Mothers, harems, family rivalries in the succession of Ottoman rulers

Today's selection -- from The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs by Marc David Baer. 
"Ottoman history was not made by men alone. The politics of reproduction played a crucial role in Ottoman history. To understand this, however, we must reassess our notions of what politics and the political are. Normally one speaks of politics as being played out in public. The private realm is excluded from consideration. But the distinction between public and private is not helpful here. If harem means 'home' and that home is the home of the sultan and his family, then the private is most assuredly political, for decisions made in his home had repercussions for the entire empire. The women in the harem were educated and politically ambitious. Far from being a purely domestic space, the harem was a political centre filled with powerful women, reflect­ing the Ottomans' Turco-Mongol heritage. Pre-Islamic Turcoman society, as depicted in folk epics-many of which are devoted to manly warriors-contains many stories of women who were also fearsome combatants, swift horse riders, and political players. The Ottoman harem was anything but the lascivious fantasyland de­picted in the West. The majority of its inhabitants had no sexual relations with the sultan. It was more akin to a convent, with rigid rules of behaviour based on notions of sexual propriety, all with the aim of ensuring the continuity of the dynasty.

A cariye or imperial concubine.

"The politics of reproduction in the Ottoman Empire passed through different stages. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centu­ries, the Ottoman sultans usually married Christian (especially Greek and Serbian) and Muslim (Central Asian and Turcoman) princesses. This was a means of forging political alliances or dis­solving conquered dynasties. But rather than allowing the sultan to produce offspring with his wives, the dynasty preferred him to have an unlimited number of Christian and Muslim concu­bines for childbearing purposes. The aim was to prevent entan­gling alliances with formerly or potentially powerful families. By the mid-fifteenth century, sultans no longer even entered into childless marriages. For whereas married, free Muslim women had the right to children and sexual satisfaction from their hus­band, concubines, who were legally slaves, had no such rights. As in the Seljuk harem, the dynasty adopted a 'one mother, one son' policy. A concubine who had given birth to a male heir was no longer allowed to be a sexual partner of the sultan. Or, at least, if she was still intimate with the sultan, she was required to use birth control-usually intravaginal suppositories made of herbs, spices, and plant essences -- and abortion to ensure no more chil­dren. Roles of royal consort and mother were distinguished. The mother of a sultan's son and other post-sexual women, including the valide sultan (mother of the sultan), had the highest status in the harem.
"From the mid-fourteenth century to the end of the sixteenth century, the mother and son, when he reached the age of eigh­teen, were sent to a princely apprenticeship in Amasya, Konya, Kutahya, or Manisa, former capitals of vanquished rival Muslim principalities and dynasties, where the prince served as gover­nor and commander, learning the arts of war and governance under his mother's tutelage. It was a reflection of the Mongol legacy, in which senior women commanded soldiers in war, al­though the prince was also assigned an administrator as tutor. The role of the Ottoman mother was not as impressive as that of her Safavid counterparts, who went to war, although not without tragedy -- one of Shah Ismail I's wives was captured by Selim I in 1514 and given as booty to one of his officers. Upon the news of the death of his father, the sultan, the prince and his mother raced to Istanbul to proclaim him as the next ruler. The son who defeated his other brothers in combat or outmanoeuvred them to be the first proclaimed as sultan rose to the top. His mother was determined to ensure this happened. Until the end of the six­teenth century, succession was accompanied by fratricide. Upon being enthroned, the new sultan killed all potential rival male claimants -- brothers, nephews, cousins, and uncles -- wiping out all branches of the dynasty that were not his own. Sultans were not above having unfavoured sons murdered to allow an easier succession for their favourite. The Ottomans maintained the Mongol tradition of giving all sons equal claim to sovereignty, while utilising fratricide to ensure that the ruler, once enthroned, went unchallenged. A new phase began, however, with the life of Suleiman I's love, Hürrem Sultan."

The Ottomans Khans Caesars and Caliphs
author: Marc David Baer  
title: The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars, and Caliphs  
publisher: Basic Books  
date: Copyright 2021 by Marc David Baer  
page(s): 203-205