Showing posts with label hurrem sultan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label hurrem sultan. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Sultanate of Women

Alternately argued as the reason for the decline of, or the reason for the longevity of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultanate of Women was a 130 year period in which the Ottoman Empire was ruled by the Valide Sultan--or the Sultan's mother--either in place of or alongside the Sultan. It started with the marriage of Suleiman the Magnificent to Hurrem Sultan, whom we have discussed before, and ended with the death of Turhan Sultan in 1683.¹ This century was filled with sultans who were children or mentally incapacitated, and marked the shift from the Empire's expansion to its settling into a period of peace and prosperity.

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Turhan Hatice Sultan, the most powerful of the
Valide Sultan's
The was, largely in part, due to the women of the Harem who did the actual ruling. Harem's are often painted as dens of lust and depravity, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. The harem was where the women of the Sultanate lived, including the Sultan's wives, concubines, mother, and sisters. It was also a place of assassinations, political machinations, and governing. Any foreign entity looking to treat with the Ottomans needed to go through the Harem first, and the Sultanas wielded tremendous influence. If you think that the women of the Ottoman Empire were delicate, repressed flowers, veiled and shut off from power, hold on to your hats--you're in for quite a ride.

The Valide Sultan exercised such great power in part because of the Islamic belief in the importance and power of mothers. The Prophet Mohammed's statement that 'Heaven lies under the feet of mothers' was taken very seriously, and as such the Sultan frequently put his mother in charge of the harem. It was the Valide who oversaw the running of an enormous household, and picked the women who would be going to her son's bed. She managed the thousands of people who worked in the palace, and ensured the safety, security, and tranquility of the palace.

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Mihrimah Sultan, the second Valide Sultan of the Sultanate
of Women
The Valide wasn't confined to the domestic sphere, however. It was the Valide Sultan who negotiated with foreign ambassadors, and mediated between the sultan and religious leaders. The Valide served as regent in times of need, and she frequently counseled with the Pashas. She reached out to, and maintained relationships with foreign leaders. It was said of Hurrem, and the Sultana's after her, that if you wanted to gain an audience with the sultan, you had to go through his Valide.


It wasn't just religious belief that handed these women such power. A Valide Sultan could be weak and pushed aside the same as a Sultan. The Valide's who held power, and the Valide's of the Reign of Women were skilled politicians and stateswomen, capable of running a vast empire.

As mentioned, the Sultanate of Women started with the marriage of Hurrem Sultan to Suleiman the Magnificent in 1531. Hurrem was Suleiman's Haseki Sultan--or official wife--not the Valide Sultan, and was the only Sultana to exercised great power as Haseki.² Hurrem kicked off the Reign of Women by being one of the first Sultana's to maintain diplomatic and personal relationships with foreign monarchs. In addition to maintaining diplomatic relations, she was also known for her building and public work projects--another large part of being Valide Sultan. Hurrem was Suleiman's closest adviser, and he frequently deferred to her in matters of state.

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Ottoman Empire map
Hurrem, unfortunately, never lived to be Valide Sultan, as she predeceased Suleiman. She was 'replaced' (as much as any beloved wife can be replaced) in Suleiman's confidences by their daughter Mihrimah. Mihrimah is another noted sultana from the era. She rode with Suleiman on his campaigns--touring and conquering. Like her mother, Mihrimah maintained diplomatic relationships with foreign monarchs, and because of her travels she was well known by even common people in foreign countries. When Suleiman died her brother, Selim II, installed her as Valide Sultan, making Mihrimah the first of the great Valide Sultans.

 There were eight women who ruled during the Sultanate of Women, and we'll undoubtedly discuss each of them in their own 'Damn, Girl' post, but for the sake of brevity we'll only mention the most notable following Mihrimah here.

Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Selim II, Mihrimah's brother, was noted for her wisdom and intelligence. Like Hurrem, she was Selim's adviser during his life (though not as close an adviser as Mihrimah.). She was Selim's favorite wife, and it was understood that her son Murad--later Murad III--would become sultan. At the time of Selim's death Murad was away from Istanbul, leaving him vulnerable to a coup. She hid Selim's corpse in an icebox in the harem for twelve days, and didn't tell anyone he had died until Murad had arrived in the capital. Following her son's investiture, Nurbanu continued to more or less rule the empire through, and sometimes in spite of her son.

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Selim II
Kosem Sultan was Valide Sultan for 62 years, and saw the reign of six different sultans, and was the regent for three of them. Her eldest son--Murad IV--and her grandson--Mehemed IV--were both too young to rule when they came to the throne, and her second son--Ibrahim--was mentally ill. As regent, Kosem oversaw all matters of the empire, and attended cabinet meetings from behind a screen. She assisted in the installation and removal of sultans (she had her son Ibrahim deposed and executed), and helped clear out the corruption of the palace.

Kosem's daughter-in-law, Turhan Hatice Sultan, was the last of the great Valide Sultans. After Kosem's death in 1651, she served as regent for Mehemed IV. Turhan was, by far, the most powerful of the Valide Sultans. Not only did she listen to cabinet meetings from behind a screen like Kosem, but she also spoke from behind the screen, taking an active part in cabinet meetings. After her son reached the age of majority she continued to co-rule the empire with her son's consent. She was instrumental in modifying the government structure of the Ottoman Empire, which gave the Grand Vizier more power.

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Kosem Sultan
Following Turhan's death the power of the Valide Sultan began to die out. The increasing of the power of the Grand Vizier was in part responsible for this, but the larger part was the fact that the sultan following Mehemed--Suleiman II--didn't want to share power.

These women rose to prominence because of the weakness of the Sultan's at the time. Following Suleiman the Magnificent, the sultans became increasingly incompetent until the situation came to a head with Ibrahim. Rather than allowing the empire to crumble, the Valide Sultans took control of the empire, and saved the empire's collective turkey bacon. The 130 years that marked the Sultanate of Women were years that saw great prosperity and political stability for the Ottoman Empire. This was largely in part because of the remarkable women who ruled.




¹Given that the Ottoman Empire would survive for a little more than 200 years after the death of the last great Sultana, I think that the 'women-ruined-the-ottoman-empire' theory is easy to disprove.
²The Haseki Sultan held much less power, despite being the sultan's wife. It was only through becoming the mother of a sultan that a women could hold such power. Hurrem Sultan, and her daughter Mihrimah are notable exceptions.

More on Similar Topics




Sources
The Woman Who Oversaw 3 Generations of the Ottoman Empire
Sultanate of Women
Ottoman Royalty's Most Powerful Woman: Kosem Sultan
Sultanate of Women: Various Dimensions of the Ottoman Harem
Harem and Ottoman Women
Kosem Sultan
Nurbanu Sultan
Turhan Hatice Sultan
Mihrimah Sultan

Friday, December 15, 2017

Damn, Girl-Hurrem Sultan, or Roxelana

Hurrem, sometimes known as Roxelana¹, was born Aleksandra or Anastasia Lisowska in Podolia Ukraine, which was then part of the Polish Kingdom. Not much is known about Hurrem's early life, however it is generally accepted that she was the daughter of an Orthodox Priest, and was carried off as a slave by Tartar raiders when she was about fifteen. She was then taken to Constantinople, where she entered the harem of Suleiman I as a servant.

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Hurrem
Now, it must be said that Ottoman harems weren't the sexy den of vice that many people envision today. While the harem was a place for the sultan's many concubines, it was also a place of political intrigue. The women in the harem wielded considerable power, particularly the sultan's mother and the mother of his heir. Additionally, concubines were frequently married off to advisers and other powerful men that the sultan wished to reward or win to his side. It was in this bed of intrigue that Hurrem flourished.

It didn't take long for Hurrem to be noticed by the sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Her fiery red hair, and pale skin made her stand out instantly. She was fearless and cheerful, and soon attracted Suleiman's attention. Both Hurrem and Suleiman were great lovers of poetry, and their surviving love poetry paints the picture of an affectionate couple completely devoted to each other. Hurrem was also very educated; she took full advantage of being the Sultan's concubine to learn Turkish, geography, and astronomy. She also dabbled in alchemy. It's hotly debated between historians if Hurrem was beautiful or not, but even if she looked like a troll, her personality would have attracted Suleiman. This is proved by the fact that Hurrem entered the harem in 1520, and by 1521, had born her first child to Suleiman.

Hurrem's meteoric rise through the harem ruffled more than a few feathers. As the sultan began to consult her more and more on matters of state, his advisers began to grumble, and spread rumors that Hurrem was a witch who had ensnared their sultan. Suleiman, unlike a certain contemporary, quickly executed anyone who accused Hurrem of witchcraft, but he could not entirely suppress the rumors.

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Suleiman the Magnificent
Additionally, Hurrem had rivals within the harem. Mahidevran, Suleiman's former favorite and the mother of his heir, was no great lover of Hurrem. She resented Hurrem's displacing her in the sultan's favor, and feared that Hurrem's influence over the sultan would impact her son's, Mustafa, chances of succeeding Suleiman as sultan. This dislike culminated in Mahidevran calling Hurrem 'sold meat', then physically attacking her, scratching Hurrem's face, and tearing out her hair.

However, Hurrem was no dummy. When the sultan called for her she refused to come, claiming that her scratched face and torn out hair made her unworthy to be in his presence. Suleiman, not used to being told no, stormed down to his harem to find out what was going on. When Hurrem told him what had happened with Mahidevran, Suleiman sent both Mahidevran and Mustafa to the province of Manisa.

The Ottoman custom of the time was that each concubine was allowed to have only one son, and when that son came of age he and his mother would be sent out to govern a province. However, she and Suleiman broke with tradition, having six children together--five sons and a daughter. As time went on, Suleiman became monogamous, and started marrying off his other concubines. After his mother's death in 1534, Suleiman once again broke with tradition, and married Hurrem in a magnificent ceremony.

The marriage of Suleiman was a fairly big deal. It had been hundreds of years since a Sultan had married. The women that bore the Sultan's children were considered concubines, not wives. This was because upon marriage the groom gave the bride a dowry that became her property. Marrying dozens of women became astronomically expensive. Additionally, having concubines prevented one woman from becoming too powerful, and holding too much sway over the Sultan. So when Hurrem became queen, the people became nervous.


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Ibrahim Pasha
Most nervous was Ibrahim Pasha, the Grand Vizier. Ibrahim had consistently supported Mahidevran and her son, which put Hurrem and her sons in danger. Hurrem wanted one of her sons to become sultan after Suleiman, and Mustafa was in the way of that. Ibrahim's continued support for Mahidevran and Mustafa, combined with his failures in the war against the Safavid peoples meant he was on thin ice with the sultan. When Ibrahim signed a document using the title of sultan, Suleiman ordered him executed, and Rustem, Hurrem and Suleiman's son in law, was installed in Ibrahim's stead.

Another person with every right to be nervous was Mustafa. He was incredibly popular with the people, and popular princes had led coups before. As he grew older Suleiman was, understandably, nervous that his son would overthrow him. Rumors of rebellion reached him, and in 1553, Suleiman had his eldest son executed.

Some people of the time, and many historians accuse Hurrem of having motivated Suleiman to execute his former friend and eldest son. They are convinced that it was her scheming that turned the sultan against his former favorites, and that she was ruthless in clearing the path for her sons to become sultan. While this may be true, there is no conclusive evidence that it is. There are very few written records from this time, and no records of conversation, or letters between Hurrem and Suleiman discussing the matter.

However, it would not have been out of character for Suleiman to have taken Hurrem's political advice. Hurrem was an intelligent woman, skilled in diplomacy and politics. While Suleiman was off at war, she kept him appraised of the goings on back in Constantinople. She had a vast network of spies, and Suleiman relied on her advice when dealing with internal and international affairs.

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Haseki Hurrem Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
There is significant evidence of Hurrem having played a role in the diplomacy of the Ottoman empire. There are letters between her and the Polish king Sigismund II in which Hurrem congratulates Sigismund on his ascension to the throne, and proposes a diplomatic relationship. In addition to that, Hurrem strengthened ties between the Ottomans and her homeland by helping to repatriate Polish slaves, and putting restrictions on the Tartar-Polish slave trade.

Hurrem also helped with the internal affairs of the Ottoman empire. She did a great deal of charity work--building hospitals, schools, and soup kitchens. She instituted one of the first schools for women, and was known for improving living conditions all across the empire. She was a great builder, and she had a magnificent mosque built in Constantinople. She was one of the few women to have her name inscribed on a building while her husband was still alive.

In 1558 Hurrem fell ill, and died. Suleiman grieved for his wife, and buried her in the mosque he had built, then commissioned a mosque, school, and women's market in her name. When Suleiman died in 1566, he was succeeded by their son, Selim II.

Because of her position as queen Hurrem was able to do a lot of good for the Ottoman Empire. Though historians rarely give her the credit, it is certain that Suleiman would not have achieved the title of 'the Magnificent' without her. The nearly fifty years of Suleiman's reign were some of the best in the Ottoman Empire, and Hurrem undoubtedly played a big part of that.

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Hurrem and Suleiman's love story has been turned into a rather
excellent television show called 'The Magnificent Century'.
It can be found on Netflix.

Characters, left to right: Ibrahim Pasha, Hatice Sultan
(Suleiman's sister), Valide Sultan Hatun
(Suleiman's mother), Suleiman the magnificent,
Prince Mustafa, Mahidevran Sultan, Hurrem Sultan
Now, I probably don't need to say it again, but vicious rumors tend to follow powerful women because, well, misogyny, and Hurrem is no different. Hurrem's meteoric rise to power and the way the Sultan broke with tradition to be with her caused many people to accuse her of witchcraft, murder, and political intrigue. These rumors were spread to Europe by European ambassadors, and Hurrem was frequently used as a femme fatal character in literature.

These rumors have led many historians to paint Hurrem as a scheming villainess, possessed with self interest, and willing to murder anyone who stood in her way. While Hurrem was certainly no innocent, many of these accusations are based on hearsay. There are not many Ottoman documents from this time period, and most historians rely on reports written by European ambassadors, many of whom had never met Hurrem, and relied on rumors.


¹'Roxelana' was the name given to Hurrem by European ambassadors. It is general supposed to mean something along the lines of 'Russian'

More on Similar Topics




Sources

Roxolana: "The Greatest Empresse of the East" by Galina Yermolenko
Hurrem Sultan- the Cheerful Rose of Suleiman, and a Powerful Woman of the Ottoman Empire
Hurrem Sultan, Suleiman's True Love
Roxolana, Wife of Suleiman the Magnificent
Roxelana (1504-1558)