Sultanate of Women: 1533 to 1656 of the Ottoman Empire

Sultanate of Women: 1533 to 1656 of the Ottoman Empire


The Sultanate of Women (Turkish: Kadnlar sultanate) was a time in the Ottoman Empire when the wives and mothers of the Sultans wielded exceptional political power. With Suleiman the Magnificent's marriage to Hurrem Sultan, this phenomenon began in the early modern period, roughly between 1533 and 1656 (also known as Roxelana). The sultanas were either the Sultan's wives, known as Haseki Sultans or the Sultan's mothers, known as Valide Sultans. Traditional marital duties were regarded too risky for the Sultan, who was meant to have no personal allegiances outside his title. Hence many of these ladies were of slave origins, as was required of the sultanate. Nevertheless, Haseki and Valide Sultans maintained political and social power during this period, allowing them to influence the empire's everyday operations and request the construction of buildings and humanitarian works like the Valide Sultan Mosque.

Historical Precedents

As it was known, the Sultanate of Women was a first for the Ottoman Empire, but not without precedent. Despite the concerns of other male authorities, the Seljuks, forerunners of the Ottoman Empire, had women of nobility playing an active role in public policy and affairs. During the fourteenth century, however, women's power in administration began to dwindle dramatically. Most Sultans chose to "lead from the horse," travelling with a court of counsellors, viziers, and religious leaders as the army conquered new areas during this period of Ottoman expansion. Furthermore, from the fourteenth century onwards, Ottoman policy assigned young princes and their mothers to provincial governorships in Anatolia. As a result, all women with ties to higher levels of government were kept out of positions where they could wield significant power. In addition, the practice of fratricide, in which an aspiring sultan would slaughter all of his brothers to win his throne, rendered princes' mothers and wives even more reliant on their husbands.

Early Years

Still, things started to change at the beginning of the 16th century, when two key events coincided: the halting of Ottoman expansion and the entrance of the imperial harem within the palace itself. During Suleiman the Magnificent's reign, it became evident that the empire had reached its boundaries, with thousands of miles of border going practically every direction. After the collapse of the Siege of Vienna, the Sultan could no longer afford to continue on protracted military campaigns. Suleiman's reign also saw the official introduction of the imperial harem into the palace and political arena. He became the first Sultan to marry the woman who would later be known as Hurrem Sultan. Before the Sultanate of Women, the Sultan maintained a harem of concubines who produced heirs for him. Each concubine had only one son following her son to the provinces they were given to oversee rather than remaining in Istanbul. Roxelana, Suleiman the Magnificent's wife, who eventually became known as Hurrem Sultan after her conversion to Islam, was the first Haseki Sultan. Due to a mistranslation of her name, Hurrem was incorrectly supposed to be of Russian heritage. Her background was Ruthenian (Kingdom of Poland). Therefore European visitors mistook her for a Russian. The Turks gave her the name Hurrem, which meant "Laughing One" or "Joyful," a testament to her spirit. It's unclear when she joined the Imperial Harem. Although her presence in 1521 is not documented in the Ottoman Sultan's registry of concubines, documentation on the birth of her first son do. Her importance was cemented when she married Suleiman after the death of his mother, becoming the first Sultan's wife in over two centuries. Hurrem was the first concubine to be released from slavery because all concubines were technically slaves. Then she was given the title Haseki Sultan (Imperial Consort), which she retained and was used to successive wives of sultans. She primarily pursued philanthropy, focusing on the creation of social spaces in which subjects may spend time. The Haseki Sultan Complex in Istanbul, established in the 1530s and included a women's medical centre, school, mosque, and kitchen to serve the poor, was the most notable. After the deaths of her eldest and youngest sons, she died in Istanbul in 1558. Hurrem's bogus claim of Russian ancestry was removed from her tomb in January 2019, nearly 500 years after her death.

Political Significance

Six sultans had reigned by the middle of the 17th century, with several of them being infants when they ascended the throne. As a result, both during their sons' tenure and throughout the interregnum, the valide Sultan ruled almost unchallenged. Such extreme prominence, however, was not well received by many. Despite having a direct line to the Sultan, the valide Sultan frequently faced opposition from the Sultan's viziers and public opinion. Female leaders had to rely on imperial rituals and monuments and public works to gain popular favour when their male counterparts had done so through military victory and charisma. As had been the custom for imperial Islamic women, these public buildings, known as hayrat or works of righteousness, were often created lavishly in the name of the sultana. Turhan Sultan, for example, spent vast sums of money on the renovation and fortification of key military strongholds, contributing to the empire's defence. Some even took part in fighting symbolically. She organized a royal parade to retrace her son Mehmed IV's warpath and share in the glory of his victory after returning from a successful military campaign. Weddings were also a typical reason for celebration and a way for imperial women to promote charity while demonstrating their wealth and status. When Murad III's daughter was ready to marry a notable admiral, she had newly minted coins distributed to all onlookers, with some getting off with a full skirt's worth of wealth. The death of an imperial wife or the mother of the Sultan was maybe even more lavish. The end of Hurrem Sultan, for example, drew hundreds of mourners to the streets, including the Sultan himself. He was usually expected to remain in the palace during a family member's funeral. Coins and food were presented to the attendees once more throughout the event to honour the queen's kind and loving personality. However, many wives and mothers of sultans' most lasting accomplishments were their substantial public works projects. The building and maintenance of these projects often built as mosques, schools, or monuments, provided vital economic circulation during economic stagnation and corruption while also leaving a potent and long-lasting symbol of the sultanate's power and compassion. While the sultanate had always been responsible for public works, sultanas like Suleiman's mother and wife undertook more significant and more expensive projects than any woman or most men before them.


Even though royal women wielded unparalleled power, they were not without criticism. However, many foreign ambassadors and embassies were more direct. For example, when a Venetian ambassador attempted to send a message to the queen sultan through the grand vizier, the vizier declined, alleging that the queen mother was nothing more than a slave with no power of her own. But, of course, such vehement denial shows that the valide Sultan wielded considerable power, which the vizier despised. Indeed, many foreign ambassadors at the period reported to their home nations that if one wanted to conduct business with the Ottoman Empire, one should first go to the Sultan's mother.

Powerful Sultanas During the Period

Hurrem Sultan

Ethnicity: Ukrainian

Born: 1505

Husband: Suleiman I


  • Şehzade Mehmed
  • Mihrimah Sultan
  • Şehzade Abdullah
  • Selim II
  • Şehzade Bayezid
  • Şehzade Cihangir

Death: 15 April 1558

Mihrimah Sultan

Ethnicity: Turkish

Born: 1522

Husband: The one daughter of Suleiman I and Hurrem Sultan, and wife of Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha.


  • Ayşe Humaşah Sultan
  • Sultanzade Osman

Death: 25 January 1578

Nurbanu Sultan

Ethnicity: Venetian, possibly Greek

Born: 1525

Husband: Selim II


  • Murad III
  • Ismihan Sultan
  • Sah Sultan
  • Gevherhan Sultan

Death: 7 December 1583

Safiye Sultan

Ethnicity: Albanian

Born: 1550

Husband: Murad III


  • Mehmed III
  • Sehzade Mahmud
  • Ayse Sultan
  • Fatma Sultan

Death: 1619

Handan Sultan

Ethnicity: Bosnian

Born: 1576

Husband: Mehmed III


  • Ahmed I
  • Sehzade Selim
  • Sehzade Suleyman
  • Two daughters one were perhaps named Ayse Sultan

Death: 9 November 1605

Halime Sultan

Ethnicity: Abkhazian

Born: 1571

Husband: Mehmed III


  • Sehzade Mahmud
  • Mustafa I
  • Two daughters possibly named Sah Sultan and Hatice Sultan

Death: Unidentified, sometimes after 1623

Kosem Sultan

Ethnicity: Greek

Born: 1589

Husband: Ahmed I


  • Sehzade Mehmed
  •  Murad IV
  •  Sehzade Kasım
  •  Ibrahim
  •  Ayse Sultan
  •  Fatma Sultan
  •  Gevherhan Sultan (disputed)
  •  Hanzade Sultan

Death: 2 September 1651

Turhan Sultan

Ethnicity: Ukrainian

Born: 1627

Husband: Ibrahim


  • Mehmed IV
  • Fatma Sultan (disputed)
  • Atike Sultan (disputed)

Death: 4 August 1683

Last updated: 2021-October-27
Tags: Ottoman Empire
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