Sultanate of Women

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Ottoman Empire

The Sultanate of Women (Turkish: Kadınlar Saltanatı) was the nearly 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, starting from the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.[1] Many of the Sultans during this time were minors and it was their mothers, the Valide Sultans, or their wives, the Haseki Sultans, who effectively ruled the Empire.[2] Most of these women were of slave origin, which was often the case in general for consorts of Ottoman sultans.

Early years

The period commonly known as the Sultanate of Women was novel for the Ottoman Empire, but not without precedent. The Seljuks, predecessors to the Ottoman Empire, often had women of nobility playing an active role in public policy and affairs, despite the concern of other male officials.[3]

However, during the fourteenth century, the agency of women in government began to shrink considerably. This was the age of Ottoman expansion, and as such, most Sultans elected to "lead from the horse", moving with a court of advisors, viziers, and religious leaders as the army conquered new lands.[4] In addition, Ottoman policy from the fifteenth century onward was to send young princes and their mothers to provincial governorships in Anatolia. In effect, this kept all of the women with connection to the higher levels of government far away from any place where they could hold meaningful power. What's more, the practice of fratricide—in which an ascendant sultan would execute all his brothers to secure his throne—made the mothers and wives of princes even more dependent on their men.[4]

Fortunes began to change, however, with the beginning of the 16th century, and the concurrence of two significant events: the end of Ottoman expansion, and the merging of the imperial harem into the palace proper. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, it became clear that the empire had reached its outer limits, with borders stretching thousands of miles in nearly every direction, the sultan simply could no longer afford to go on extended military campaigns, especially after the failure of the Siege of Vienna.[4] The vastness of the empire also made the Beylerbeylik system increasingly impractical, and as such the princes began to move back to the capital. However, with their primary military and economic strength neutralized, there was no longer a need for the practice of fratricide.

In addition, Suleiman's reign famously marked the merging of the imperial harem into the palace and political sphere, as he became the first sultan to be officially married, to the woman later known as Hürrem Sultan. Though controversial even at the time, this act, combined with the centralization of the imperial dynasty, brought the women of the harem closer to real power than they had ever been.[5] As the royal princes lost power from the loss of their governance, their wives and mothers gained significantly, using their prince's status and connections to influence court and imperial decisions. In the late 16th century, Murat III even moved his personal residence from the palace, where he had previously been surrounded by exclusively-male servants and courtiers, to the harem itself. Thus, by the turn of the 1600s, the wife and mother of the sultan became two of the most prominent and influential positions in government, in practice if not in law.

Political significance

By the middle of the 17th century, six sultans had reigned, several of whom were children when they came to the throne or else were mentally unbalanced. As such, the valide sultan ruled virtually unopposed, both during their sons' rule, and during interregnum.[6] However, such radical prominence was not easily accepted by all. Even with a direct connection to the sultan, the valide sultan often faced opposition from his viziers, as well as the danger of public opinion. Where their male predecessors had won favor with the public through military conquest and charisma, female leaders had to rely on imperial ceremonies and the construction of monuments and public works.[4]

Other imperial women, such as Turhan Sultan contributed to the empire's defense, spending large amounts of money on the reconstruction and fortification of key military strongholds. Some even symbolically participated in warfare as well. When her son Mehmed IV returned from a successful military campaign, she had a royal procession arranged to retrace his warpath, and share in the glory of his victory.[4]

Weddings were also a common cause for celebration, and an opportunity for imperial women to promote charity while displaying their wealth and power. At one wedding as the daughter of Murad III was about to be wed to a prominent admiral, she had newly minted coins given out to all the onlookers, some making off with whole skirt-fulls of wealth.[4]

And the death of an imperial wife or sultan's mother could be even more extravagant. In one instance, the death of Hürrem Haseki Sultan brought throngs of mourners out to the streets, including the sultan himself, who was traditionally supposed to seclude himself in the palace during the funeral of a family member. Once again, during the ceremony coins and food were distributed to the attendees, to pay tribute to the queen's generous and caring nature.[4]

And ultimately, the most long-lasting accomplishments of many wife's and mother's sultans were their large public works projects. Often constructed as mosques, schools, or monuments, the construction and maintenance of these projects provided crucial economic circulation during a time otherwise marked by economic stagnation and corruption, while additionally leaving a powerful and long-lasting symbol of the sultanate's power and benevolence. While the creation of public works had always been an obligation of the sultanate, sultanas such as Suleiman's mother and wife undertook projects that were larger and more lavish than any woman before them, and most men as well.[4]

Role of Hürrem Sultan

Breaking with two centuries of Ottoman Tradition, a former concubine became the legal wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, much to the astonishment of observers in the palace and in the empire. It made Suleiman the first emperor to have a wed wife since Orhan Gazi and strengthened Hürrem Sultan high position in the palace. She quickly came to the attention of her master, and attracted the jealousy of her rivals. She soon proved to be Suleiman's favourite consort or Haseki Sultan. The title Haseki Sultan was first used in 16th century for Hürrem Sultan. Thus in power struggle apparently instigated by Hürrem, Suleiman had Pargali Ibrahim Pasha murdered and replaced with her sympathetic son-in-law, Rüstem Pasha. Furthermore, both Hürrem Sultan and Rüstem Pasha and her daughter Mihrimah Sultan turned Suleiman against Şehzade Mustafa and Mustafa was accused of causing unrest. During the campaign against Safavid Persia in 1553, because of a fear of rebellion, Sultan Suleiman ordered the execution of Mustafa. In 2007, Muslims in Mariupol, a port city in Ukraine, opened a Mosque to honor Hürrem Sultan.

Mihrimah Sultan

Mihrimah Sultan was born in Istanbul on 21 March 1522 and died on 25 January 1578. Mihrimah traveled throughout the Ottoman Empire with her father as he surveyed the lands and conquered new ones. In Constantinople on 26 November 1539, at the age of 17, Mihrimah Sultan married Rüstem Pasha (1505-10 July 1561), the Grand Vizier under Suleiman. She had access to considerable economic resources and often funded major architectural projects. Her most famous foundation are the two Istanbul Mosque Complexes that bear her name. The most famous mosque of Constantinople is Mihrimah Sultan Mosque. Historians say that Hürrem Sultan well trained her daughter.


Although it was a time of unprecedented power for royal women, they were not without significant opposition. To foreign ambassadors and emissaries however, many were more direct. On one occasion, when a Venetian ambassador tried to send a letter to the queen sultan through the grand vizier, the vizier refused to transmit the letter, claiming that the queen mother was nothing more than a slave, and held no power of her own.[4] Of course, such passionate denial implies that in fact, the valide sultan held a great deal of authority which the vizier resented. And in point of fact, many foreign ambassadors at the time reported to their own countries that if one wanted to do business with the Ottoman Empire, they ought to go to the Sultan's mother before any other.[7]

Powerful sultanas during the period



  1. P. S. Garbol (29 December 2009). The Women's Sultanate. Xlibris Corporation. p. 12. ISBN 978-1-4535-1607-2.
  2. John Freely (2011). A History of Ottoman Architecture. WIT Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-84564-506-9.
  3. Lambton, Ann (1988). Continuity and Change in Medieval Persia. SUNY Press.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Peirce, Leslie (1988). "Shifting Boundaries: Images of Ottoman Royal Women in the 16th and 17th Centuries". Critical Matrix: Princeton Working Papers in Women's Studies.
  5. Lewis, Bernard (1962). "Ottoman Observers of Ottoman Decline". Islamic Studies I.
  6. Peirce, Leslie (1993). The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. Oxford University Press.
  7. de Busbecq, Ogier Ghiselin. The Turkish Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq: Imperial Ambassador at Constantinople 1554-1562.


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