Sultanate of Women
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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. 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. Most of these women were of slave origin, which was often the case in general for consorts of Ottoman sultans.
The period commonly known as the Sultanate of Women was novel for the Ottoman Empire, but not without precedent. The Seljuks, predeccessors 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. Indeed, even the early Ottoman Empire, some women held visible positions of power, as evidenced by the North African traveler Ibn Battuta when he saw the conquered city of Iznik being commanded by one of the consorts of the sultan.
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. In addition, Ottoman policy of the time was to divide the land into several large Beylerbeyliks, or states, each ruled by one of the Sultan's sons, and accompanied by their mothers. 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 in order to secure his throne--made the mothers and wives of princes even more dependent on their men.
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. 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 royal dynasty, brought the women of the harem closer to real power than they had ever been. 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 in order to influence court and royal 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.
By the first half of the 17th century, six sultans had reigned, each of whom was either a child or incompetent. As such, the queen mothers ruled virtually unopposed, both during their sons' rule, and during interregnum. However, such radical prominence was not easily accepted by all. Even with a direct connection to the sultan, the queen mother 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 royal ceremonies and the construction of monuments and public works.
Despite the practice of seclusion, royal women often found ways to effectively leverage their public appearance. In one account, several noblemen had traveled to the capital in order to complain about an Anatolian judge who was in the practice of taking bribes. When they were taken to see the sultan however, they found him on a boat in the middle of the Golden Horn, and had to yell to even be heard. But when they came across the queen, Safiye Sultan, traveling in her carriage, she listened to their plea, and ultimately granted it.
Other queens, 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 Murad 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.
Weddings were also a common cause for celebration, and an opportunity for royal 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.
And the death of a royal wife or queen mother could be even more extravagant. In one instance, the death of queen mother Nurbanu 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.
And ultimately, the most long-lasting accomplishments of many queen 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.
Although it was a time of unprecedented power for royal women, they were not without significant opposition. Though openly opposing the queen sultan was out of the question, many politicians and political advisors published treaties decrying the perceived corruption of government, calling for reform that demanded women not "interfere in the affairs of government and sovereignty." 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. Of course, such passionate denial implies that in fact, the queen mother 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.
Powerful sultanas during the period
- Hürrem Sultan
- Mihrimah Sultan
- Nurbanu Sultan
- Safiye Sultan
- Handan Sultan
- Alime Sultan
- Mahfiruz Hatice Sultan
- Kösem Sultan
- Turhan Hatice Sultan
- Hüma Şah Sultan
- P. S. Garbol (29 December 2009). The Women's Sultanate. Xlibris Corporation. p. 12. ISBN 978-1-4535-1607-2.
- John Freely (2011). A History of Ottoman Architecture. WIT Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-84564-506-9.
- Lambton, Ann (1988). Continuity and Change in Medieval Persia. SUNY Press. ISBN 0887061338, 9780887061332 Check
- Battuta, Ibn (1962). The Travels of the Ibn Battuta. Cambridge. pp. 451–454.
- 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.
- Lewis, Bernard (1962). "Ottoman Observers of Ottoman Decline". Islamic Studies I.
- Peirce, Leslie (1993). The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. Oxford University Press.
- Selaniki, Mustafa. Mustafa Selaniki's History of the Ottomans.
- de Busbecq, Ogier Ghiselin. The Turkish Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq: Imperial Ambassador at Constantinople 1554-1562.
- İlhan Akşit. The Mystery of the Ottoman Harem. Akşit Kültür Turizm Yayınları. ISBN 975-7039-26-8
- Leslie P. Peirce. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. Oxford University Press (1993). ISBN 978-0-19-508677-5
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