After the massive success of the series Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century), centering on Hürrem Sultan’s life in the harem of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, the world has been eagerly anticipating a sequel. By becoming the first official wife of an Ottoman sultan and starting the period called the Sultanate of Women with her influence, Hürrem laid the ground for other powerful women in the empire. Now, her successor is on our screens in Magnificent Century: Kösem, which follows the equally glorious Kösem Sultan, played by Beren Saat. So the tale of slavery, rebellion, intrigue, romance, and war rolls on into the seventeenth century.
Much like Hürrem, little is known about Kösem’s early life. She was born somewhere in Eastern Europe, and most scholars believe that she was of Greek Orthodox origin. After the death of her father, the young girl—then known as Anastasya—came to the Ottoman governor’s palace in Bosnia as a slave. The governor recognized her beauty and intelligence, bought her, and sent her on to the chief black eunuch of the harem at Topkapı Palace.
What does kösem mean?
All newcomers to the harem were given new names, typically from Persian. Anastasya became Mahpeyker, meaning “moon-faced”. But in time Sultan Ahmed I bestowed on her a new name, Kösem, in reference to how she directed the other women like a kösemen—a goat that leads the herd. Those leadership qualities would be very useful in the years to come.
At this time, Sultan Ahmed I had come to the throne as a child, leaving his mother, Hundan Sultan, to effectively manage the empire. The sultan’s mother also chose the women presented to the sultan as consorts, and Kösem was one of the favorites. She gave birth to a son, Şehzade Mehmed, in 1605. From a simple concubine she rose to the title Haseki Sultan, meaning the mother of a prince who could potentially be the next sultan.
Unlike Hürrem’s relationship with Süleyman, there is no certainty about Kösem and Ahmed being officially married. One Ottoman document in the Venetian archives does describe Kösem as the sultan’s wife, but this may have been a diplomatic move to show the Ottomans in a more European light. Wife or concubine, over the coming years, Kösem bore him five sons and five daughters. Two of these sons became sultans, while the political maneuverings in the harem and intrigue for succession led to three of their deaths at a young age. In fact, her son İbrahim I was also killed while on the throne, leaving only one son who died of natural causes, Murad IV. Despite the pomp and splendor of the palace, Ottoman rulers were in a constant struggle to protect themselves and their children from murder by rival family members maneuvering for the throne.
Woman behind the throne
Just as Ahmed I’s mother had done when he was a child, Kösem took over the duties of the state when her young children came to the throne. The first of these was Murad IV in 1623. She took the sultan’s role at the Imperial Council meetings at Topkapı Palace, listening to the proceedings from behind the gold grille under the Tower of Justice. Murad died at the early age of 27, leaving the throne to his younger brother İbrahim.
İbrahim had spent his entire life imprisoned in the section of the harem known as The Cage, the rooms where princes were sometimes kept until they rose to the throne. By the time İbrahim took power, he had already seen his brothers Kasım and Süleyman killed by his older brother Murad. An evident disadvantage of The Cage, and the system of killing rival princes, was its effect on the surviving princes’ mental health. İbrahim lived in constant fear of assassination, which drove him to insanity. A supposed jinn-whisperer known as Cinci Hoca was called in to cure İbrahim’s madness, but instead enriched himself from the state coffers. The last straw was İbrahim’s decree for higher taxes to pay for a jewel-encrusted boat. Members of the court had him deposed and executed, reportedly with Kösem’s approval.
How did Kösem Sultan die?
Her third taste of power was as Mehmed IV’s grandmother, because the sultan’s mother was thought too young and inexperienced to be the valide sultan. In fact, Kösem’s daughter Turhan Hatice proved more ambitious than expected. To prevent her daughter from gaining too much influence, Kösem schemed to have another grandson placed on the throne. The exact circumstances of Kösem’s death are unknown. However, it seems probable that Turhan Hatice acted to prevent Kösem from deposing her son - meaning that Kösem herself fell victim to murder in the harem.
As well as her ruthless politics, Kösem was also known for her charitable works across the Ottoman Empire. Her largest monument in Istanbul is Çinili Camii (Tiled Mosque) in Üsküdar. Built in 1638, the mosque’s name derives from the large number of İznik tiles adorning its interior. These painted ceramics were the traditional decoration for high-status buildings, including Topkapı Palace and Sultanahmet Mosque. Unusually, Çinili Camii’s mihrab (prayer niche) and minbar (pulpit) are also ornamented with İznik tiles, which combine floral arabesques with painted calligraphy. Later, a madrasah, ablution fountain, water fountain, school, and hammam were added around the mosque.
Where is Kösem Sultan’s grave?
Kösem’s grave is beside that of Sultan Ahmet I in the mausoleum attached to Sultanahmet Mosque.