In Ottoman Turkey of the 16th and 17th centuries, when religious and cultural mores kept most females secluded behind harem walls, five generations of women fulfilled their quest for influence. Each entered the Ottoman world as a slave, where the love of a powerful man meant access to power. They dominated the lives of their husbands and sons so that each became the power behind the throne, and influenced policy through their men. This period became known as the Reign of Women (Turkish: Kadinlar Saltanati)
Hurrem Sultan (appx. 1500-April 1558): Her name meant 'the laughing one' in Persian. While historians are not entirely sure of her origins in either the Ukraine or Poland, it is clear that when Hurrem entered the harem of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the teenage beauty captivated him. Soon, he put aside his then favorite, Gulbehar, and the heir apparent, their son Mustafa, and devoted himself to Hurrem.
She bore him at least five surviving children: four sons named Mehmed (born 1521), Selim (born 1524), Bajezit (born 1525) and Jihangir (born 1531), and a daughter, Mihrimah (born 1522). Eventually Suleiman married Hurrem and recognized her as his only legal wife, which his subjects viewed with horror, as the Ottoman rulers for almost a century before had taken only concubines.
In 1541, when the palace reserved for royal women burned to the ground, she moved into Suleiman's residence. It would not be the last time Hurrem shocked the court. She influenced Suleiman in the murder of his childhood best friend and grand vizier, Ibrahim Pasha, because he supported Mustafa's claim to the throne. Her son in-law Rustem became Suleiman's advisor, and with her support, swayed Suleiman to murder his eldest son. In this way, Hurrem ensured the ascension of her second surviving son as Selim II. She exchanged diplomatic letters with the Polish king Sigismund II Augustus, ensuring peaceful relations between the two states. Long after her death, her influence remained the political actions of her daughter Mihrimah, who also advised Suleiman.
Nurbanu Sultan (1520s-December 1583): When Cecilia Venier-Baffo, niece of Sebastiano Venier, the Doge of Venice, entered the harem of the future Selim II in 1537, her status quickly went from noblewoman to slave. She must have quickly deduced by the experience of her master's mother, Hurrem Sultan, that a woman could wield influence in the Ottoman court.
She gave Selim three daughters before their son and heir, Murad, was born in 1546. She also became his legal wife. When Selim II succeeded his father in 1566, Murad remained his principle heir despite the births of five other sons with different women. At Selim's death, as the Valide Sultan (queen mother), Nurbanu hid his passing until her son could arrive from his post as a governor of an Ottoman province.
She immediately began her influence in the court of Murad III, so much so that the Venetian ambassador to the Ottoman court once remarked, "all good and bad come from the queen mother." She corresponded personally with Queen Catherine de Medici of France, and ensured her son's government adopted a pro-Venetian policy. When Murad's grand vizier Sinan Pasha commented that the counsel of women should not affect the empire, she had him dismissed in the year before her sudden death.
Safiye Sultan (1550–early 1600s): Nurbanu Sultan did not have any notable rival for her husband's affections, but the arrival of a new slave in Murad's harem, Safiye, tested the Valide's power over her son, Murad. Safiye entered the prince's household in the 1560s as a teenager. Her origins were likely Venetian, given her pro-Venetian interests. Born Sofia Baffo, she might have been a relative of Nurbanu.
She became Murad's favorite and he remained so devoted to her and to their children that his mother begged him to take other concubines instead of relying solely on his son, Mehmed by Safiye, as the potential heir. He must have followed Nurbanu's advice resolutely, eventually fathering twenty sons and twenty-seven daughters with his concubines. History does not record how Safiye must have felt about this interference. When Nurbanu died in 1583, Safiye became free to exercise sole influence over Murad. He died in 1595 and their son, Mehmed III, succeeded him. While Mehmed remained in power until 1603, Safiye managed affairs for him during the Austro-Ottoman war in Hungary.
Kosem Sultan (1590–September 1651): Mehmed III fathered a son, Ahmet I, who became ruler of the Ottoman Empire in 1603, at the age of thirteen. Before that he had spent several years in isolation in the Golden Cage, an apartment built on the orders of Selim II and reserved for princes younger than the reigning sovereign. Two years later, a fifteen year-old Greek girl entered his harem, re-named Kosem. She gave him at least three surviving sons, Murad, Bajezit and Ibrahim.
Unfortunately for Kosem, Ahmet died in 1617 and his brother, Mustafa I, succeeded him. All that time in the Golden Cage in his youth made Mustafa crazy. Courtiers deposed him twice before Kosem's son, Murad IV, came to the throne in 1623 at the age of eleven. His youth required the appointment of the Valide Sultan Kosem as his official regent. She presided over meetings of the Divan, her son's cabinet, from behind a curtain where she remained secluded from view. It was the first time in Ottoman history where a woman played such a prominent, official role.
Murad proved to be a cruel ruler in his majority, prohibiting drinking and smoking, while he abused both habits. His younger brother Ibrahim soon showed signs of by the same madness that affected Mustafa I. Kosem's hope that her remaining son Bajezit might succeed his incompetent brother ended when Murad ordered Bajezit's death after losing a contest to him. When Murad died in 1640 at the age of 27 because of his drinking, Kosem had to coax a fearful Ibrahim out of the Golden Cage. His ineptitude allowed her to oversee the empire again.
Turhan Sultan (late 1620s-mid 1680s): One night, in a fit of madness, Ibrahim I ordered 280 of his concubines drowned in the Bosporus Sea. One of the women who apparently survived this purge was Turhan, the Ukrainian-born mother of Ibrahim's heir, Mehmed. Turhan had arrived in the empire at the age of twelve, a gift from the Valide Sultan Kosem to her deranged son.
In August 1648, when courtiers murdered Ibrahim, Turhan should have inherited the position of Valide Sultan, by Ottoman tradition. Instead Ibrahim's mother Kosem re-asserted her power and took control of her seven-year old grandson, Mehmed. Both women divided the court into separate factions supporting their quest for power. Perhaps Kosem believed she could eliminate Turhan's power if she removed Mehmed.
In September 1651, she arranged for his assassination, but met her own death at the hands of Turhan's supporters. Kosem hid in a cabinet, but the conspirators discovered her and strangled the sixty-one year old with a curtain. Turhan reigned supreme as Valide Sultan, also serving as official regent for her son during his minority. When she died, the Reign of Women ended.