The Ottoman Harem

The image of a harem conjures visions of opulent surroundings filled with beautiful, sensuous women whose sole duty was to entertain an aging yet still lustful sheik or Sultan. This image may have been based on the imperial harems of the 16th and 17th centuries of the Ottoman Empire. In this period of history, harems played an important role in the governing of the Ottoman Empire. This most renown period was known as the Reign of Women, the Kadinlar Sultanati. The involvement of the harem women, and more specifically, the Valide Sultan (Sultan's Mother or Queen Mother) and the Sultan's favorites (favored harem women), in state politics, diminished the power and position of the Sultan. As the Sultan was the head of the government (or Divan), this interference proved to be detrimental to the Ottoman state.

Historical Background

Harem women and Black EunuchThe harem was defined to be the women's quarter in a Muslim household. The Imperial harem (also known as the Seraglio harem) contained the combined households of the Valide Sultan (Queen Mother), the Sultan's favorites (hasekis), and the rest of his concubines (women whose main function was to entertain the Sultan in the bedchamber). It also contained all the Sultanas (daughters of the Sultan) households. Many of the harem women would never see the Sultan and became the servants necessary for the daily functioning of the harem.

The reasons for harem existence can be seen from Ottoman cultural history. Ottoman tradition relied on slave concubines along with legal marriage for reproduction. Slave concubines was the taking of slave women for sexual reproduction. It served to emphasize the patriarchal nature of power (power being "hereditary" through sons only). Slave concubines, unlike wives, had no recognized lineage. Wives were feared to have vested interests in their own family's affairs, which would interfere with their loyalty to their husband, hence, concubines were preferred, if one could afford them. This led to the evolution of slave concubines as an equal form of reproduction that did not carry the risks of marriage, mainly that of the potential betrayal of a wife. The powers of the harem women were exercised through their roles within the family. Although they had no legitimate claim to power, as their favor grew with the Sultan, they acquired titles such as "Sultan Kadin" which solidified their notion of political power and legitimacy within the royal family was reflected with titles including "Sultan".

During the 16th century, both male and female members of the imperial family used the title of "Sultan". As the role of the royal favorite concubine (title: Sultan) eroded during the 17th century, the title designation also changed to "kadin" or "haseki," which were names originally reserved for less prominent members of the royal family. Henceforth, only the mother of the reigning Sultan was addressed as a Sultan: the Valide Sultan. The retention of the title of Sultan for the mother indicated the power of the Valide Sultan. After all, men could take as many concubines and odalisques as they desired, but they only had one mother.

Many of the concubines and odalisques of the Imperial harem were reputed to be among the most beautiful of women in the Ottoman Empire. Young girls of extraordinary beauty were sent to the Sultan's court, often as gifts from the governors. Numerous harem women were Caucasians, Georgians, and Abkhazians. They were usually bought from slave markets after being kidnapped or else sold by impoverished parents. Many Georgian and Caucasian families encouraged their daughters to enter concubinage through slavery, as that promised to be a life of luxury and comfort. All slaves that entered the harem were termed odalisques or "women of the court" - general servants in the harem. Odalisques were not usually presented to the Sultan. Those that were of extraordinary beauty and talent, were seen as potential concubines, and trained accordingly. They learned to belly dance, recite poetry, play musical instruments, and master the erotic arts. Only the most gifted odalisques were presented to the Sultan as his personal gedikli (maids-in-waiting). Generally, odalisques would be assigned as servants to the oda (or court) of a harem mistress. For example, the Mistress of the Robes, or the Keeper of Baths, or the Keeper of Jewels, etc. It was possible for these odalisques to rise through the ranks of the harem hierarchy and enjoy security through their power and position.

The most powerful women in the harem were the Valide Sultan and the Kadins. The Valide Sultan was responsible for the maintenance of order and peace inside the harem. Being a female elder in the Imperial family, the Valide was expected to serve as a guide and teacher to her son by educating him about the intricacies of state politics. Often, she was asked to intervene upon the Sultan's decisions when the Mufti (head of the Muslim religion), or the Viziers (ministers) felt that the Sultan may have made an erroneous decision.

Kadins were the Sultan's favorite women. Tradition allowed only four principal Kadins but unlimited number of concubines. Kadins were equivalent in rank to that of a legal wife, and were given apartments, slaves, and eunuchs. For example, during the reign of Selim II (the Sot), his favorite, the bas kadin Nurbanu had an entourage of one hundred and fifty ladies-in-waiting. The amount of properties, clothing, jewelry, and allowances given, was all-proportional to the affection the Sultan held for them.

Odalisques were at the bottom of the harem hierarchy. They were considered to be general servants in the harem. They were not usually seen to be beautiful enough to become presented to the Sultan. Odalisques that were seen as potential candidates for concubinage were trained to become talented entertainers. The greatest honor a Sultan could bestow upon a male guest was to present him with an odalisque from his court who had not yet become his concubine. These women were greatly coveted as they were beautiful and talented, and what is more important, had links into the harem hierarchy. Concubines could be considered an equivalent to the modern version of a "one night stand". They were odalisques that were presented to the Sultan and after that one night, they might never see the Sultan again unless the girl became pregnant with a male child. If she was successful in birthing a male child, then she would become an ikbal (favorite) to the Sultan. The female hierarchy followed the pattern of odalisques (virgins), concubines ("one night stands"), ikbals (favorites), and kadins (favorites "wives").

Harem women formed only half of the harem hierarchy. Eunuchs were the integral other half of the harem. Eunuchs were considered to be less than men and thus unable to be "tempted" by the harem women and would remain solely loyal to the Sultan. Eunuchs were castrated men and hence possessed no threat to the sanctity of the harem.

According to Muslim tradition, no man could lay his eyes on another man's harem, thus someone less than a man was required for the role of watchful guardianship over the harem women. Eunuchs tended to be male prisoners of war or slaves, castrated before puberty and condemned to a life of servitude.

White eunuchs were first provided from the conquered Christian areas of Caucasia, Georgia, and Armenia. They were also culled from Hungarian, Slovenian, and German prisoners of war. These white eunuchs were captured during the conflicts that arouse between the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan countries. Black eunuchs were captured from Egypt, Abyssinia and the Sudan. Black slaves were captured from the upper Nile and transported to markets on the Mediterranean Sea - Mecca, Medina, Beirut, Izmir and Istanbul. All eunuchs were castrated en route to the markets by Egyptian Christians or Jews, as Islam prohibited the practice of castration but not the usage of castrated slaves.

There were different varieties of eunuchs:

  • Sandali, or clean-shaven: The parts are swept off by a single cut of a razor, a tube (tin or wooden) is set in the urethra, the wound is cauterized with boiling oil, and the patient is planted in a fresh dung-hill. His diet is milk, and if under puberty he often survives.
  • The eunuch whose penis is removed: He retains all the power of copulation and procreation without the wherewithal; and this, since the discovery of caoutchouc, has often been supplied.
  • The eunuch, or classical thlibias and semivir: He has been rendered sexless by the removing of the testicles, or by their being bruised, twisted, seared or bandaged.

Black eunuchs tended to be of the first category: Sandali, while white eunuchs were of the second or third categories, thus have part or their entire penis intact. Because of their lack of parts, black eunuchs served in the harem, while white eunuchs served in the government (and away from the women). At the height of the Ottoman Empire, as many as six to eight hundred eunuchs served within the Seraglio (palace). Most eunuchs arrived as gifts from governors of different provinces. At the end of their training as young eunuch pages, eunuchs were assigned to service. White eunuchs were placed under the patronage of various government officials or even into the service of the Sultan himself (like in Topkapi Palace). If they were black eunuchs, they were placed into the service of a harem personage, such as a Kadin, or a daughter or sister of the Sultan. They could also serve under the Kizlar Agha (master of the girls), the Chief Black Eunuch.

The Chief Black Eunuch

Kizlar Agha

The Kizlar Agha was the third highest-ranking officer of the empire, after the Sultan and the Grand Vizier (Chief Minister). He was the commander of the baltaci corps (or halberdiers - part of the imperial army). His position was a pasha (general) of three tails (tails referring to peacock tails, and the most number of tails permitted being four and worn by the Sultan). He could approach the Sultan at any time, and functioned as the private messenger between the Sultan and the Grand Vizier. He was the most important link between the Sultan and the Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan).

The Kizlar Agha led the new odalisque to the Sultan's bedchamber, and was the only "man" who could enter the harem should there have been any nocturnal emergencies. His duties were to protect the women, to provide and purchase the necessary odalisques for the harem, to oversee the promotion of the women (usually after the death of a higher-ranking kadin) and eunuchs. He acted as a witness for the Sultan's marriage, birth ceremonies, and arranged all the royal ceremonial events, such as circumcision parties, weddings, and fêtes. He also delivered sentence to harem women accused of crimes, taking the guilty women to the executioner to be placed into sacks and drowned in the Bosphorus which lay outside the Topkapi Palace.

The Chief White Eunuch

Kapi Agha

The Chief White Eunuch was the head of the Inner Service (which is the palace bureaucracy) and the head of the Palace School (school for white eunuchs). He was also Gatekeeper-in-Chief, head of the infirmary, and master of ceremonies of the Seraglio. The Kapi Agha controlled all messages, petitions, and State documents addressed to the Sultan, and was allowed to speak to the Sultan in person. In 1591, Murad III transferred the powers from the white to the black eunuchs as there were too many embezzlements and various other nefarious crimes being attributed to the white eunuchs, among them being purported intimacy with the harem women. The Kapi Agha's loss of powers was seen through the decreasing of his ceremonial duties (which had various stipends entailed) and the decrease in his overall income. Originally, the Kapi Agha was the only eunuch allowed to speak to the Sultan alone, but as his importance decreased, the Valide Sultan and the Kizlar Agha were able to request private audience with the Sultan also. Because of their possible disloyalty, white eunuchs were assigned positions that did not bring them into contact with the harem women as many of them had incomplete castrations (still possessing of their penis). The total number of white eunuchs in the Seraglio at any given time was between 300 and 900.

In the late sixteen hundreds, the power of the black eunuchs grew. During the Kadinlar Sultanati, the eunuchs increased their political leverage by taking advantage of child Sultans or mentally incompetent ones. It was during this period of enthronement of child Sultans that caused political instability. The young teenage Sultans were "guided" by regencies formed by the Valide Sultan, the Grand Vizier and the Valides other supporters. The Kizlar Agha was the Valide Sultan's and the Kadin's intimate and value accomplice.

Sultans and Valide Sultans

of the 16th and 17th Centuries

The family tree of the Ottoman sultans who ruled during 16th-17th centuries, along with their marriages and children:

Family Tree of Sultans and Valide Sultans of the 16th and 17th Centuries

The Effect of the Kadinlar Saltanati

The Reign of Women (Kadinlar Saltanati) began during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566) and ended with the death of Valide Sultan Türkhan in 1687. The concubine Hürrem (Roxellana) managed to gather all of Süleyman's affections for herself and became his wife.

Reign of Sultan Suleyman

Hürrem (1526-1558) was the first concubine to legally marry a Sultan, move into the Seraglio (palace) harem with her entourage, and later strongly influence Süleyman. The Grand Vizier Ibrahim first gave her to Süleyman, after being bought at the slave markets. Hürrem bore Süleyman four sons: Mehmed, Cihangir, Beyazid, and Selim, the last was a drunkard, and would later become known as Selim the Sot, and an intelligent daughter Mihrimah, whom Süleyman would consult with on important issues.

Hürrem firmly established herself as the most influential of Süleyman's favorites. She managed to displace the bas Kadin Gülbehar by having Gülbehar and her son, the heir Mustafa sent away to the governorship of Manisa. Hürrem later persuaded Süleyman to move the imperial harem from the Old Palace to the Topkapi Palace (Seraglio) harem in 1541 after a fire in the Old Palace. Hürrem moved into the Seraglio with her servants: an entourage of one hundred ladies-in-waiting, a guard of eunuchs, and domestic slaves in proportionate numbers. She also had her dressmaker and purveyor, the latter being "very richly dressed, coming and going out of the palace whenever he liked, and being always accompanied by thirty slaves". This move put the harem women closer to the Second Court or Divan (the Chancery of State), where the governing of the Ottoman Empire took place.

By playing on Süleyman's fears and neurosis, Hürrem conspired to have Mustafa removed as the heir by creating the illusion that Mustafa was plotting with the Janissaries (the imperial army) to overthrow Süleyman and become Sultan. Süleyman eventually ordered Mustafa's death but even with his death, Hürrem would not live to become Valide Sultan.

Süleyman was the last Sultan to personally take part in the governing of the Empire on a daily basis. Even during his reign, Süleyman had already delegated many of his duties and powers to his Grand Vizier and boyhood friend, Ibrahim, and gradually withdrew from the actual governing of the Empire. After Süleyman's death, succeeding Sultans no longer led their armies into battle, retiring instead to their harems. Sultans Selim II and Murad III spent more time in the harem than ever, the former drinking to his hearts content, and the latter, bedding concubines to his content. The Sultan's seclusion away from their governments greatly diminished their influence in the government. In varying degrees, the Valide Sultan and the Kadins began to influence the governing of the Ottoman State by having bribery and political patronage supplant promotion on the basis of merit.

Reign of Sultan Murad III

The influence of the Valide Sultan and the Kadin's led to the turning of the Sultan's attention and time from the actual governing to the pleasures offered by the harem. Beginning with Murad III (r.1574-1595), the Valide Sultan Nurbanu introduced a string of virgins to him in hopes of begetting more than one male heir. Murad ended up fathering some twenty sons and twenty-seven daughters during his reign. Although she may have begun with good intentions, that of having more than one surviving heir. However, Murad would become less attentive to political matters and increasingly dependent on his mother Nurbanu for political advice. Murad's Bas Kadin Safiye maintained her dignity and status by not displaying any bitterness or jealousy over her replacements in Murad's bed. Later on, Safiye would even present beautiful virgins to Murad, a gesture that would earn her his gratitude, and allow her to manipulate him according to her desires. When Murad no longer occupied himself with his other concubines, he again turned to Safiye for companionship.

Reign of Sultan Mehmed III

After Murad III's death in 1595, the ascension of Mehmed III (r.1595-1603) and the five reigns that followed him marked several important turning points of the Ottoman Empire. Among these were the lapse of the Princely Governate, the seclusion of male heirs into the Kafes, and the marked increase in harem women populations. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the population of the Seraglio harem ranged from a hundred to over a thousand women. The size fluctuated frequently since when the Sultan's sons left the harem at the ages of fourteen to sixteen, they were given their servants from the harem to accompany them to the provinces in which they were given governship. The princes received their harem of virgins who were either selected from the Sultan's harem or purchased at the slave markets. These downward fluctuations were present until 1566.

The Golden Cage

Altin Kafes

miniature painting of Harem bathIn 1566, Selim II reversed the decree of Mehmed the Conqueror (r. 1451-1481) that had sanctioned the killing of a Sultan's male relatives and brothers upon ascension to secure his throne for his offspring. Selim allowed the imperial princes to survive but they were to be secluded in the Kafes. The Kafes were apartments that adjoined the harem but were separated by a doorway, the Cin Kapi (Genie's Gate). It consisted of a two-storied building without windows and intended to isolate the Princes and their harems of some two dozen sterile women. In the instances where the princes lived to become Sultan, they were often unprepared to rule the Empire.

After the ascension of Mehmed III, the princes were no longer given provincial governships and were instead secluded into the Kafes to prevent insurrection against the Sultan and hence, sparing their lives. The seclusion of princes in the Kafes also meant that the harems that formerly accompanied the princes to their provincial capitals remained inside the Topkapi Palace harem and caused the overall harem population to continually increase. Rebellion was always possible once a prince was formally recognized as an adult, this being due to the fact that he was to assume governance over a province. Young princes in previous times had assumed popular roles with the Janissaries and the idea of a warrior prince or Sultan appealed to the Janissaries, so much insofar as Murad III seldom left the Palace for fear of being replaced by his more popular son Mehmed III.

The Valide Sultan Nurbanu and her daughter-in-law Safiye took active part in the governance of the empire. Although they were not allowed to "publicly" dabble in state politics, Nurbanu was an important advisor to her son Murad III, as was Safiye to both Murad III and her son Mehmed III. Safiye knew that "with the authority she enjoys as mother of the prince, she intervenes on occasion in affairs of state, although she is much respected in this, and is listened to by His Majesty, who considers her sensible and wise". Safiye also attempted to influence important matters directly. On one noted occasion, Safiye was seated behind a curtain. During a discussion between the Sultan and the mufti Sunullah Efendi in 1600, Safiye hastened to defend her son Mehmed.

It became apparent that the Valide Sultan was listening. She hastened to support [the Sultan's words] and said,

affairs of state have become excessively disordered, taxes imposed through harmful invention on the peasants of the empire have multiplied beyond bounds, and the whole world is becoming increasingly obsessed with pennies and pounds and taking bribes. All is being corrupted because ignorant and base persons have taken control. A remedy must be applied to these ills.

Safiye was able to influence her son to release much needed monies for the outfitting of the soldiers. Safiye's sway on Mehmed also placed her in competition with other influential counselors of the Sultan, the Viziers, the mufti, the chief black eunuch, and the Sultan's male and female favorites. Safiye's interference in state politics and her attempts to promote her interests were not always received favorably with the Sultan Mehmed. Mehmed often had to restrain his mother because of her unpopularity with the soldiers and many statesmen. According to Ambassador Agnostino Nani, who lived in Istanbul from 1600-1603, Safiye's position was tenuous.

At one time she was taken away from the palace and sent to the Old Palace by her son, the present king, but a few days later she was brought back and restored. She will succeed with difficulty in escaping being removed [again] at the petition of the soldiers, who want her sent to some faraway place, although they do not want to shed her blood. This might be accomplished by having her driven away to Edirne. They attribute many disorders to her, in particular the consumption of money for a most superb mosque she is having built; but she has halted its construction.

Safiye's perceived excessive interference was a main cause of her unpopularity. Most of her actions were documented and vilified only when she had overstepped the bounds of the role of the Valide Sultan. Many of the accounts available on the Valide Sultans and their actions are seen from the extensive memorandum and letters sent between the harem women and the various Viziers and/or the Sultan himself.

The fiscal situation of the Ottoman Empire had begun to decline during the reign of Mehmed III. It was during this time and due to the avarice of the Sultan and the Valide Sultan Safiye (and her supporters), that the coinages were being clipped and debased. The Sultan and his mothers' greed was not the only cause of coin clipping; as the size of the harem increased, the stipends and expenditures of the harem also increased. In order to maintain the harem lifestyle without overtly raising taxes, the coins were clipped. The coinage debasement led to the Istanbul monetary riots of 1600 that were initiated by the Sipahis and then taken up by the general population. The clipping of coinage occurred again between 1615 and 1623.

Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador, described the cooperation between the Grand Vizier Mere Hüseyin Pasha and the Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan) in deterring a fiscal crisis:

The sultana mother, with this vizier [Mere Hüseyin Pasha], finding it impossible to proud for the next pay by the ordinary entrata, he resolved to change the mint, and to remove it into the Seraglio; where they now give out all the saddles, bridles, bitts, stirrups, chains, and old plate of silver and gold that can be found, to make coin. Thus they hope to patch up their quiet for a time.

The demise of the princely governate during the reign of Mehmed III may have been partially due to his early death; he died just before the age his son Mahmud was to have been granted governance. Following Mehmed's death, there followed five reigns - those of Ahmed I, Osman II, Mustafa I, Murad IV, and Ibrahim, spanning from 1603 to 1648, where no son of the reigning Sultan ever reached the traditional age where he would have been sent to the provinces.

Mehmed's death also marked the beginning of the seclusion of princes in the Kafes. The princes were kept in the Palace until they ascended to the throne. Prior to Suleyman's marriage to Hürrem and her birthing of his children (four sons and a daughter), the Ottomans followed a reproductive policy of which a woman would bear no more than one son to a Sultan (or prince); but she might bear many daughters before the birth of her son. The combination of concubine slavery and the single-son policy served to limited both the possibilities of a young prince from seeking support from his maternal relatives (if his mother was a daughter of a noble or influential rival neighbor). It also served to minimize the possibility of two princes fighting for the support of the mother.

Reign of Sultan Ahmed I

It was during the reign of Ahmed I (who build the Blue Mosque in Istanbul) that the single-son policy was abandoned. When Ahmed became Sultan (r.1603-1617), he did not kill his brother Mustafa, and instead kept him in the Kafes on alcohol and opium. Ahmed's years of isolation with his brother in the Kafes left him with an insatiable need for continual diversion. He took a different concubine to bed each night, but favored the Greek beauty, Kösem. Kösem bore Ahmed three sons: Murad, Beyazid, and Ibrahim.

Mustafa (r.1617-1618 & 1622-1623) and Osman (r.1618-1622)

After Ahmed's death, the crazed Mustafa I was released from the Kafes and Kösem's sons were imprisoned. Mustafa was dethroned by the eunuch corps after a few months and his son Osman succeeded him. Osman was later killed in a Janissary and sipahis (cavalry) uprising. Mustafa was again released from the Kafes and enthroned. He then ordered the execution of Kösem's sons, but through the intervention of the eunuch corps, Kösem's oldest son Murad IV was crowned. while Mustafa was executed.

Murad IV (1623-1640)

Kösem had attained her ambition to become Valide Sultan. Murad IV's cruelty soon became apparent as he passed a law prohibiting drinking and smoking throughout the empire, while he abused both habits. Kösem's youngest son, Ibrahim was also deranged. Kösem's hopes were set on Beyazid who was handsome, astute and brave. In a fit of jealousy, Murad ordered Beyazid's death at which Kösem was unable to intervene to save Beyazid. Murad himself died of terror after witnessing a solar eclipse, but not before ordering Ibrahim's death. Kösem intervened and Ibrahim was saved from death. By that time, Ibrahim was too terrified to leave the Kafes when hearing about his brother's death as he was convinced that his cruel brother was jesting to torment him. He finally left the Kafes after Murad's corpse was shown to him.

Reign of Sultan Ibrahim

It was during Ibrahim's reign (r.1640-1648) that Kösem truly gained power as the Valide Sultan. She had governance over the harem and through her influence with her son, governance of the Empire. With the help of the Grand Vizier, Mustafa Pasha, Kösem ruled the Empire. Ibrahim was entirely absorbed with his harem and became obsessed with furs; wanting to touch, feel, and see furs everywhere in the harem. Later on, in a fit of madness, he ordered that his entire harem to be killed by putting them into sacks and drowned in the Bosphorus. These obvious fits of madness provoked the janissaries to mutiny against him; and Kösem was forced to place Ibrahim back into the Kafes, where he was later killed by the order of the Mufti (the spiritual head of the Moslem order).

Ibrahim was succeed by his son Mehmed, whose mother Türkhan Kadin became the new Valide Sultan. Kösem had no intention of relinquishing her power as Valide to Türkhan and sought to kill Mehmed so that she could elevate to the throne a young prince Suleyman II, whose mother Dilasub, Kösem felt had no desire to become involved in the politics of the time.

Kösem was supported by the janissaries, but the new Grand Vizier Köprülü Mehmed Pasha, and the rest of the palace administration favored Türkhan. Kösem conspired to admit the janissaries into the harem one night to kill the young Sultan and his mother. This plan backfired, as Türkhan had been informed of this conspiracy and Kösem found herself facing the eunuch corps, supporters of Türkhan. Kösem attempted to save herself but was caught by the eunuchs and killed. Upon the death of Valide Sultan Türkhan in 1683, the Kadinlar Saltanati ended.

Harem Populations

After the change in law regarding the Kafes and the loss of provincial governorships for the Princes. The harem population dramatically increased as the princes and their harems remained inside the Seraglio (Topkapi Palace) harem. The population further increased during the reigns of Murad III, Ahmed I, and Ibrahim, as they spent more time in the bedchamber than ever. The increase in harem women populations is also correlated by the increase in expenditures.

During the reign of the Ibrahim (r. 1640-1648), the harem population experienced a minor increase while the correlated expenditures saw a whopping 28% increase from the beginning of his reign to the end of reign. This may have been due to the fact that Ibrahim was obsessed with furs and jewels. His desire to see furs everywhere in the harem greatly increased the harem expenditures as the price of furs would have gone up accordingly. This would also apply to the price of jewels too, as he sought jewels for the decoration of his beard.

Although it is not recorded exactly how much the daily stipends were for all of the Sultan's Kadins and concubines, general figures were available indicating that the Valide Sultan continued to enjoy the role as most influential and powerful member of the dynastic family by having the highest stipend. Nurbanu Sultan received a daily stipend of 2,000 aspers (currency of the time), while her successor Safiye Sultan, received 3,000 aspers after the ascension of her son Mehmed III. In contrast, the highest stipends of leading public officials were: the mufti (750 aspers per day), the chief justices of Rumeli and Anatolia (572 and 573 aspers, respectively), and the chief Janissary Agha (500 aspers). Even the Sultan himself only received a 1,000 aspers stipend.

After the Valide Sultan, the Kadins were next in the harem hierarchy to enjoy great status. Their status was even higher than the Sultana's (Aunts and sisters of the current Sultan) as they were accorded higher stipends. The Kadin's higher status arose from the fact that she was the mother of the potential future Sultan. Murad III's favorite Safiye kadin received stipend of 700 aspers a day, while his sisters Ismihan and Geverhan Sultans received 250 and 300 aspers a day, respectively. Murad's aunt Mihrimah Sultan received the highest stipend (600 aspers a day) amongst all of the royal females descending from the previous Sultan.

Non-haseki or non-favorite concubines tended to receive stipends that were greatly reduced from those of the haseki Kadins. This was demonstrated by the fact that at the end of Selim II's reign, the haseki Nurbanu received 1,000 aspers a day, while Selim's other consorts, each the mother of a son, received only 40 aspers. As the Sultans' attention turned away from government, many of the harem women were able to manipulate the Sultan into raising their stipends in order to be able to purchase many of their jewels and furs.

By the reign of Ibrahim (1640-1648), the role and stipend of the royal haseki had been diminished and instead the role and influence of the concubines had moderately increased as indicated by their stipends of 1,000 to 1,300 aspers. Other odalisques in the harem that served as general servants received stipends ranging from 13-200 aspers.

Ibrahims' penchant for women correlates with the increase in harem population. As he increased his harem size, he required more furs and jewels and thus dipped further and further into the State treasuries in order to support his extravagant tastes. His many concubines and favorites also meant that an increase in stipends was necessary, as befitted their role in his pleasures.

The general increase in harem women population also meant that the total amount of stipends required increased. The growth of the harem population follows a roughly parallel pattern with the harem expenditures. The increased spending caused a strain on the state treasury as the Sultan was spending increasing amounts of time in the harem rather than leading the Janissaries on conquest of infidel lands.

Other factors that led to the diminishing of state income were the lack of campaigning or Ghazi (warfare on "infidels"- non-Muslim lands); the overall inflation of the economy, and the increase in bribery and corruption of state officials.


During the reigns of the first ten Sultans (up to and including the reign of Süleyman), the Sultan was seen to be taking an active role in the ever continuing expansion of the "Abode of Islam" but campaigning against the infidels as a Ghazi (also taken to meaning "Warrior of Islam"). Campaigning meant that the Janissary corps was not able to remain in the capital long enough to conspire and form intrigues. It also meant the conquering of new lands and people, which resulted in new riches for the armies, the state treasuries, new sources of slaves, and more taxes to be collected. Monies capturing in the campaigns offset the cost of maintaining the mobile Janissaries. The gradual withdrawal of the Sultan into his harem also meant that the Janissaries were not led onto campaigns where they could capture new treasures for themselves. That many of the Janissaries were garrisoned in the capital meant those political intrigues between the harem and Janissary leaders could and did take place.

The Janissary corps took part in the dethronement of Ibrahim (with Kösem's tacit approval), and Osman II (r.1618-1622). The number of depositions of Sultans after the reign of Süleyman was an astonishing thirteen of the twenty-seven Sultans that followed him. The depositions may have been caused by a combination of factors. Of central importance was that Sultan's no longer established their right to rule by proving themselves victors over their brothers, thus more qualified to rule, or by being designated heir by their fathers. Many Sultans of the sixteenth century were either children or else incompetent adults. They could not or would not lead the army out to battle and thus could not develop an aura of invincibility or victory. The diminished role of the Sultan in the governing of the Empire can also be seen by his withdrawal away from public appearances.

Fiscal Disorganization

Much of the Ottoman state owed its existence as well as its continued prosperity and power to conquest. It was a state committed to and organized for conquest. It was only through captured booty that the Ottoman state could afford to pay the Janissaries. The eventual halt of conquest also meant the difficulty of paying the troops would become increasingly obvious. Any military campaigns that were being waged brought in less booty, and the Janissaries had to also compete with any mercenaries for their share of war profits. Constant fiscal problems of the time also led to the Janissaries being paid with debased coinage.

The disorganization in the economy was not the sole reason for a Sultan's deposition; a new Sultan's ascension also meant a change in government policies. The fiscal, military, and political confusion resulting from four accessions in the years between 1617 and 1623 and suffered again between 1644 and 1656, as the Empire endured and recovered from the utter incompetence of the Sultan Ibrahim; rocked the State foundations.

Political Instability

The rapid change in the Sultans also meant that the subsequent stability of the bureaucracy was threatened as top Ministers and Viziers were rapidly replaced. Instability of the government threw off the delicate balance that had previously existed between the palace bureaucracy and the harem institution. Before the marriage of Süleyman to Hürrem, Ottoman tradition had held that no members of the dynastic family would be allowed into powers of position in the Inner Service (palace bureaucracy). Süleyman's naming of Rüstem Pasha (Süleyman's son-in-law) to the position of Grand Vizier, had set the precedent of the positioning of a powerful royal damat, the husband of a princess and son, or brother-in-law of the Sultan, as the Grand Vizier.

The intrusion of Damat into the palace governance meant that the influence of the Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan) and her daughters could be voiced through the Grand Vizier. The damat was dependent on the harem women for the maintenance of his position. It was a mutual relationship between the damat and the harem; without the damat as a Grand Vizier, the influence of harem women could only be voiced through the Valide Sultan to the Sultan; and the damat gained political stability through his relationship to his mother-in-law (the Valide Sultan).

An example of a Valide Sultan's influence combined with the damat is that of Kösem and her son-in-law Kara Davud Pasha. After the sudden catapulting of Mustafa onto the throne a second time in 1622, Kösem appointed Davud Pasha to become the new Grand Vizier. Unfortunately Davud Pasha became a political liability to Kösem and was dismissed after three months in his new post.

A more important demonstration of the damat involvement in politics would have been the family faction of Hürrem, Mihrimah and Rüstem Pasha (Mihrimah's husband) where the concubine - daughter - son-in-law combination proved to be able to influence Süleyman during the second half of his reign (please refer to chronology for a clear delineation of the family dynamics). Rüstem Pasha was instrumental in the downfall of the heir Mustafa when he brought false charges of treason against Mustafa to the attention of Süleyman.


The excessive interference of harem women was a main factor in the eventual decline of the Ottoman Empire. The increase in harem size was correlated to the increase in expenditures incurred partly by the larger number of women and partly by the extravagances of various Sultan's. The intrusion of women into the Ottoman governing structure caused fundamental changes in state policies towards the roles of the Princes by limiting the Prince's governing and public duties. The abandonment of the one mother-one son reproductive policy combined with the change in law regarding the Kafes meant that many of the Sultans of the seventeenth century lacked experience in government and looked towards their mothers, the Valide Sultan, for guidance and advice. This, in turn, meant that the Valide Sultan and the Sultan's favorites were able to influence the actions and decisions of the Sultan.

Other factors that created instability in the government were: the withdrawal of the Sultan from public appearances and active leadership of the army, and the general inflationary state of the economy that plagued Ottoman society for much of the first quarter of the seventeenth century. The entire Sultanic policy of withdrawing from active campaigning and leadership of the Janissary corps led to dissension within the army as the soldiers were not being allowed to battle and capture booty and treasures for both themselves and the state treasuries. The cost of outfitting the Janissaries was not recuperated from various conquests of new lands and led to a drain in the economy. The distancing of the Sultan away from the army as their attentions turned towards their harems and their own private pleasures led to the deposition of some Sultans.

The rapid change of Sultans also led to further instability as abrupt changes in state policies encouraged corruption and bribery among Ottoman officials. This was in part due to the introduction of the damat into politics. The damat Grand Vizier was often a influential figure around the Sultan. Through the damat, the Valide Sultan was able to adroitly influence the decisions of the Sultan. The Valide Sultan and the Sultan's favorites were able to draw his attention away from state governance by distracting him with women, wine and other indulgences.

Due to the depositions and premature deaths of various Sultans, many of the Sultan's of the 17th century were young children who were, of necessity, guided by regencies led by the Valide Sultan. The emergence of influential Valide Sultans led to their perceived interference in state matters. They were necessary in providing essential guidance to their sons but when their advice countermanded the public or military perception of the role of the Valide Sultan, then they were often vilified. Through the unchecked growth of the imperial harem, the increased number of harem women drew the attention of the Sultan away from his duties of governance. This led to a diminishing of his powers and position as the Sultan and ultimately lead to the decline of the Empire as a whole.