Topkapi Palace: Where Women Exercised Power In An Age Of Absolute Male Dominance

Over a period of more than 16 centuries, Istanbul was the epicenter of many powerful civilizations. The Ottoman Empire was the last one to leave an indelible mark on its history, before the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923. A striking testimony to the Ottoman Islamic style in architecture is, without a doubt, the prestigious Topkapi Palace: a must-see landmark with breathtaking views over The Bosphorus.

Topkapi palace – Istanbul

Topkapi was built by The Sultan Mehmet II with construction beginning in 1459. It was the main residence and administrative headquarters of all Ottoman Sultans between the 15thand 19th century.

In this post, I have placed emphasis on the imperial harem, an exclusive, tightly guarded section of the Sultan’s residential quarter. Forbidden to outside, unknown males, the harem housed female members of the dynasty and their staff. Following a pyramid hierarchical structure, a sizeable community of Sultans’ concubines, princesses, children, eunuchs, slaves and servants, coexistedunder the rulership of the Sultan’s mother.

Topkapi and its former harem are a rich source of inspiration for any interior designer interested in Turkish Islamic style. Both are now museums but they still showcase the incredible work accomplished by highly skilled architects, artists and craftsmen, as the palace expanded over 400 years of its history with additional sections and style influences. With more than 300 rooms, courtyards and corridors, the harem is decorated with beautifully detailed Iznik mosaic tiles, European paintwork, Arabic calligraphy, carved wooden shutters, imposing rococo details and intricate woodwork with inlaid mother of pearl. (Photos Credit: Quiltripping)

Below is a virtual tour of the harem. English subtitles are available:

Topkapi Palace tells within its walls the stories of many fascinating women who helped shape the Ottoman empire’s future. However, their lives and accomplishments were hardly documented and acknowledged. Evolving in unusual restrictive conditions, many of these women displayed remarkable resilience and adaptability, turning their captivity into an opportunity.

This topic is vast and complex and this post can barely start to scratch the surface of its complexity. That said, focus is placed here on Roxelana, also known as Hürrem Sultan, wife of Sultan Süleyman The Magnificient. She was a former slave who rose from the ashes and broke through (what would now be considered) the “glass ceiling” in the highly competitive environment of the harem. She beat the odds and fought her way into achieving the highest levels of power and influence in the Ottoman Empire by incredibly, for the times, becoming a concubine and then wife of the Sultan.

Like most powerful women in history, Hürrem was heavily criticised, often vilified and held responsible for many of Süleyman’s controversial decisions. It should be noted, however, that most stories about her were relayed by men, foreign ambassadors and visitors who had no direct access to her. Her reputation was rather built on hearsay and rumor.

As the longest reigning Sultan in Ottoman history (1520 – 1566), Süleyman instigated unprecedented expansion of the economic, political and military power of the empire. He was also a talented poet and goldsmith and a connoisseur in the arts, literature and architecture. A grand illustration of Süleyman’s reign, known as the Golden age of The Ottoman Empire, is The Süleymanye Mosque: a true architectural masterpiece. (Photos: Radisson Blue)

Breaking with tradition, Hürrem and Süleyman moved, as a married couple, to Topkapi to live in adjacent quarters and initiated major remodeling projects in the palace. This was quite unusual. Sultans never shared the same palace with women of the harem, and definitely didn’t marry their concubines.

Like most powerful women in history, Hürrem was heavily criticised, often vilified and held responsible for many of Süleyman’s controversial decisions. It should be noted, however, that most stories about her were relayed by men, foreign ambassadors and visitors who had no direct access to her. Her reputation was rather built on hearsay and rumor.

A controversial law of ascension to the Ottoman throne:

Firstly, let’s look at the contextual pressures of the time. Ascension to the Imperial throne was based on fratricide. A reigning sultan was allowed to kill (or to order the killing of) male members of the dynasty to avoid future rebellion and claims to the throne. The rule also allowed the strongest, most powerful prince to fight male siblings to the death. Brutal. (Note that this rule was not exclusive to Ottoman History as it was also practiced by the Byzantines, Romans and Sasanians).

Luckily, Süleyman, as a prince, was not subjected to the fratricidal system, as he was the only surviving son of his father, Sultan Selim I who died suddenly in 1520. However, as a reigning Sultan, Süleyman would coldly apply the brutal rule by ordering the execution of two of his sons, Mustafa and Bayezid in order to swiftly quash their plans to rebel. This showed that he could be as brutal as anyone else in his defense of his position.

The harem’s role in defining Ottoman politics:

Although women had no official role in Ottoman politics, some of them would exercise a level of political influence behind closed doors and, indeed, contribute to defining the empire’s future.

During Süleyman’s reign, his mother Hafsa, a former slave, was an active figure in his life as she was at the top of the harem hierarchy. Until her death in 1534, she maintained a close relationship with The Sultan. Their close bond goes back to his princely years, where she took care of his apprenticeship, preparing him to reign, by teaching him the intricacies of state politics.

Queen Mother Hafsa was also in charge of choosing potential female “contenders”, carefully picked within the harem’s slave concubine community, to provide sexual partners for Süleyman for one night. This would ensure “risk-free” reproduction and the empire’s longevity with “rootless” slaves with no recognised lineage. With these “rootless” concubines, the dynasty was guaranteed unconditional obedience and loyalty, unlike wives from notable families who could potentially compete with the Sultan to gain power.

Bearing a child, would elevate the status of concubines to “favourites”. They would get better living quarters, more financial security and authority. One of these concubines would bear the next heir to the throne.

The selection process to become a concubine, even for a night, had a lot to do with rather subjective traits such as beauty, grace and ability to entertain the Sultan. In fact, the most “promising” candidates were groomed and given higher education in subjects like religion, customs, embroidery, music and arts. This training would ease their integration into the Ottoman culture and would prepare them to charm the Sultan.

A strict rule of reproduction demanded that potential heirs had different mothers. Naturally, these mothers would immediately become rivals as their sons would, mercilessly, later compete to earn the right to succeed their father. They must have lived in constant fear of losing their sons and ranking. The stability of their position in the imperial harem, prosperity and financial security were inherently linked to their sons’ faith.

It is safe to say that all of these women, including the Queen Mother, shared one thing in common. They gravitated around one man with absolute power, constantly seeking his approval and mercy. Their existence and survival depended on it.

Hürrem, the rule-breaker:

It is believed that Roxelana (Hürrem’s native name) was abducted, at probably the age of 13, from her village in Ruthenia (Western Ukraine under the rule of the Polish King) by the Tatars who widely practiced slave trading. Villages were burnt, properties ravaged and young boys and girls brutally snatched away from their families and homeland. One can only imagine the trauma and harsh conditions Roxelana and other captives endured, being forcefully separated from their families, marching long distances to slave markets and passing through the hands of multiple traders and owners. 

At such a young age, Roxelana’s journey had only just begun.

At 17, Roxelana arrived at the Old Palace (Now the University of Istanbul). She was, probably, given away as a gift to Sultan Süleyman, hence, becoming his property. She must have shown promising beauty traits and special attributes as she swiftly became a member of the concubine group. 

Upon her arrival at the palace, Roxelana must have been subjected to a thorough physical examination including a humiliating virginity check. These were some of the methods used to determine a slave’s value. She was also given a new identity along with extensive education in subjects covering Ottoman customs, Islamic religion, arts and crafts, preparing her presentation to the Sultan. Soon enough, Roxelana was chosen to share Süleyman’s bed for one night as she must have caught the eye of either the Queen Mother or the Sultan himself. Meticulous, well-rehearsed rituals were followed to prepare her for that night.

In 1521, Roxelana’s status, now named Hürrem, rose in ranking from concubine to royal mother, when she gave birth to her first son Mehmed. 

Mehmed’s birth provided Hürrem with immediate advantages: a more secure position meant she was not to be sold or given away (she was still the property of the Sultan), improved material means and an important role in the Ottoman dynasty as the mother of a prince. However, this new position came with its own sets of challenges. Hürrem had to learn how to cleverly navigate the multiple intricacies of the harem’s political system for there was much to gain by being the mother of the heir and much to lose if that advantage was taken away.

Sultan Süleyman had few established concubines, whom he had children with. One of these favourites was Mahidevran, Hürrem’s rival, whose rank was quite prominent as her son was the sole heir to the throne before Mehmed was born. Any new mother to a boy would become a rival and a threat to Mahidrevran and her son. Not only did Mehidevran have to share Süleyman’s affections with many young, attractive new recruits, but she also had to constantly worry about her son’s survival.

As the Ottoman tradition dictated, royal mothers were not allowed to share the Sultan’s bed after they gave birth to a healthy boy, for they had to fully dedicate their lives to raising princes, preparing them to handle difficult stately affairs. Surprisingly, Süleyman defied the established rule with Hürrem for they maintained a close relationship for several years after their first night together. They became parents to 4 boys (Mehmed, Selim, Bayezid and Cihangir) and 1 daughter (Mihrimah) and made their bond official by getting married in 1536. This marriage was frowned upon by many as the Sultan was in no obligation to take a wife.

As the consort of the Sultan and without any official role in the empire, Hürrem still left her mark in Ottoman history. She formed an unbreakable, incomparable partnership with Süleyman, acting as his chief advisor and managing international affairs with foreign leaders and their wives. Also, she established expansive philanthropic projects and strong charitable institutions, aimed at women and children, in Istanbul and throughout the empire, asserting her position and leadership.

Incredible rumors circulated as to why Süleyman would be attached to her all those years. She was described as “merely beautiful”, so not so worthy of his lasting love. It was also believed that she practiced “witchcraft” and held incredible powers of persuasion, manipulating the Sultan into taking controversial decisions, for her own benefit.

Instead, I firmly believe that Hürrem and Süleyman must have shared a strong bond and a tight friendship for they were each other’s confidant and companion for almost 30 years. Her unshakable loyalty to Süleyman must have stood countless adversities. She must have shown patience, resilience and probably made ample sacrifices, in order to stay on this autocratic ruler’s good side. Like Mahidevran, Hürrem must have lived with the constant fear of being replaced by a new slave arriving at the Palace. Hers and her children’s destiny could have been jeopardised in a blink of an eye.

As a loving mother who dedicated her life to raising 5 children, Hürrem was stricken by many tragedies including the passing of two of her sons, Mehmed and Cihangir. Mehmed died at 21 years old of small pox. Cihangir died of grief at 22, only 3 weeks after his father, the Sultan ordered the strangling of his eldest son Mustafa, and Cihangir’s beloved half-brother, on suspicion of rebellion. As if that were not enough, she had to witness a fierce rivalry between her two surviving sons, Selim and Bayezid, competing to succeed. She must have known that one of them would inevitably die.  Mercifully, Hürrem would not live to witness Süleyman ordering the execution of her younger son Bayezid and his 5 young grand-sons.

After a long battle with a terminal illness, Hürrem died in 1528. Süleyman’s grief was inconsolable as he lost his most cherished companion. He died 6 years later and was buried in a mausoleum adjacent to Hürrem’s inside Süleymanye Mosque.

In conclusion, one can only imagine the tough, sometimes fierce politics that Hürrem and other women, must have faced, as there was a lot at stake. A handful of them could potentially reach high levels of power, while the majority would lead a life of servitude, or would be in no control of their own destiny, being sold to, offered or even married to men they didn’t choose. Hürrem did her best to survive and thrive.

It is safe to say that all of these women, including the Queen Mother, shared one thing in common. They gravitated around one man with absolute power, constantly seeking his approval and mercy. Their existence and survival depended on it.

References: Empress Of The East, by Leslie Pierce.

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