By Serpil Kadirlar
They say that behind every great man is a great woman. Perhaps this is an analogy with elements of truth, as history has shown time and time again, strong female leaders who managed to overcome the difficulties and challenges of maintaining fair power, rule and control over their respective kingdoms and sultanates in what was (and still is) male dominated politics.
When we read about the centuries old history of the magnificent Ottoman Empire, quite often, the female role and influences which are still prevalent in society today are overlooked. Contrary to popular belief, women were far more than maids, mothers and concubines. In fact, they were the progressives in education, equal rights, international political relations and were the very glue which held the Empire together.
Ayşe Hafsa Sultan
Born in 1479, wife to Selim I and mother of Süleyman the Magnificent, Ayşe Hafsa was the first “Valide” Sultana of the Ottoman Empire. Her status of Valide created the shift in women’s roles within the Ottoman Empire which paved the way for power sharing between Sultan and female royal family members, which meant that the mothers and wives within the monarchy earned their place in politics and established the exertion of rule within the state, foreign affairs and foreign policy.
Ayşe Hafsa lived in Manisa, Western Turkey, administered under her son’s rule. She established the Manisa’s “Mesir Festival”, a local tradition still continued today. The”Mesir Paste”, which has now been produced for 500 years, was a mixture of 41 spices and herbs, made to provide a cure to various ailments. Ayşe Hafsa often had the paste made and distributed among the poor and needy, which earned her a title of “beneficient”.
She also had a large complex built in the city of Manisa, consisting of a mosque, a primary school, a college and a hospice.
Born in 1502, there is very little, if any, information or evidence to indicate where Rokselana (Hürrem Sultan) was born or of her bloodline. The is much speculation surrounding her ethnic origin- some have quoted that she was the daughter of a Russian Priest, others have claimed she was from a European region which is now within modern day Poland. However, with no family name, there is very little evidence to support these theories.
Hürrem (Meaning joyful) Sultan, was the favourite of Sultan Süleyman. Her dynamic personality made her popular and well-loved among the Sultans family. Her intelligence, interest in state affairs and love of poetry was shared by Sultan Süleyman, who later made Hürrem into his chief Consul for all matters of the state.
In contrary to traditions, Sultan Süleyman Married Hürrem Sultan, violating a 200-year-old custom of the Ottoman imperial house according to which Sultans were not to marry their concubines. She had five children with Süleyman: Şehzade Mehmed, Mihrimah Sultan, Şehzade Abdullah, Sultan Selim II, Şehzade Bayezid, and Şehzade Cihangir.
As queen, Hürrem became the first woman to remain in the Sultans court for the duration of her life. She gave generous endowments to the poor. She built mosques, religious schools, bathhouses, and resting places for pilgrims traveling to Mecca. She also commissioned Mimar Sinan, one of the greatest architects of the Ottoman empire, to construct Süleyman’s mosque. However, her most famous charitable work was the Great Waqf of Jerusalem, which was completed in 1541. This was a great soup kitchen that fed the poor and the needy
Hürrem Sultan was one of the most powerful and influential women in Ottoman history and a prominent and controversial figure during the era known as the Sultanate of Women (the 130-year period during the 16th and 17th centuries when the women of the Imperial Harem of the Ottoman Empire exerted extraordinary political influence over state matters and over the male Ottoman sultan.)
Valide Safiye Sultan
Born in 1550, the Albanian slave was presented as a concubine to the future Murad III by Hümaşah Sultan, daughter of Şehzade Mehmed, son of Süleyman the Magnificent and Hürrem Sultan.
Although the status of their relationship has been disputed by English and Venetian sources, Murad Married Safiye and on the 26th May 1566, she gave birth to Murad’s Son, Mehmet III.
Their relationship remained monogamous for several years. Safiye was a loyal and trustworthy wife to Murad, who also took great interest in political affairs and advised Murad on issues within the state while supporting his political adjudications.
When Murad died in 1595, Safiye arranged for her son Mehmed to succeed as Sultan, and she became the Valide Sultan—one of the most powerful in Ottoman history. Until her son’s death in 1603, Ottoman politics were determined by a party headed by herself and Gazanfer Ağa, chief of the white eunuchs and head of the enderun (the imperial inner palace).
During her reign, Safiye Sultan maintained fantastic international relations, and one especially with England’s Queen Elizabeth, with whom she regularly communicated with and the two often exchanged gifts.
This exchange of letters and gifts between Safiye and Elizabeth presented an interesting gender dynamic to their political relationship. In juxtaposition to the traditional means of exchanging women in order to secure diplomatic, economic, or military alliances, Elizabeth and Safiye’s exchange put them in the position of power rather than the objects of exchange.
Safiye is also famous for starting the construction of Yeni Mosque, the “new mosque” in Eminönü, Istanbul, in 1597.
The Al-Malika Safiye Mosque in Cairo is named in Safiye’s honor.
Born in 1589, the ethnic origin of Kösem Sultan is still debatable with no reliable sources to indicate her roots. It is speculated that Kösem Sultan, who’s maiden name was Anastasya, was born to a Greek Orthodox Priest, though there is no undisputable evidence to confirm this.
Another speculation is that she was of Bosnian origin, although again, this is not an undisputed fact, although Kösem had been bought as a slave by the Bosnian governor, and sent, at the age of fifteen, to the harem of Sultan Ahmed I.
Upon her conversion to Islam, her name was changed to Mahpeyker (Moon-Faced, meaning “beautiful”), and later by Sultan Ahmed I to Kösem.
Kösem became a “Haseki”- the mother of the sultans children, and gave birth to 5 of Ahmed I children- Murat, Süleyman, İbrahim, Kasim and Ayşe, and was a mother to two Sultans; Murat IV and İbrahim.
Described as a pleasant, eager, intelligent and passionate woman, her importance within the sultanate hierarchy began from around 1610, and Kösem’s influence over the Sultan increased over the following years and it is said that she acted as one of his advisers until his death in 1617.
Kösem also had a long career as a guardian of şehzades (male princes of the ottoman bloodline), and played a primary role in the enthronement of Mustafa I.
The reign of Mustafa I lasted only 3 months as he was labelled as “deranged”. He was disenthroned and replaced by Osman II in 1618. When her son, Murat IV took the throne as Sultan at the age of 12, Kösem returned to the Topkapı Palace as both the Valide Sultan and as a sultanate regency, and became the sole arbiter of the state for the following ten years.
After the death of Murat IV in 1640, she once again took the position of Valide with the enthronement of her young grandson, Prince İbrahim, and once again, took sultanate regency, overseeing all matters of the state.
Kösem was known for her charitable nature. During her lifetime, she had often visited prisons where peasants were held for their inability to pay their debts, and paid debts for them in order to secure their freedom. She had set up a girl’s charity which educated young women with a range of skills and ensured their marriages to suitable partners. Upon her death, she left her vast wealth to the state treasury and ordered the maintenance of the charities she had set up across the empire, including foundations she’d formed for pilgrims needing water and resting points on their journey to Hajj in locations stretching as far as Euboea, Lesbos and on the island of Cyprus.
Hatice Turhan Sultan
Born in 1627, Hatice Turhan Sultan was educated within the Palace of Sultan İbrahim I in Istanbul, before she married the Sultan by the age of 17. After she gave birth to their son, Mehmet IV, The Sultan made Turhan the first lady of the state.
After Sultan İbrahim I was dethroned due to mental health illness, their son, Sultan Mehmet IV, who was only 7 years old at the time, came to the throne.
Turhan was thrust into the difficult and treacherous world of politics, as she had the responsibility of acting on behalf of her young son until he was of age to rule independently.
The Grand Sultana, Kösem Sultan, had attempted to take advantage of the situation, assuming that Turhan posed no threat, and attempted to take complete power from Turhan and her young son, who was the righteous heir to the throne.
In response to Kösem, Turhan remained steadfast, refused to leave the palace and was appointed the title “Valide-I Muazzma”- thus, taking control of all state affairs. Turhan dominated the Harrem, Palace and state affairs with little opposition from constituents within the Empire. Turhan was Sultana for thirty four years- the longest reign for a female in Ottoman history.
In 1656, Turhan appointed Köprülü Mehmet Pasha as Grand Vizier. It was during this time, when Viziers from the Köprülü family came to post, when her impact in state affairs began to diminish.
During her regency, Turhan Sultana had a castle built in the Dardanelles, Schools, Hospices, libraries and fountains constructed across Istanbul and completed the Istanbul ‘Yeni Mosque’ of which building had commenced earlier by the order of Mehmet III Mother, Valide Safiye Sultan in 1597.
It would be a travesty to deny recognition to the Ottoman women who came from slavery and became not only wives and mothers of Monarchs and Sultans, but brilliant politicians, states women, business women and pioneers of education and charities for those less fortunate and vulnerable. The small synopsis given of these women does not do justice to their influence during their lifetimes- some of which resulted in development and progression, and some of which influenced the executions of rivals within the monarchy.
However, whether the admirable acts of good or the darker days where rivalry was rife, there is no denying the strength, intelligence- if not genius of these women- who persevered with great heart, passion and ambition, and paved the way for other strong females who rose out of the ashes of Turkish History. May their strength and legacy be carried through the hearts and minds of every Turkish women in the world!
(Sources: Topkapi Palace Museum, Biyografya, Dictionary of Women Worldwide: 25,000 Women Through the Ages, World Civilizations, Historical Dictionary of Women in the Middle East and North Africa, Wikipedia)