Death in the Topkapı Harem

Death in the Topkapı Harem

Niki Gamm Hürriyet Daily News
Death in the Topkapı Harem Dec. 7, 1583. The valide sultan (queen mother) was suddenly taken ill and despite every effort, she couldn’t be saved. Nurbanu Sultan was dead. Rumors spread of poison, a rival in the imperial harem and a conspiracy by a foreign power.

Nurbanu Sultan was nearly 60 years old when she died – a very advanced age given the state of medicine available in the 16th century Ottoman Empire. Where she came from and when are not known for sure. The main theory claims that she was born as the illegitimate daughter of a doge of Venice’s brother and was sent to Istanbul as a child to be sold. Some claim she was of Jewish origin, while another source suggests that it was originally Sokollu Mehmed Pasa, the famed grand vizier of the time, who presented her to the imperial harem. Be that as it may, her beauty and intelligence attracted the attention of the famous Hürrem Sultan, the wife of Kanuni Sultan Süleyman, and she had her groomed to be the concubine and wife of her own son, who became Sultan Selim II.

Whether she was Venetian and Catholic or Jewish, Nurbanu would have converted to Islam early on. Growing up in the harem at Topkapı, she would have been taught Turkish in addition to Muslim beliefs and traditions. Assuming she was Venetian, she probably had opportunities to speak her native language with other Italian women in the harem. Then there were music, dance and sewing and embroidery lessons. Her behavior and deportment would have been schooled so that she would be worthy of being the heir to the throne’s principal woman. And throughout her formative years, she would have had Hürrem Sultan’s example before her. But Hürrem Sultan died in 1558, eight years before Selim II would inherit the throne. For those eight years, Nurbanu was in limbo. She was unable to take over the role of valide sultan because Kanuni Sultan Süleyman was still alive and how she got along with his strong-willed daughter, Mihrimah Sultan, who happened to be Sokollu Mehmed Pasa’s wife, is unknown. Perhaps she contented herself with raising her children – a boy and two girls – during those eight years.

First woman who ruled Ottoman Empire

Nurbanu is considered the first of the women who ruled the Ottoman Empire from behind the scenes, either because their sultan husbands were weak or their sons became sultans when still too young to rule. This period became known as the “Sultanate of Women” and Nurbanu was the first woman to hold the powerful position of valide sultan. In the case of Nurbanu, her husband, Selim II, was weak and apparently relied on the people around him, including his mother and Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasa, for advice.

Death in the Topkapı Harem

The photo shows the coffin of Nurbanu
being taken from Topkapı Palace.

One aspect of Ottoman government is not well attested but concerns the meetings of the viziers or, as it was called, the divan. History books always recount how the grand vizier or his representative would preside over meetings on the palace grounds in the building known as the Kubbealtı. The sultan would monitor the meetings from a grated window above the room in which the men would meet if he didn’t care to join them in their deliberations. However, it seems that the viziers would on occasion meet elsewhere so that they could speak more freely. In the first part of the 18th century, they met in a palace belonging to the valide sultan in Eyup to discuss the prospects of war against Venice, for example, and it is entirely possible that the divan met informally at either the palace belonging to Mihrimah Sultan or to Nurbanu.

The late Ottoman historian Stanford Shaw believed that Nurbanu was Jewish rather than Venetian. He describes her as belonging to the “war” group led by Sokullu Mehmed Pasa who was being amply funded by Jewish bankers. The goal was to wrest Cyprus from Venetian control and stamp out pirates that were using the island as a base to attack shipping in the eastern Mediterranean. Sultan Selim II’s wife, Safiye Sultan, who is thought to have been Venetian, seems to have been unable to counter Sokullu and Nurbanu’s influence in this matter.

Then suddenly in 1574, Selim II died and the empire and new sultan, Murat III, had two valide sultans, Nurbanu and Safiye – the former anti-Venetian and the latter pro-Venetian – and Grand Vizier Sokullu Mehmed Pasa. With the concurrence of the sultan, Safiye slowly eliminated Sokullu’s supporters in high places and then the grand vizier was assassinated in 1579. What is interesting is that Nurbanu was apparently able to stay on at Topkapı Palace until her death in 1583 in spite of the fact that the Old Palace at Beyazit was still inhabitable. At least the Old Palace was still functioning in 1558 because Hürrem Sultan was moved there when it became obvious that she was dying.

Topkapı Palace maintained a two-story hospital for the harem, which was some distance from the harem itself in order to prevent disease from spreading. It also had a room where the body would be bathed and placed in a coffin behind a lattice screen, where people would come to pay their last respects before it would be taken away for burial.
Well-respected sultan

She may have been living in her own palace – as Edhem Eldem suggests in his book, Death in Istanbul – which was near Topkapı Palace, judging by the high walls seen in the background of the only miniature that exists.* Nurhan Atasoy, however, believes that the scene, which shows the coffin containing the body of Nurbanu, portrays the Toplu Gate at Topkapı Palace. Heading the cortege is Sultan Murat III. Behind the coffin are the black eunuchs. The mourners, dressed in green, are waiting outside the two gates with their hands upraised in prayer. From the palace, the procession went to Fatih Mosque, where the funeral prayers were said and then taken to Aya Sophia, where her coffin was placed in the türbe (mausoleum) of Sultan Selim II, her son.

Despite Nurbanu’s reputation for meddling in politics, the valide sultan was well-respected for the many religious foundations she had built and most importantly for the large complex in Üsküdar, the Valide-i Atik Mosque.

*The miniature in the Şehinşahname was painted by an artist named Seyyid Lokman, who is famous for the miniatures he created between 1569 and 1595. He also painted a miniature that shows the red wagon containing the coffin of Kanuni Sultan Süleyman being transported back to Istanbul from Szigetvar (in today’s southern Hungary), where he died.