Women Who Ruled: Mahpeyker Kosem Sultan of Ottoman Turkey

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

From History and Women

Post a Comment


Violet said…
first allow me to express my faithful reading of your posts dear writer , second I doubt in the matter that Sultan Murad IV was an addictor to smocking and drinking , there is no Arabic source mentions that ..
another question to you Meme, Why did you call the Spain empire in Grenada with " moorish" that ruled by Umayyad Caliphate in your book "Sultana: A Novel of Moorish Spain ؟
thanks :)
Lisa J Yarde said…
Hello, thanks for your comments. That's quite the mystery, if all Western sources state that Murad IV was a drunkard and smoker yet the Turks made no mention of such habits.

As for the Moorish period in Sultana, the caliphate encompassed all the area of Granada and had ended five centuries before Muhammad I claimed lordship over Granada.
Violet said…
Thanks A alot for replay ,
History is a quite mysterious topic , So there is nothing certain about It.
I'm very interested in Ottoman Empire and almost read about it in Arabic ..
As you know Istanbul was the capitol and center of Islam for centuries and Almost all Arabs consider it as a vital part of Islamic Empire ..

Thanks again .
Lisa J Yarde said…
If you only knew how jealous I am of anyone with access to Arab sources. It's often very frustrating to write about Moorish Spain and have so much of the perspective of the Spanish Christians on the Moors, yet so little of the Moorish sources.
Violet said…
I'm So enchanted by all orientalist stuffs , So I'll wait a novel of you about arabic nation :)
moreover I'll purchase your books as soon as I can ..
and if you need any help , you can consider me as an Arabic friend , my e-mail presents in my profile ,

Good Luck :)
Violet said…

Check this link , It's my favorite .
Lisa J Yarde said…
Thank you, that's very kind. I expect the Sultana series will be translated into Turkish next year. Thanks also for the link - Magnificent Century sounds wonderful. I wish we had more period fiction like this in the US. You might consider adding Colin Falconer's Harem to your reading list too; he does a brilliant job with Suleiman's life and relationships.
Femmedetete said…
I have formally studied Turkish history. I know for a fact that many of the original, historical ottoman resources are VERY DIFFERENT to Western tales and perceptions and even fantasies of the orient. For instance, in your blog, you state that Sultan Murat the 4th 'proved to be a cruel ruler' and 'indulged in both habits (drinking and smoking)'.He in fact was one of the most energetic and intelligent sultans, also a very decisive and observative man. He made great efforts to develop the empire, conquering Baghdad and Revan, getting rid of tyrannical viziers and as a religious man, prohibited the intake of alcohol, like his father Ahmed the first. The Turks do not try to hide their past. Their have been many drunkard Sultans, but Murad (4th) is just not one of them. I am in no means trying to attack your writing. I think its wonderful that others take such an interest in Turkish history, it is quite intriguing. But I do have access to Ottoman sources, and they are quite different to the stories I am exposed to as a westerner.
kropka said…
Finally somebody speaking sense. I live in Turkey and my husband is turkish (Osman) I'm polish ;) nice mix. Anyway I'm trying to learn more about turkish history -ottoman history. Watching serials / movies based on it its not the same. My husband keeps telling me that western world has different perception and understanding of that era . Please recommend any valuable books or something.
Best regards
kropka said…
It would be nice to read those ottoman resources