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26 March, 2016 00:00 00 AM

Sultanate of Women: Various Dimensions of Ottoman Harem

Nazmun Nahar
Sultanate of  Women: Various Dimensions of Ottoman Harem

The popular Turkish serial "Magnificent Century or Sultan Suleiman" on the Ottoman Empire, largely during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, in the year 1520 onwards when the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith was an impressive one. As I am more or less always inclined to historical affairs of any time and place, the Ottoman Empire episodes grabbed my attention for a while much more than any other of same kinds could do as my curiosity for knowing about the Ottoman Empire that had lasted for more than 600 years.  So I started my sojourn with it for a few evenings. Very naturally I once again fell in the pit of conforming the events to historical accuracy. Needless to say that the Imperial Harem played an important role in the series, and my quest for learning more about it grew stronger. The Ottoman Harem women contributed in the upbuilding and modernization of not only Turkey but also the world itself. It is always believed that past experiences show the path that leads all to a better future.
As a prelude, Osman- I was the founder of Ottoman Empire (1258-1326), and the expansion and valor of the Empire existed mightily throughout the successors till Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66). With each victory the Empire possessed a large number of men and women of the defeated lands. The women were of different ages starting from the very tender age of six or seven. The slave girls were bought from slave markets as well. They were sold for various reasons. They all were brought to the Harem. The word “Harem” means a house or part of a house in which the women of a Muslim household live and where men from outside were not permitted to go without permission. The Imperial Palace Harem was comprised of the mothers of the sultans, spouses and favourites, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, nieces and many other relatives, as well as children, staffs and the slave girls who were kind of servants. As it happened, the female slaves rose to the supreme power of the Palace Harem.
At that time for some long 130 years the Harem was "an empire within the empire." The mother of the ruling sultan was called Valide Sultan and was the Head of the Harem. The size of the Harem was considered to be the symbol of strength of the Empire. A series like Sultan Suleiman is not enough for the viewers to understand the magnitude of the Harem population which was larger than one could have imagined. Often the Valide Sultan was accompanied by more than a hundred of slave girls or female attendants of different ranks to the bazaar or other palaces and places.
The terms Ottoman Empire and Harem have very reasonably become synonymous. There is a close relation between the Harem and Sultanate of Women in Ottoman Empire, especially from 1520 to next 130 years in the 16th and 17th century with the mother of Sultan Suleiman as the Valide Sultan or Head of the Harem. At that time the royal dynasty was centralized and the Harem women got closer to real power.   The most important women after the Valide Sultan were the Kadins who had borne the Sultan sons. The Sultans could have four Kadins at a time. They may or may not be married to the Sultan, but they were treated like official wives. They had their own quarters, ladies-in-waiting, slaves, jewels, dresses and allowance.  After the Kadins were the Iqbals. They were favourites of the Sultan. If they could give birth to a child, they would be called Haseki, if the child happened to be a son, they would be raised to the title Kadin. Odalisques or concubines were at the bottom of the Harem hierarchy.  All slaves entered the palace were at first termed as Odalisques or “women of the court.” The Harem was constituted with them in huge numbers in the palace. The captured slave girls were trained and educated under the skilled Eunuchs. They were taught to sing, play instruments, dance, and many royal disciplines, read the Quran. Part of their education was to learn the etiquettes of the court, read, write and even learn foreign languages. They were instructed in various crafts. Odalisques were not sent to the Sultan. They were merely servants of the palace. All the concubines were brought up according to the discipline of the palace and were promoted to their capacities to become Kalfas (senior maids) or Ustas. Most of the women of the Sultanate were slave and of Christian origins.
Before presenting the concubines to the sultans they were properly trained up to entertain the sultan. Usually Valide Sultan decided when and who should be sent to the sultan. The Harem took shape and was institutionalized during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent with his mother as the Valide Sultan. Since the time of Orhan Gazi official marriage was not in practice among the Ottoman Sultans until Suleiman’s marriage with Hurrem Sultan, one of the slave girls and concubines. And then the wives and favourites of the princes were chosen from the Sultan's Harem. After serving for seven long years a slave could ask for freedom, sometimes they were emancipated with a good sum of money and a house, but few took advantage of this opportunity as they found the life in the Harem more secured and stable.
Another amazing fact about the Harem is the Harem women formed half of the Harem, the other half were the eunuchs who were the integral part of the Harem. There were black eunuchs and white eunuchs. They were divided into different classifications. The very purpose for having the eunuchs at the Harem was to keep the order of the Harem so that no concubine or male gets sexually tempted, and all remain loyal to the Sultan. The Chief Black Eunuch was the most powerful of all and had direct communication with the Sultan. He was the channel between the Valide Sultan and the Sultan. Now what is the connection between the Harem and Empire? Although it might seem that the Muslim women back then were behind the curtain, unnoticed and unseen by the outer world, the real scenario was completely different. Those women, at least a few of them at a time played an important role in the state affairs. As was the custom of the Ottoman Empire the odalisques and concubines were presented to entertain the foreign delegates who came to the court on purpose. Valide Sultan was of immense power. As a matter of fact, many foreign ambassadors at the time reported to their own countries that "if one wanted to do business with the Ottoman Empire, they ought to go to the sultan’s mother before any other." The sultans, mindful of Prophet’s teachings at “heaven lies under the feet of Mothers” used to give sole authority to their mothers on the management of Harem. It was so much visible that the Sultanate of Women period sometimes referred to as the reign of women.  The mother of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was of great power but the real demonstration of power on the realm and on the Sultan started with Hurrem Sultan, legal wife of Sultan Suleiman and it continued on until 1656 ending during the reign of Turhan Sultan as the Valide Sultan, mother of Mehmed IV as Sultan. Hurrem Sultan was the first concubine to be married to a sultan.  
Many historians came up with elaborate discussions on the role of Harem culture. They presented their views in both positive and negative lights. Those women starting from Hurrem Sultan, a slave from Crimea, known as Roxelana in the European countries had so much influence on the most charismatic Sultan of the Ottoman Empire that she could at first let Suleiman free her and finally marry her. Suleiman consented to free her as she vowed to take part in charitable works outside palace. That time slaves were not allowed to do any such acts. They had to be confined within the palace walls and work for the palace only.
Unlike the other women of Sultanate of Women period , Hurrem Sultan exercised her power as Haseki, not as Valide Sultan. Fortunately or unfortunately she was not alive to be the Valide Sultan during the reign of her son Selim II. After becoming the wife of Sultan Suleiman, Hurrem exerted her power through various ways. It is evident that she influenced Suleiman to order the execution of Mustafa, the eldest son of Suleiman from his consort Nurbehar. Hurrem’s participation in diplomacy helped to pave way for the Valide Sultan’s diplomatic relations in later years. In the absence of Sultan, the vizier and other important officials, she managed many affairs. About state affairs she had the strength, authority and intelligence to handle intricate matters at the court. She was also involved in many charitable works that was followed by the succeeding Valide Sultans . She founded her own waqf in Jerusalem in 1552. It was a complex that catered the needs of the poor Muslims, it offered many other facilities for people of different walks.
The best gift from Hurrem was Mihrimah, her daughter. She was married to the Grand Vizier Rustam Pasha. Mihrimah became the adviser of Suleiman upon the death of Hurrem. That’s how the influence of women in the Ottoman Empire established further. It was an exceptional case as Mihrimah was neither a Haseki nor a Valide. She was the only female to act as Valide Sultan for her brother. Her intelligence could make it possible that she could have her voice heard and express her views on issues regarding the Empire.  
Except the mother of the sultan, only the daughters and sisters of the Sultan were given the title sultana. They lived a privileged life. They were well educated in art, music, literature, languages and the Quran. They had the freedom to move about anywhere they wanted, their marriages were celebrated pompously. Elaborate gifts like gold, jewels and palaces were given at their weddings.  Their husbands held important positions at the court. But those husbands could not have the company of any other woman rather than the princesses, they had to remain monogamous. It was considered to be a serious offence that could have resulted with dire consequences if any kind of infidelity found out.
Nurbanu Sultan, the mother of Murad III was the next influential woman of the Ottoman Empire. She is the first to act politically as Valide Sultan and was very involved in bringing Murad III to the throne. She was a very successful Valide as her son relied on her more than anyone else in the court on state issues. The authoritative nature of Nurbanu was approved and admired by her son. Like Hurrem before her , Nurbanu was active in diplomatic matters. She had contacts with the regent for France’s King Henry III , Catherine de Medici. Nurbanu helped the Empire maintain good relations with Italy, France and other European countries. She was also involved with charity and architectural works. The Atik Valide Mosque was constructed under her responsibility. She took the beginning steps for the later Valide Sultan to take on even more architectural activities.
Safiya Sultan was the next Valide Sultan after the death of Nurbanu. She was the mother of Mehmed III. Like Murad, Mehmed greatly depended on her mother during his reign. Safiya Sultan also participated in architectural projects, charity and did many other works for the betterment of the Empire. She can be credited for many other useful constructions of the time. Till date those works like mosques and other architectural feats stand to prove the great influence and power of the Ottoman women. Elizabeth I, Queen of England, (1533-1603) and Catherine de Medici, Queen of France,( 1519-1589) were contemporary of Safiya. Safiye maintained diplomatic relations with Elizabeth.  Elaborate gifts were exchanged between the two women, mainly, Elizabeth and Safiye.  Safiye was replaced by Handan Sultan, mother of Ahmed I (1603-1617) upon the untimely death of her son. Yet Safiye remained influential for some time even after the death of her son and her replacement due to the fact that Handan failed as a Valide Sultan.  There might be many reasons behind it, the first and foremost thing is her son, the Sultan himself did not care for his mother, moreover she was under constant stress. It was later on proved by her death through poisoning in just two years. Rumours say that Ahmed might be so resentful regarding her mother’s being involved in court affairs as he never wanted to be ruled by her mother like his predecessors. He feared to share the power with his mother. In a way this proves that the Valide Sultans had some real power and authority that the Sultan would have to care for them. They were no way just puppets.  Kosem Sultan, wife of Sultan Ahmed I, was another very important Valide Sultan among all. She has been described to be extremely politically able. She was told as the “…. central figure and dominating personality of the Women Sultanate.” Kosem served the office for both her sons Murad IV (1623-1640) and Ibrahim (1640-1648). First it was Murad IV, and then came Ibrahim, another son, who was called to be mentally ill, and Kosem had to rule indirectly on behalf of Ibrahim.

She also served as the regent for her grandson Mehmed IV who ascended the throne only at twelve. In each case she was proved to be an efficient guide and parallel force. Kosem also took part in many constructional works like in the building of mosques namely Cinili Camii and Valide Hani, a caravanserai in Istanbul. Although Kosem maintained very firm ally with the Janissary Corps as it was a key component to a successful term in office she could save herself from being executed by a black eunuch at the order of Tuhran Sultan, mother of Sultan Mehmed IV (1648-1687), the then Sultan. There was a huge reaction and uproar in the city of Istanbul after the assassination of Kosem. That showed her popularity as a Valide Sultan and a powerful figure at the office.   
Tuhran succeeded to be the next Valide and carried out what was started by Kosem. Young Mehmed was so much controlled by Tuhran that she would sit behind the curtain when Mehmed was at the imperial assembly.
Tuhran proved that a woman could be a powerful figure in the government and manage the affairs concerning the military and defense of the Empire. She successfully took part in many constructional works including two magnificent fortresses stood to demonstrate her capability as a authoritative figure of the Empire.
Usually such fortresses and other projects related to defense and war were carried out by men, but she was an exception.
Even then, she was the last to remain in the office. Her being in the office with such stunning and impressive works might have aroused fear among the important men of the court. She was to serve in the office and reign and with her ended the long practice of Valide Sultan.
Each and every woman in the Harem was entitled to monetary allowances and material possessions according to her rank. The amount of aspers they received determined their worth at the palace.  
The financial matters of the Harem were a great responsibility. Very naturally the Valide Sultan's stipend was the highest. You will be amazed to know that while the ruling Sultan and the Mufti (Head of Public Official) received 1000 aspers and 750 aspers respectively, the stipend of Nurbanu and Safiye as Valide Sultan was 2000 and 3000 aspers.
As the mother of potential future Sultan, the Kadins received high amount of aspers after the Valide Sultan. There was the practice of manipulation in the palace for raising stipend of the Harem members, some of the slaves tried to coax the Sultans to raise the stipend. There is evidence of protest and disorder for increasing the stipend of the low level Harem members.
Many would argue to support the Harem concept pointing at the turbulent society that existed then. Women needed to be placed at a place like the Harem for their own protection. Inside the palace all the women of all ranks were engaged in diverse activities. It was far from being oppressive.
The discipline and orderly lifestyle of the Harem could be compared to the discipline of Ottoman Army. Time to time the Valide Sultans were asked to intervene upon the Sultan's decision. Usually the Muftis (Head of the Muslim religion) reported to the Valide Sulatan if and when they felt any erroneous decision was made by the Sultan that might be harmful for the Empire.
At the same time there are criticisms of the Sultanate of Women period. They were widely blamed for the decline and eventual fall of the Ottoman Empire.
After entering the palace every slave dreamt to be noticed by the Sultan as the Sultan was the sole authority and deciding factor of the fate and future of the slaves and all in the whole Empire. That process continued with the Kadins hoping to be the Valide
"This ambition triggered intrigues, gossip and murder within the Harem, as well as the government. To attain their goals, these ladies of the Harem would also seek help from the princesses who were married mostly to the grand vizier or other high government officials. Those men never went against their wives' wishes, knowing too well how fatal Harem gossip could be.
The ultimate goal of an ambitious and capable Valide Sultan was to rule the whole Empire through a very young or malleable son. This aim was achieved now and then, sometimes with devastating results."
But this might not be so easy summarization of it.  Rather it can be very logically argued that the Ottoman Empire lasted so long because of the significant role played by those women. Often the Sultans took office at so tender age that their mothers had to run the Empire with them.
These women managed to maintain a stable government in a time of difficulty in the Ottoman Empire. The Harem women were always full of activities rather than being inactive agents. They were competent and able in the administrative system. The best role played by them was that they were the instruments to change the law of marriage.
Today one may frown thinking of the Harem culture, it might be considered unacceptable now, but back then, it was a pretty better place for women, both Muslim and Nonmuslim, in comparison to any other place.
Surprisingly enough the women in the Ottoman Harem enjoyed more rights and power than most of the European empires. It is an established truth that ‘The Turks govern their country and their wives govern them.’
The female slaves were well-taken care of by that era's standards with Prophet Muhammed's order: "Furnish the slaves with anything you eat and wear, and never treat them badly."
The writer is a freelancer



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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