“The Enormous Mother”
The early modern Ottoman Empire is marked by many women who held positions of influence even in a highly patriarchal society. While not allowed to rule outright, some women had a knack for finding the loopholes and exploiting them for personal gain. Perhaps the most iconic woman to play the system was Kosem Sultan. Kosem’s childhood and origins are widely disputed, but the most frequently referenced story is that she was of Greek origin and, at the age of 15, was sold as a slave to serve in the Ottoman Sultan’s harem after the death of her father. The Sultan she served was Ahmad I and the harem at this time was far more than a house for royal concubines; the Ottoman harem was also a distinguished place of education. Under the watchful eye of Ahmad I’s mother and wife, Kosem learned to read and write, converted to Islam (Sunni) and learned the ways of the Ottoman court. She was given the name “Mahpeyker,” which translates to “Moon-faced” or “beautiful.”
In 1609 Kosem had her first child with Ahmad, the first of 4 sons and at least 3 daughters (disputed). Within just a few years of her arrival at court, she became the royal favorite. Her many sons undoubtedly threatened the possible rule of the Sultana’s son with Ahmad, but Kosem was clever and she was prepared to play the long game. She set her sights on placing her sons on the throne and, as they were all very young, becoming a regent.
In the 1600s Ottoman empire, there was a brutal approach to the transition of power. With the ascendance of a new sultan, all of the new ruler’s brothers were executed in a strategic effort to reduce civil wars over which brother should be the rightful heir. With this in mind, Kosem prepared to maneuver this obstacle in her effort to place her own sons on the throne. When Sultan Ahmad I died at the young age of 28 in 1617, she convinced his widowed Sultana to withdraw her own son from the line of succession in favor of Ahmad’s brother, Mustafa I. The beauty of this plan lies in the fact that Mustafa I was both mentally unstable and quite brutal by nature. In fact, all Kosem had to do was sit back with her popcorn and watch as Mustafa I’s reign turned into a royal coup, eventually resulting in the death of the Sultana’s son, the only heir that truly stood in the way of Kosem’s plans.
Without a stable leader or a rightful heir, the Ottoman viziers looked to Kosem and her eldest son, Murad IV who was only 12 years old when he became sultan. In consideration of his young age, the empire needed a regent and no one was more fit for the role than the sultan’s own mother, Kosem. She had won! But her work to earn power was nothing in comparison to what she had to do to keep power. As tradition required, Murad IV had each of his brothers murdered…all but one, Ibrahim. In fact, Kosem told her son Murad IV that Ibrahim was already dead and with this little white lie, she made sure there was a “spare” just in case something happened to the “heir.” Tragically, Murad IV died of cirrhosis at the age of 27. Fortunately for Kosem Sultan, she still had Ibrahim who succeeded his brother.
Ibrahim I (aka “Ibrahim the Mad”) relied heavily on his mother’s previous decade of royal influence and diplomatic skill. He was mentally unfit to rule and proved himself to be far more concerned with his harem than with politics. This meant that Kosem Sultan continued her regency rule without any interruption, keeping grand viziers distracted and foreign wars funded, while Ibrahim I drowned 280 of his concubines simply so he could get new ones. The new sultan nearly bankrupted the Ottoman coffers and in 1648 Kosem Sultan ordered that her son be removed from the throne. He was then strangled to death while his court simply peered out their windows to catch the show.
Ibrahim’s successor was his six-year-old son, Mehmed IV. As an experienced regent and sultan in all but name, Kosem was once again appointed to rule until her grandson was old enough to rule himself. Unfortunately, Kosem’s daughter-in-law (and mother of the new sultan) Turhan Sultan, posed a threat to Kosem’s power. Turhan was headstrong and clever, just like Kosem, and she put up a fight to be the primary female power at court, ultimately dividing allegiances and diverting support away from Kosem. The royal regent soon realized the only way to stay in power was to plot the murder of her daughter-in-law. When Turhan learned about the plot, she acted without hesitation. In August (maybe September) of 1651, Turhan Sultan orchestrated a scenario to lure Kosem Sultan into a palace room where she was then strangled to death by a curtain rope.
Despite her dramatic assassination, Kosem Sultan managed to “rule” the Ottoman Empire for nearly 30 years, acting as a puppet master for three different sultans. She maneuvered politics, diplomacy, foreign wars, and civil unrest with as much strength as any dignified king. Even after her death, her legacy in the empire was that she was a force of intellect and a generous, charitable regent. Such a shame her name never appears in the history books that give the credit for her successes to children and unstable men. Simply put, stories like Kosem Sultan’s are why #MistressMonday exists; women rule. Pun intended.
Christine Morgan for History Lair