The Mother Sultans – 1

For 400 years, one of the most important roles in the Ottoman Empire was that of a woman: The Mother Sultan. In this blog series, we focus on some these powerful, effectual woman and their harritage in today’s Turkey.

Safiye Sultan

Foreigners described her as smart, intelligent, elegant, witty, proud and “a man of his word”…

Unfortunately, we don’t have clear information about Safiye’s  birth year and origin but it is thought that she was born in 1550 and is of Albenian origin. According to sources from Venice, she was presented to Murad III when she was 13 years old and in 1566, she gave birth to Mehmed III.  Safiye Sultan became the ruler of the harem after 1585.

Ruling the harem was never enough for Safiye Sultan. She started stepping in state affairs. With the support of Gazanfer Aga, chief of the white eunuchs and head of the enderun (the imperial inner palace), she gained more and more power which made some Grand Viziers very uncomfortable.

In 1595, Murad III passed away and their son Mehmed III ascended the throne. Thus , Safiye Sultan became the Valide Sultan – Mother Sultan, the most powerful position for a woman in the whole Ottoman Empire.

Safiye Sultan’s most important mission was to protect her son and his emperorship from any kind of danger. There was nothing she couldn’t do for it: The mother of Prince Mahmud, born in 1587, wondered when his son will ascend to the throne. One day she wrote a letter to a fortune teller seeking for an answer to this question.  However, the answer was somehow delivered to Safiye Sultan. In 1603, Safiye’s grandchild Prince Mahmud and his mother were strangled.

Safiye Sultan played an active role in all the dismissals and appointments, from Grand Viziers to Sheikh ul-lslam.  She intervened not only in domestic but also in foreign affairs. It is known that she corresponded with foreign rulers and entered into diplomatic relations.

Queen Elizabeth I of England sent her a portrait embroidered with jewels in 1593, and she sent her a silver embroidered dress and belt with two gold embroidered handkerchiefs. This relationship continued during the time when Safiye was the Mother Sultan. It is known that, during the same period, Edward Barton, the Ambassador of England had an influential role in designations in Istanbul.  In 1599, the Queen send Safiye Sultan a car full of ornamentation as a gift and Safiye Sultan traveled in this car in Istanbul which was very unusual for the time being.

She was pro-Venetian in foreign policy. Venice send her numerous gifts, most of which are recorded in ambassadors’ books.  Thanks to Safiye Sultan, Venice had survived many potential cross-national disputes without expanding.

While she gained a lot of international support, she also gained a lot of enemies within the Empire.  In a rebellion in 1603, Safiye Sultan was asked to be exiled but her son Mehmed III rescued her. When Mehmed III died later in 1603, Safiye Sultan was sent to the Old Palace.

In January 1619, she became ill during his journey to the capital city. She died on the same day despite the doctors’ interventions at the age of 71. Although the exact cause of death is not known, a heart attack or brain hemorrhage is considered. It is also doubtful that Safiye Sultan passed away due to natural causes. She is burried in her husband Murad III’s tomb which is still located in the garden of the famous Hagia Sophia.

Safiye Sultan had a lot of monuments made during her life. The best known amoung them is the New Mosque (Yeni Camii) in Old City, Istanbul. Although Safiye Sultan started the contruction of this mosque, she has left it unfinished when her son passed away. The construction was than completed by the order of the following sultans. She had made a mosque, fountain, foundation building, tomb and a pavilion in Uskudar, Asian side of Istanbul. In 1598, a madrasa (school) and in 1610, a mosque in Cairo were built and named after Safiye Sultan.

The writer and international bestseller Ann Chamberlin has written a trilogy of sixteenth-century Ottoman historical fiction about Safiye Sultan, which were published consecutively in 1997 and in 1998. Names of these award winning books are “Sofia”, “The Sultan’s Daughter” and “The Reign of the Favored Women”.

If you google Safiye Sultan today, you will mostly see photographs of a localy very famous Turkish actress, Hülya Avşar. The Turkish drama series called Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century) (2011-2014) and Muhteşem Yüzyıl – Kösem (2015-2017) which are based on the life of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and his wife Hürrem Sultan, have become international hits. They also aroused world-wide curiosity about the life in the Ottoman Palace as well as the powerful women of the Empire.

Hülya Avşar as Safiye Sultan in the Turkish drama series called “The Magnificent Century”

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