hadice Turhan, probably born in Russia in 1627, was the consort of the Ottoman sultan Ibrahim and the mother of Sultan Mohammed IV. After Kösem refused to relinquish the reins of power as valide sultan when Mohammed IV ascended to the throne, Hadice Turhan had her assassinated in 1651 and ruled in the name of her son until her death in 1683, which ended the Reign of Women.

Lasting barely more than 150 years, the Reign of Women is a fascinating and complex period of history, when the Ottoman Empire covered the most sophisticated areas of the world. The young slave girls, who learned their way through the intricacies of harem life and survived its intrigues, became some of the most powerful women of their time. Given the opportunity to rule, they held their positions with varying degrees of success, sometimes wisely, sometimes ferociously, and sometimes extremely well.


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Karin Loewen Haag , writer, Athens, Georgia

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