The mothers of the empire: Valide sultans

The mothers of the empire: Valide sultans

The mothers of the empire: Valide sultans

The apartment of the valide sultan at Topkapı Palace.

Mothers-in-law have a sad reputation in Turkey, sometimes deserved, more often not. But without an official day of their own, perhaps they should be included in this weekend’s Mother’s Day. It’s most likely though that they would have had their own day, if some of the valide sultans (sometimes referred to as queen mothers) of the Ottoman Empire had had their way.

The first such woman given the title of valide sultan was Ayşe Hafsa Sultan, a Crimean Tatar and the mother of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. She accompanied her son when he was appointed governor of Manisa at the age of 17 (1503) and on his succession to the throne in 1520 took charge of the imperial harem in Istanbul. Although there is some uncertainty about when the sultan’s harem actually came to take up residence at Topkapı Palace, she is credited with being an adviser to her son, practically a co-regent, until her death in 1534. She was probably the first valide sultan to have had built a large complex consisting of a mosque, a primary school, a college and a hospice in Manisa. In doing so, she set the tradition for the charitable works of future queen mothers.

There is a tendency to consider the famous Hürrem Sultan as a valide sultan, but in fact she died before Sultan Süleyman. Yet she set the precedent for future valide sultans by actively taking part in state affairs, even to the extent of corresponding with European rulers in her own name. What we know little about, however, is her rule over the harem, because that seems to have been the main responsibility of the valide sultan.

The number of valide sultans who achieved notoriety for their involvement in governmental affairs is limited. Nurbanu, Safiye and Kösem were the three most active as the mothers of sultans. The span of time when they ruled, including Hürrem Sultan, has been termed the Sultanate of the Women.

Nurbanu, the mother of Murad III, was Venetian and possibly Jewish and played a role during her tenure (1574-1583) in Mediterranean politics by strongly supporting Venice against its archrival, Genoa. She was able to govern with the assistance of Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmet Paşa and even corresponded with the French queen, Catherine de Medici. When she died suddenly, it was rumored that somehow the Genoese had poisoned her.

Safiye Sultan was also a Venetian whom Nurbanu is supposed to have personally chosen as a concubine for her son Murad III. She became valide sultan (1595-1603) when her son became Sultan Mehmed III on the death of his father. She wielded considerable power and also pursued a pro-Venetian policy. Of interest is that Safiye exchanged letters and gifts with Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Kösem Sultan earned a reputation for being the most dangerous and devious of the valide sultans (1623 to 1651). Her long tenure lasted through the reigns of her sons, Murad IV (r. 1623–40) and İbrahim I (r. 1640–48) and her grandson Mehmed IV (r. 1648–87). She is less known for her influence over governmental affairs and more for her intrigues in order to see that it was her sons who became sultans.

Kösem was replaced by Turhan Sultan, a Ukrainian who was less interested in political affairs and basically allowed the grand vizier of the time, Köprülü Mehmed Paşa, to head the state. As valide sultan (1648-1682), she was more involved in building projects such as completing Yeni Cami at Eminönü.

Ruling over the harem rather than the empire

Although the list of valide sultans continues until the 20th century, the women contented themselves with ruling over the harem rather than the empire. The harem certainly needed a firm hand.

The valide sultan was the head of the imperial dynasty as a family and she had to ensure that there was a living male heir available to take over the throne. The result was that the valide sultan would see to the education and grooming of suitable candidates who might catch the fancy of her son. So the responsibility for ensuring continuity fell to women and in particular the valide sultan.

While traditionally a man would be the head of the family among the Turks, the various struggles for the throne, often in later centuries with the reigning sultan weak and ineffectual or simply too young to rule, meant someone strong had to be in charge. Grand viziers, who were in any case never members of the dynasty except by marriage, changed more frequently than sultans did. The valide sultan’s importance was underlined by the proximity of her chambers to the sultan’s privy chamber.

As Leslie P. Peirce points out in “The Imperial Harem,” we know little about the harem but much can be divined by examining the various registers still surviving that deal with the personnel and expenses of members of the harem. Until the Old Palace was finally ruined beyond repair and abandoned, it was a place where young girls were trained to be concubines if they caught the eye of the sultan and where the young princes would receive some, if not all, of their education. When a sultan died, his valide sultan, women, daughters and their retinues would be housed in the Old Palace. Only the valide sultan of the reigning sultan would live at Topkapı Palace with his women and their retinues.

The more women, the greater the number of servants.

The figures relating to how much was given as a daily stipend to the members of the harem have been recorded and interestingly enough, the valide sultan received considerably more than anyone else including the sultan. Nurbanu Sultan received a daily stipend of 2,000 aspers, while her successor, Safiye Sultan, received 3,000 aspers when her son Mehmed III took the throne. In contrast, the highest stipends of leading public officials were: the mufti (750 aspers per day), the chief justices of Rumeli and Anatolia (572 and 573 aspers, respectively) and the commander of the Janissaries (500 aspers). Even the sultan himself only received a 1,000-asper stipend per day. Expenses grew with the number of people actually living in the harem and at the same time construction must have been continually going on to accommodate those numbers. It doesn’t seem as though anyone decided to have a smaller harem, more in line with revenue.

So for 400 years, more or less, one of the most important roles in the Ottoman Empire was that of a woman, the valide sultan.