The Harem in the Time of SuleymanThis is a featured page

Breaking from the Past and Creating a New System

Suleyman and Roxelana/Hurrem drawings
The harem was an important aspect of the Ottoman Empire, of its royal family and especially in the life of the sultan. Its role and place within the royal family changed and adapted during the years of the empire. The relationship of the sultan and his mother and of the sultan and his wife played crucial roles in the development of the harem, the royal family’s life and the rule of the empire.

The word “harem” in Arabic means “sacred and protected place”. At the time of Suleyman the Magnificent it meant both the section of the palace, the living quarters of the women and children of the palace and the women collectively.(Finkel, p. 132) Suleyman the Magnificent’s sultanate (1520-1566) was a time of major changes in the harem. The lives of the concubine mothers with their prince son(s), the role of their relationship with these son(s) and the position of the sultan’s favorite and/or wife were altered dramatically.

Earlier in the Ottoman Empire the Sultan would have children with several of the non-Muslim concubines in his harem to insure male heirs. When a woman had one son, whether or not she had daughters, she and the sultan would no longer have a sexual relationship. She became the “prince’s mother” and her close relationship with the sultan ceased. (Peirce, p.55) This one-son-to-a-mother principle promoted total devotion of the mother to the son and eliminated competition among brothers. However, the sultan could have several sons each with a different mother so that the princes did have half-brothers being raised by their own mothers.

The mothers and sons would live in the harem section of the palace. Much of the early tutoring of the son/prince would be done by the mother or by tutors working under/with the mother. Later the prince would attend the palace school. When he was circumcised and considered old enough to leave the palace harem the son would be sent to rule one of the provinces. His mother would accompany him and be a representative of the older generation for him. Thus the royal family was de-centralized and the mother-only son bond was extremely strong. She was his principal advocate vying with the other prince’s mothers to promote her son as the next sultan. When the prince’s father died the princes would rush back to the palace to vie for the Sultanate against their half brothers. The new sultan’s mother then became the valide sultan, one of his trusted advisors. Both lived in the palace again, the center of the governmental power. Although she did not leave the harem, due to her closeness with the sultan, she had many allies and wielded influence, not only within the empire but also with other European and Near Eastern rulers and royal families. When the sultan died she retired from her role in the government and royal family. Topkapi Palace, Map and KeySuleyman’s mother was Hafsa Hatun, one of Selim I’s concubines. Hafsa, a descendent of Genghis Khan who was captured after an Ottoman victory, became a mother at age seventeen. As was the custom Hafsa and Suleyman lived in the harem with no contact with the outside world. She was his tutor until he was seven when he entered the Topkapi Palace school. After his circumcision at age eleven he left the women’s part of the harem, to become part of the male palace world. Even after this event he had very close contact with his mother who remained his mentor, his advocate and his protector. (Peirce, Ch. 2)

At age fifteen his grandfather made him governor of the province of Feodosiya, but Suleyman moved around often until settling in the Crimea. (Suleyman wiki presentation, Osman, p.98) Hafsa was part of his entourage.

His father killed his four other sons so that his favorite, Suleyman, would succeed him as sultan. This traditional competition between the uncles, brothers and cousins for the sultanate was fierce and weakened any bonds between these male relatives. Thus the relationship of a prince with his mother was even more important, since she was often his only true advocate and protector. Thus when Suleyman became sultan he was the beneficiary of both his mother’s protection and of his father’s preference for him. He had enjoyed the lifestyle of many of the sultans who preceded him. And his mother became Sultana Valide.

Yet he was the one who was to change this system, to bring upheaval to the harem, to overturn the relationship of the concubine to her sultan “husband” and to have multiple sons and to integrate the lives of these other princes into the life of the palace. The efforts to train the princes to be fierce warriors, to be governors of the distant provinces, and to live independently outside the palace were reduced or eliminated.

Suleyman'sChartAlthough Suleyman already had one son, Mustafa by the concubine Mahidevran, he became infatuated with another concubine, his favorite, “haseki”. She was the Ruthenian slave-girl Hurrem Sultan, also called Roxelana. She bore him a son in 1521. He went on having further sexual relations with her which produced five more children, four of them sons. This was in total contradiction with the tradition of one-mother-one-son. A prince did not have the sole allegiance of his mother. This also meant that the prince’s mother did not go out to the provinces with her one son when he became governor. In fact the practice of sending the princes out to the provinces ceased within the next generation, so that the power became centralizedin the sultan’s palace and lost its presence and control as a decentralized regime.

In 1534 Suleyman married Hurrem with great and public ceremony. This event was a major break with the precedent of the last two centuries, that the sultans did not marry their concubines. (Kinross,p.236) In order to marry, Suleyman granted her freedom from slavery, a further unusual event. (Finkel,p.132) By marrying Suleyman, Harrem usurped Mahidevran’s position as mother of the sultan-apparent. In this one sultanate, several major traditions of the empire, the sultan and the harem were overturned. She also moved her residence/harem to the Grand Seraglio, nearer the sultan.

Harrem went on to become involved in the politics of the empire as one of Suleyman’s chief advisors. She was accused of bewitching and manipulating him and, with his close friend Vizer Ibrahim, was thought to have been involved in the death of Mustafa, Suleyman’s first son by the concubine Mahidevran.(Kinross,p. His death left the sultanate open to her sons. She went on to increase her powers by nurturing political relationships with many other monarchies of that time. Mihrimah Sultan

Another position of harem-power developed with Suleyman’s daughter, Princess Mihrimah, whose marriage to Rustem Pasha increased Hurrem’s influence. Intermarriage of the Sultan’s daughters with royalty and foreign diplomats strengthened the sultan’s rule and the role of the Sultana Valide and harem in the affairs of the state. Hurrem’s daughter even became the Sultana Valide for Suleyman after Hurrem’s death.

The tremendous flowering of poetry, art and architecture was certainly due to Suleyman’s support. He wrote touching poems to Hurrem and sponsored the creation of superb artifacts and buildings, mosques, mausoleums in particular. These occurrences may have been due to the influence of the strong presence of the harem at the time.

It was during the height of the Ottoman Empire, the rule of Suleyman the Magnificent, that the place and power of the harem, the women of the royal family, gained much of its power and recognition. The changes made to the relationships of the sultan to his harem, to his offspring and heirs, and to his concubine/wife as advisor would have major consequences in the future of the Ottoman Empire.


Attl, Esin. THE AGE OF SULTAN SULEYMAN THE MAGNIFICENT. Washington: The National Gallery, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987.
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Finkel, Caroline. OSMAN’S DREAM The History of the Ottoman Empire. New York: Basic Books division of Perseus Books Group, 2005.
Iyigun, Murat. LESSONS FROM THE OTTOMAN HAREM. Discussion Paper No. 3556, University of Colorado, CID Harvard University and IZA, June 2008.
Lord Kinross. THE OTTOMAN CENTURIES The Rise and Fall of the Turkish empire. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1977.
Lybyer, Albert Howe, Phd. THE OTTOMN EMPIRE in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent. New York: Russell & Russell, Revised 1966 (from 1933).
Suleyman – Ottoman Empire Course site
The Ottoman System – Ottoman Empire Course site Ottoman Research Ottoman Empire harem. THE HAREM IN THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE. Article, 2010,
Peirce, Leslie P., THE IMPERIAL HAREM Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993

Shaw, Stanford. HISTORY OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE AND MODERN TURKEY. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976-77. (on line: ACLS humanities E-Books)

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