Sultanate of Women

The Sultanate of Women (Turkish: Kadınlar saltanatı) was a period of extraordinary political influence exerted by wives and mothers of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. This phenomenon in the early modern period, approximately between the years 1533 and 1656, began during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent with his marriage to Hürrem Sultan (also known as Roxelana).[1] These sultanas were either the wives of the Sultan, referred to as Haseki Sultans, or the mothers of the Sultan, known as Valide Sultans. Many of these women were of slave origins, as was expected of the sultanate, since traditional marriage roles were considered too large of a risk for the Sultan, who was expected to have no personal allegiances outside his title.[1] During this time, Haseki and Valide Sultans held political and social power, which allowed them to influence the daily running of the empire, as well as requesting the construction of buildings, and philanthropic works, such as Valide Sultan Mosque.[1]  

Historical precedents

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.[2][page needed]

However, during the fourteenth century, the agency of women in government began to shrink considerably. This was the age of Ottoman expansion where most Sultans elected to "lead from the horse", moving with a court of advisors, viziers, and religious leaders as the army conquered new lands.[3][page needed] 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. Additionally, 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.[3][page needed]

Early years

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 emergence 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.[3][page needed]

A painting of Hürrem Sultan by a follower of Titian

In addition, Suleiman's reign famously marked the emergence 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 Hurrem Sultan.[4] Prior to the Sultanate of Women, the sultan did not marry, but had a harem of concubines who produced him heirs, with each concubine producing one son only and following her son to the provinces they were assigned to lead instead of remaining in Istanbul.[1]

The first Haseki Sultan was the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, Roxelana, who later became known as Hurrem Sultan after her conversion to Islam. Hurrem was mistakenly assumed to be of Russian descent, likely due to a mistranslation of her name. European visitors thus treated her as Russian; however, her ancestry was Ruthenian (Kingdom of Poland)[5] The name by which the Turks referred to her, Hürrem, meant "Laughing One", or "Joyful", a testament to her character.[5] Scholars are unsure of the date of her arrival to the Imperial Harem. There was no data recorded in the record of concubines held by the Ottoman Sultan, but documents on the birth of her first son acknowledge her presence in 1521.[6] Her significance was established with her marriage to Suleiman after the death of his mother, becoming the first wife of a sultan in more than two hundred years.[1] Since technically all concubines were slaves, Hurrem was first freed from slavery. Then a new title Haseki Sultan (Imperial Consort) was created for her, which continued to be attributed to later wives of sultans. She primarily engaged in philanthropy, particularly in the building of communal spaces where subjects could spend time.[1] The most prominent was the Haseki Sultan Complex in Istanbul, including a women's medical center, school, mosque, and kitchen to feed the poor, which was built in the 1530s. She died in 1558 in Istanbul, after the passing of her eldest and youngest sons.[1] Nearly five hundred years after her death, the false claim of Russian heritage was removed from Hurrem's tomb in January 2019.[7]

Political significance

Kösem Sultan was one of the most powerful women in Ottoman history, being a courtier to six Sultans.

By the middle of the 17th century, six sultans had reigned, several of whom were children when they came to the throne. As such, the valide sultan ruled virtually unopposed, both during their sons' rule, and during interregnum.[8][page needed] 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 the viziers of the sultan, as well as from 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. These public works, known as hayrat or works of piety, were often built extravagantly in the name of the sultana, as had been tradition for imperial Islamic women.[9]

One of the hayrat constructed in the name of Hurrem Sultan

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.[3][page needed]

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 a whole skirt-full of wealth.[3][page needed]

And the death of an imperial wife or sultan's mother could be even more extravagant. In one instance, the death of Hurrem 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.[3][page needed]

And ultimately, the most long-lasting accomplishments of many wives and mothers of 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.[9]


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.[3][page needed] 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.[3][page needed]

Powerful sultanas during the period

Name Born Ethnicity Husband Children Death
Hürrem Sultan 1505 Ukrainian Suleiman I Şehzade Mehmed, Mihrimah Sultan, Şehzade Abdullah, Selim II, Şehzade Bayezid, and Şehzade Cihangir 15 April 1558
Mihrimah Sultan 1522 Turkish The only daughter of Suleiman I and Hürrem Sultan, and wife of Grand Vizier Rüstem Pasha. Ayşe Hümaşah Sultan, and Sultanzade Osman 25 January 1578
Nurbanu Sultan 1525 Venetian, possibly Greek Selim II Murad III, Ismihan Sultan, Şah Sultan and Gevherhan Sultan 7 December 1583
Safiye Sultan 1550 Albanian Murad III Mehmed III, Şehzade Mahmud, Ayşe Sultan and Fatma Sultan 1619
Handan Sultan 1576 Bosnian Mehmed III Ahmed I, Şehzade Selim, Şehzade Süleyman, two daughters one were probably named Ayse Sultan 9 November 1605
Halime Sultan 1571 Abkhazian Mehmed III Şehzade Mahmud, Mustafa I, Two daughters probably named Sah Sultan and Hatice Sultan Unknown, sometimes after 1623
Kösem Sultan 1589 Greek Ahmed I Şehzade Mehmed, Murad IV, Şehzade Kasım, Ibrahim, Ayşe Sultan, Fatma Sultan, Gevherhan Sultan (disputed) and Hanzade Sultan 2 September 1651
Turhan Sultan 1627 Ukrainian Ibrahim Mehmed IV, Fatma Sultan(disputed), and Atike Sultan(disputed) 4 August 1683