Kosem Sultan - The Last Influential Female Ruler of the Ottoman Empire
Kosem Sultan was a woman who refused to be just another widow on the Ottoman court - instead she became a real ruler of the empire. Her decisions made such an impact, that after her death noblemen in her country decided to never allow a woman to become so powerful again.
At the beginning of the 17th century, sultans ruled the Ottoman Empire . They were still trying to maintain traditions from the Golden Age which began with Suleiman the Magnificent. After Suleiman died in 1566, his son Selim II, grandson Murad III, and great grandson Mehmet III took their turns on the throne.
Following Mehmet, his son Ahmed sat on the throne. With the support of his mother, Handan Sultan, he became the ruler as most of the other possible successors were murdered. Historical records describe the funeral of 19 of the dynasty’s members . Only two boys survived. One of them was Ahmed’s brother and future sultan, Mustafa I.
The second one was a son of Murad III and Safiye Sultan, who decided to send her son out of the palace to save him. Officially, he was buried with his other brothers, but in fact his coffin was empty. As Ahmed grew up, he was aware of his roots and power, and he hoped to eventually become as significant of a sultan as his great grandfather.
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The Woman with a “Moon-like Face”
Life in Topkapi palace was full of danger, but as almost everyone does, Ahmed sought out love. He wanted to have a person beside him whom he could trust and would make him feel safe. He found this person in a woman who was a slave from Bosnia or Morea in the Peloponnese.
Portrait of Mahpeyker Kösem Sultan, the wife of Ottoman Sultan Bahti Ahmed I. ( Public Domain )
According to legend, she was born as Anastasia, but she received the Turkish name Mahpeyker, meaning ''moon-like face'' in Persian. She was very beautiful and intelligent, but some historians believe that she was also very manipulative. Ahmed called her Kösem, meaning ''sheep leading the herd'' (or shepherd).
Kösem was kidnapped from her family home but became one of sultan Ahmed I’s favorites. With time, she advanced to become more influential than Safiye Sultan, Ahmed’s powerful grandmother whose history started on the court of Suleiman the Magnificent, and Handan Sultan. In the future, her incredibly bright mind, political skills, and charisma allowed Kösem to take the role as regent and ruler of the impressive empire.
Death of a Sultan – The Fight for the Throne Begins!
Ahmed is said to have died from typhus in November 1617, however some historians believe that he was poisoned. It is possible that the one who killed the sultan was very close to him - it could have even been his beloved wife. Before he died, Kösem bore him at least five sons. However, another of the sultan’s favorites, Mahfiruz, was the mother of the oldest of his sons– Osman. After years of peace in the court, the fight for the throne began.
Ahmet I. ( Public Domain )
When she became a widow, Kösem was only 28 years old. Sources say that following her husband’s death she focused on her and her sons’ wellbeing. It’s unknown if she wanted to become a ruler of the Ottoman Empire, or her aim was just the protection of her children and to support them in their succession.
However, during the six years following Ahmed’s death, she lived in the so-called Old Palace, far away from Topkapi Palace . The throne was in the hands of Mustafa I (who lost power, but survived) and Osman II. A few years later, fate smiled on Kösem.
Portrait believed to be of Kösem Sultan and her son Murad or Ibrahim. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
Kösem was a Regent for Two Sultans
Kösem returned to the political game in 1623. When she took her power back, she was stronger than ever before. It seems that due to her plotting with the support of Mustafa I’s mother, Halime Sultan, Osman was killed by the Janissaries. Through their actions, Kösem was back in Topkapi as Valide Sultan and a regent (naib-i-sultanat) with her son - sultan Murad IV. At the same time, Halime and her son Mustafa, who struggled with a mental illness, lived through the power change.
As a Valide Sultan (mother of the sultan, who rules the harem ) and a regent, Kösem showed a different face. She became a powerful ruler, easily as strong as any male sultan. Murad IV was unable to rule the empire throughout his reign. Even after 1632, when she stopped acting as the regent, Kösem still carried the real power.
After Murad’s death in 1940, she decided to sit on the throne for her other son – Ibrahim. He was Kösem’s last surviving prince and they ruled together for the next eight years. On August 8, 1648, Ibrahim was dethroned and imprisoned. His successor was Mehmed IV, Ibrahim’s son with Turhan Hatice Sultan. Ibrahim was executed on August 18, 1648. The new Valide Sultan was Turhan, who wanted to stop her mother-in-law’s power forever.
An Eighteenth Century painting of a Valide Sultan by Jean Baptiste Vanmour. ( Public Domain )
Her Hunger for Power Led to Kösem Sultan’s Demise
Kösem died because of her strongest desire - power. She was murdered by a woman who served Turhan Hatice Sultan. After years of domination, Kösem was killed in the same way as she had done away with so many others. Turhan blamed Kösem for Ibrahim’s death and she wanted to end her rule to protect Mehmet. She was afraid that Kösem Sultan would try to become the regent once again.
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Murder of Kösem Sultan. ( Public Domain )
During her lifetime, Kösem (and all of the six sultans who ruled in this period) destroyed the palace’s budget. Kösem had no mercy for her political enemies, but she seemed to care for the poor people who asked her for help. Her husband Ahmed's name was remembered through the centuries for to the impressive Blue Mosque, which was built to his orders.
After Kösem’s death, influential pashas decided that no other woman should be able to rule the Ottoman Empire. It was the end of an influential period for women in Topkapi Palace (started by Hurrem Sultan in the first half of the 16th century). Turhan was a regent with Mehmet IV, but she never became as important politically as Kösem. However, she apparently had no ambitions to do so either.
Mehmet IV. ( Public Domain )
Nowadays, Kösem Sultan is a main character in many movies and novels. She is portrayed as a loyal wife and mother and a powerful woman whose life looked like one big battle to dominate Topkapi. It seems that she was stronger and a more radical politician than many women in history.
She was more than a delicate decoration to accompany the sultan, Kösem was a forceful figure dressed in a female kaftan.
Top Image: Representative image of a sultan’s powerful wife. Source: fotohelen /Adobe Stock
Peirce, Leslie P., The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, 1993.
Freely, John, Inside the Seraglio: Private Lives of the Sultans in Istanbul, 1999.
Goodwin, Godfrey, The Private world of Ottoman Women, 1997.
The woman who oversaw 3 generations of the Ottoman Empire by Ekrem Bugra Ekinci, available at: