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Mention the word 'harem' and images of flimsily dressed dusky maidens spring to mind. But for more than a century, says Professor Leslie Peirce, power in the Ottoman Empire was centred on the sultan's harem in Istanbul.

For some 130 years, the women of the Ottoman royal harem enjoyed extraordinary political influence. This unusual period during the 16th and 17th centuries – when powerful women exercised all royal prerogatives but one: leading Ottoman armies into battle – is popularly known as the 'sultanate of women'

Four women stand out in this story, all royal concubines whose sons went on to occupy the Ottoman throne:

  •   Hurrem, who first established residence in the imperial palace, in the early 1530s
  •  Nurbanu, who, when she died in 1583, was described by the Venetian ambassador as 'a woman of the utmost goodness, courage and wisdom' despite the fact that she 'thwarted some while rewarding others'
  •  The 17th-century regent mothers Kösem and her daughter-in-law Turhan, whose political rivalry culminated in Kösem's murder in 1651.
It is not that royal women were not powerful in the Ottoman Empire before or after the 'sultanate of women'. The famous Muslim world-traveller, Ibn Battuta, who visited the nascent Ottoman state in 1336, remarked that 'among the Turks and the Tatars their wives enjoy a very high position.'

From the time of the Ottoman dynasty's emergence in the 14th century, mothers of princes played a recognised role as political tutors and guardians of their sons – roles they would maintain throughout the dynasty's 600-year lifespan. In the 15th century, elder females – aunts, mothers and sisters of sultans – were often entrusted with critical diplomatic missions.

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