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The sultanate of women

Scene from 'Harem'Mention the word 'harem' and images of flimsily dressed dusky maidens spring to mind. But for more than a century, says Professor Leslie Peirce, power in the Ottoman empire was centred on the sultan's harem in Istanbul.

For some 130 years, the women of the Ottoman royal harem enjoyed extraordinary political influence. This unusual period during the 16th and 17th centuries – when powerful women exercised all royal prerogatives but one: leading Ottoman armies into battle – is popularly known as the 'sultanate of women'.

Four women stand out in this story, all royal concubines whose sons went on to occupy the Ottoman throne:

Political tutors
It is not that royal women were not powerful in the Ottoman empire before or after the 'sultanate of women'. The famous Muslim world-traveller, Ibn Battuta, who visited the nascent Ottoman state in 1336, remarked that 'among the Turks and the Tatars their wives enjoy a very high position.'

From the time of the Ottoman dynasty's emergence in the 14th century, mothers of princes played a recognised role as political tutors and guardians of their sons – roles they would maintain throughout the dynasty's 600-year lifespan. In the 15th century, elder females – aunts, mothers and sisters of sultans – were often entrusted with critical diplomatic missions. For instance, the aspiring prince Cem sent his great-aunt, the Lady Selcuk, to persuade his elder brother to divide the empire between them – a mission that failed.

Business and acts of charity
However, as time went on, the Ottoman royal house, like its subjects, gradually adapted to more conservative Islamic social norms. But the practice of domestic seclusion did not mean that women lost power – they simply exercised it through agents. The Western stereotype of harems as stables of sex objects for male masters misses some important features of élite social structures in Muslim societies. Among them is the important fact that women controlled their own property and therefore had business dealings.

Moreover, both men and women of wealth – and the royal family most of all – were expected to perform acts of charity, mandated for all Muslims, in a publicly conspicuous fashion. They commissioned and supported mosques, schools, hospitals, insane asylums and – especially characteristic of women – fountains and wells to provide water.

Ottoman royal women were not unique in their charitable patronage. While the 9th-century caliph Harun Al-Rashid was immortalised in the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, his wife Zubaida was remembered for the series of wells, reservoirs and aqueducts she commissioned to bring water to pilgrims to Mecca.

Islamic models were, of course, important, but so were Christian Byzantine ones, especially after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. When Hurrem endowed a large soup kitchen in Jerusalem, she purposely located it on the site where Helena, the Christian mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, had allegedly built a pilgrims' hospice.

Political power, however, was different from the prestige garnered by charitable acts. When Hurrem moved into the imperial residence, she was breaking the rule that mothers of princes follow their sons' careers and reside with them in their provincial posts. She and the sultan Süleyman together also broke with other precedents. For instance, by bearing him four sons, Hurrem abandoned a central feature of the dynasty's reproductive policy – that a concubine cease her child-bearing career once she had borne one son.

The point here was that no prince should have to share with brothers the valuable political resources that a mother could provide. No wonder the public was suspicious of Hurrem and worried about the privileges that the sultan was bestowing on her. The Italian page Luigi Bassano reported that Süleyman 'has so astonished all his subjects that they say she has bewitched him'.

A time of transition
Hurrem was probably the most unpopular woman of the harem. But historical hindsight suggests that she was hardly the sole cause of these important shifts in dynastic politics.

Süleyman's long reign, from 1520 to 1566, was a time of transition brought about by the end of the age of conquest. Now, the chief business of the sultanate was managing a far-flung empire and a complex multi-religious populace. Diplomacy and peace treaties were as important as the military defence of border frontiers. Hurrem played her own diplomatic role by embroidering handkerchiefs for the king of Poland and corresponding with the women of the Persian shah's harem.

Mother power
But the unease that Hurrem provoked among Ottoman subjects meant that no harem woman after her would gain prominence as the partner of a sultan. Henceforth it was as mothers of reigning sultans that royal women exercised power, both outside the palace and over the harem's increasingly complex hierarchy of female servants, managers, concubines and princesses.

European writers and ambassadors didn't always tell the truth about this, since their reading public, ever eager for stories about the Ottoman harem, was hardly interested in 'mother power'. It was surely deliberate that Ottaviano Bon, a Venetian ambassador whose tenure in Istanbul coincided with the career of one powerful queen mother, omitted mention of her in his popular and lengthy account of the Ottoman court, published in English in 1650.

The game of faction
Ottoman queen mothers – valide sultans, as they were called in Turkish – presided over the imperial harem and also managed the business of the royal family, making marriages for princesses and female attendants and grooming concubines for their sons. Beyond the palace, they played the game of faction, manoeuvring to have their daughters' husbands appointed to high office and acting as patron to various military and religious figures.

They also corresponded with European royalty, sometimes with figures from their native lands, for all these concubines had originally been Christian – captured, brought into the sultan's household as slaves and converted to Islam. The Venetian Nurbanu corresponded with the doge, petitioning for the release of an Ottoman prisoner and complaining about two dogs that had been sent to her as a gift (they were too large). She also had a correspondence with Catherine de Médicis, who wanted Nurbanu's help with the renewal of favourable trade status for the French.

Too bloody
It was in the 17th century that queen mothers exercised the greatest direct political influence, as regents to sultans who were either underage or mentally unstable. The first half of the century witnessed a succession of young or incompetent sultans, largely the result of a transition in the rules of succession.

In the past, the Ottomans believing that primogeniture was unfair to younger sons, princes had battled it out and the throne went to the victor. But after the age of conquest, which had required rulers proven in military strategy, the old way began to seem too bloody and the dynasty gradually adopted the rule of simply bringing the eldest male member of the royal family to the throne.

During the unsteady transition to this new system, the harem reached the highest point of its political influence, as regent mothers appointed grand viziers, wrote daily letters with instructions about war materiel, taxes and other matters of state, and continued to endow public institutions.

Grudging admiration
Women of the Ottoman royal harem were prominent in what was an age of royal women – Mary Queen of Scots, Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, Catherine de Médicis, as well as their counterparts in Safavid Persia and Mughal India. These women were not always loved for their power, and even admiration was often grudgingly given.

Among the Ottomans, there were numerous counterparts to John Knox, the Scottish clergyman who decried the 'monstrous regiment of women' in 1558. A 17th-century grand vizier, himself a slave of the sultan, complained about the 'passle of mentally deficient slave girls, daughters of Russian, Polish, Hungarian and Frankish infidels' whose influence caused him such political grief. The resistance these women provoked serves, of course, as in index to their political power.

Leslie Peirce is professor of history and Near Eastern studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of The Imperial Harem: Women and sovereignty in the Ottoman empire and Morality Tales: Law and gender in the Ottoman court of Aintab. She is currently working on a popular book about the pre-modern Ottoman empire.