Among the many women who have handled power positions, there is one who is particularly known for the reforms she bought in Ottoman politics. She is the one who exercised power for half a century and was powerful enough to have her own son, Ibrahim, the then Sultan, deposed and executed when circumstances demanded it. She is Kosem Sultan, the woman who authorised her power and position in the Ottoman court and palace.
Kosem Sultan was the wife of Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I, the mother of Sultans Murad IV and Ibrahim and the grandmother of Sultan Mehmed IV. As a regent for young Sultans Murad and Mehmed, she built an enormous support system inside the court and the palace to keep herself in the power position.
Kosem Sultan first entered the harem of Sultan Ahmed I as Anastasia, a young Greek girl of peculiar beauty. She was kidnapped from her home and bought to the Topkapi Palace to join the Sultan’s harem. And it is here that her story began.
Through her beauty, she soon became famous in the harem as the Sultan’s favourite. She was renamed Mahpeyker, the one with a moon-like face in Persian. The favouritism she got from Sultan Ahmed I, combined with her intelligence and manipulation, earned her a position of authority in the palace. She was soon renamed by the Sultan as Kosem, meaning the sheep leading the herd or the one leading him, a powerful name indeed. A true beauty with brains, she used her political skills and charisma to develop a position for herself in the vast empire.
Her political influence was seen in many decisions made by Sultan Ahmed I during his reign. One such decision was the removal of the killing of the Sultan’s younger brother. This was a tradition followed during early Ottoman rule. When the eldest son became the Sultan, he killed all his younger brothers. This was done to avoid the division of power and political games inside the Ottoman court. Kosem convinced Ahmed I not to kill his younger brother Mustafa I and change this tradition. It is believed she performed this act of mercy to safeguard her sons in future.
After the death of Sultan Ahmed I, Kosem supported the claim of Mustafa I, his younger brother on the throne. He was mentally ill, and Kosem practically made all the decisions on his behalf. However, he was deposed in three months, and Osman II, Ahmed’s eldest son, ascended the throne. Osman’s reign too soon ended when the kingdom’s Jannisary corps revolted, a step believed to have been initiated by Kosem.
After Osman’s death, Kosem’s son, Murad IV, finally ascended the throne. And with this, Kosem became Valide Sultan, the most powerful and wealthy woman of the Ottoman Palace and the ruler of the harem. Murad was a minor, and Kosem took major political decisions as his regent. Murad, too passed away due to chronic alcohol consumption.
Ibrahim, Kosem’s only remaining son, ascended the throne. His rule was marked by mismanagement, and the entire Ottoman empire was in a sad state during this time. This was when Kosem took a step; she conspired with the court officials and had him executed.
During her reign as the Valide Sultana, she made significant changes in the kingdom. Most of her work was dedicated to charity for orphans and infrastructural development in the city. She supported orphaned girls financially and built resources for their marriage. She even fought for women’s equal pay, even in higher positions like teachers and doctors.
She built the Cinili Mosque in the market square. Alongside the mosque, she made major infrastructure developments like schools, hamams, public fountains and shop lines for merchants. The revenues from these public buildings were used for further charities.
After Ibrahim’s death, the throne was passed on to Mehmed IV, Ibrahim’s son. Tuhran Sultan, Mehmed’s mother, became the Valide Sultana. Even at this stage, Kosem remained superior and exercised power, leading to a rivalry between the two. This rivalry ended with the murder of Kosem Sultan. She was killed in the middle of the night by Tuhran’s men and thus ended the story of this powerful woman.