The Sultanate of Women

MAY/JUNE 2007: BY LILA DONOVAN

The 20th century achieved many civil rights for women around the world. As a woman, I’m thankful. Yet, were women always powerless throughout history? Many people seem to think so, but history taught me the answer is more complex.

The Sultanate of Women was a 130 year period (during the 16th and 17th centuries) where women of the Royal Harem in the Ottoman Empire influenced their husbands, sons, and families. They had a lot of power within the harem and many of them were former slaves. Slavery was common.  

One of history’s most powerful empires, the Ottoman Empire started around 1300 and ended in 1922. The height of its power was the 16th and 17th centuries. It extended to southeastern Europe, and parts of North Africa, Western Asia, and Central Europe. It was a multicultural empire during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, with Islam as the dominant religion. Many of the women converted.

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Hurrem Sultan aka Roxelana: a Slavic from Polish Ruthenia (modern-day Ukraine). Historians are unsure of her real name, but many believe it was Alexandra Lisowska. During a raid when she was about fifteen, the Crimean Tatars captured her, took her as a slave, and transported her to the Sultan’s harem.

Hurrem became a favorite of Suleiman the Magnificent, which made her rivals jealous. It’s unsure if she manipulated the Sultan or if she loved him, but she was a quick learner of court politics. As the favorite of Suleiman, she had certain power, and they allowed her to give birth to several children—including multiple sons. Before her, the rule in the harem was one woman could have one son. This kept brothers from fighting over the throne and to prevent the mother of the sultans from having too much influence. Some historians believe she manipulated the sultan, but I don’t think the answer is that simple.

Others kidnapped her as a young teen and sold her into slavery. Whatever dreams she had for her life vanished into smoke. Escaping the harem and finding her way home must have seemed like a joke. Travel back then wasn’t as quick and efficient as now. It could take months and years to travel.

I’m sure in her mind she tried to make the best of a bad situation. Over time her personality earned her a new name, “Hurrem,” which means “cheerful one.” Her influence with Suleiman the Magnificent was huge. Suleiman’s wife, Mahidevran, was her major rival. One day, Mahidevran beat up Hurrem. Suleiman married her, and she became his legal wife. This broke tradition as it was rare for Sultans to marry slaves. The union shocked the Ottoman empire and gave her additional privileges. Hurrem opened the door for future harem slave-girls to escape limitations in their unfortunate situation.

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Many slave-girls fought for influence and rose to power. Suleiman paved the path for future Sultans to marry harem women. Hurrem broke another tradition: she remained with Suleiman for the rest of her life and lived in his quarters. This was unparalleled. When a male child of the Sultan came of age, the Sultan sent him away to a far off city with his mother, where he would govern or lead that civilization. Mothers couldn’t return unless their son inherited the throne.

Hurrem lived a full life and died in her mid-fifties. She advised Suleiman in foreign politics and state affairs during her lifetime. The Turkish drama, Magnificent Century, fictionalized Hurrem’s story. I watched several episodes, and it’s a melodramatic soap opera.

Kosem Sultan: came from Greece. Historians are unsure of her real name, but some believe it was Anastasia. She was the daughter of a priest, kidnapped, sold into slavery, and sent to the harem. She too learned fast and became the favorite of Sultan Ahmed I, and later his legal wife. Ahmed died at age 27 from typhus (or poison?). Later, when she converted to Islam, her name changed to Kosem.

sultanate4Before Ahmed’s death, he had several children with his two wives. Once he died, Kosem fell from palace favor. Ahmed was an interesting sultan; when he succeeded the throne, he ended royal fratricide. When a Sultan inherited the throne, he killed his brothers. He ended that tradition. He also ordered them to construct the Blue Mosque, visited by tourists from all over the world. Because Ahmed died so young and Kosem had several children too young to take the throne, she ruled in their place similar to a queen regent.

A rival in court politics murdered Kosem. The public mourned her. She survived six sultans and was active in charity work.

The Turkish drama Magnificent Century: Kosem fictionalized her story. I’ve seen several episodes and it’s similar to an HBO drama like Game of Thrones; there’s a lot of drama and politics, but it’s not as melodramatic as the first series.

The Sultanate of Women was an interesting and political time for women in history. My belief is many women were influential in their households throughout the ages. A lot of men respect and love women, whether they are wives, sisters, aunts, daughters, etc. We know Ancient Roman and Greek women influenced their families. In Scripture, we see Eve try to see influence Adam to bite the fruit. We see an example of positive influence in the story of Esther. She is a young woman with only her cousin as a surviving relative. By the King’s order, guards seize and throw her into a harem. Even though it wasn’t an ideal situation, God turned it around. Esther found favor with the eunuchs and the king. She then became a queen and influenced the king to save her people from death.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lila Donovan is a Christian and a university student. She loves to read, draw, write, and has a blog.

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2 Replies to “The Sultanate of Women”

  1. The main reason I love reading and writing for this magazine is that there is such diversity in the articles, and times in history to learn from. I’d never heard of the Sultanate of Women until now.

    Like

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