17th Century

Women Who Ruled: Mahpeyker Kosem Sultan of Ottoman Turkey

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

By Lisa J. Yarde

For women who ruled, it seemed as if power and enduring happiness could not often coexist. While they lived, these women proved they could be as competent, decisive, and cruel when necessary, similar to their male counterparts.

Imperial Hall, Topkapi Palace
In the seventeenth century, Sultan Mehmed III fathered a son, Ahmet I, who became ruler of the Ottoman Empire in 1603, at the age of thirteen. Until then, Ahmet had spent several years in isolation within Topkapi Palace's Golden Cage, an apartment reserved for princes younger than the reigning sovereign. Two years later, a fifteen year-old Greek girl born in 1590 entered his harem, a slave re-named Kosem. Daughter of a priest, Kosem entered the harem and in 1612, bore him their first son, Murad. She later became the mother of the princes Ibrahim and Bajezit.

Ahmet died in 1617 and his younger brother, Mustafa I, succeeded him. All that time in the Golden Cage in his youth made Mustafa crazy. Courtiers deposed him twice before Kosem's son, Murad IV, came to the throne in 1623 at the age of eleven. His youth required the appointment of the Valide Sultan Kosem as his official regent. Kosem advised her son at meetings of the Sultan's ministers from behind a curtain while she remained secluded from view. It was the first time in Ottoman history where a woman played such a prominent, official role. During Murad’s reign she gained the official title of Mahpeyker Kosem Sultan.

Sultan Murad IV
Murad proved to be a cruel ruler in his majority, prohibiting drinking and smoking upon pain of death, while he indulged in both habits. His younger brother Ibrahim soon showed signs of the same madness that affected Mustafa I. Kosem's hope that her remaining son Bajezit might succeed his incompetent brother ended when Murad ordered Bajezit's death after losing a contest to him. Murad died in 1640 at the age of 27 due to cirrhosis of the liver from his excessive drinking. Before his passing, he gave one final order: the death of his surviving brother Ibrahim. Kosem prevented the murder and coaxed a fearful Ibrahim out of the Golden Cage. His ineptitude allowed her to oversee the empire again.
Sultan Ibrahim I

Though her third son was mentally unstable, it served Kosem's interests to have Ibrahim inherit the throne. While the incompetent Sultan loitered around the palace feeding coins to fish, urging his agents to purchase furs and fill his harem with the most obese women they could find, Kosem continued to rule. Even after Ibrahim's death in a palace coup in 1648, Kosem refused to surrender the regency to Turhan, the Russian mother of her seven-year old grandson Mehmed IV. In 1651, Kosem began plotting the removal and replacement of the sultan, but the conspiracy failed without the support of the army. Harem servants strangled Kosem. Three days of official mourning followed her death.


The life of Kosem is celebrated in the 2010 Turkish film, Mahpeyker  - Kosem Sultan



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