Kosem Sultan's drama-filled life is like combining Game of Thrones, Cinderella, and Succession into one potent cocktail, then setting that cocktail on fire. Ruling in the sunset years of the great "Sultanate of Women" in the Ottoman Empire, this Machiavellian momager knew how to get power: through cunning, betrayal, and total manipulation of men. Although she went from rags to riches, watch out. Kosem Sultan's life is no fairy tale.
Kosem started life as the daughter of a Greek Orthodox priest on the island of Tinos, a childhood you might think would be quite peaceful. But it turned bone-chilling in an instant. As she was just entering her teen years, Ottoman raiders kidnapped Kosem and tore her away from her family. And it was about to get much worse for the girl.
As if being ripped out of her home wasn’t awful enough, the kidnappers then sold Kosem like chattel. Human markets were a huge thing in the Ottoman Empire, and Kosem was everything traders were looking for: She was young, virginal, healthy, and beautiful. More than that, she was already showing signs of stunning intelligence—and all this earned her the attention of someone very important.
While Kosem was up for sale, an envoy for none other than Sultan Ahmed I himself noticed both her quick wit and beauty. Then he made a decision that changed her life. Feeling she was a diamond in the rough, he took her to Constantinople to take up residence in the sultan's Imperial Harem. It was something of a lucky break...but Kosem soon found out the harem was a snake pit.
See, Kosem wasn't the only girl who entered the Imperial Harem, not by a long shot. Sultan Ahmed, who was actually a year younger than Kosem herself, kept scores of beautiful women at his beck and call. In other words, she had a lot of competition. On top of that, she also had homework: The harem put her through the wringer on topics like literature, music, and Ottoman politics.
But after less than a year, Kosem proved she could handle all that and more—and she got a major upgrade.
In 1605, Kosem took her first stunning victory. Over the months she had spent in the Imperial Harem, Sultan Ahmed had very much taken notice of her. In fact, he was so besotted with her milky, brown-eyed beauty and her political cunning, he made her his legal wife and, more than that—since he had many wives—his leading consort.
With this powerful title came yet another powerful change.
Now that Kosem had become chief consort and earned the esteemed title of Haseki Sultan, the sultan decided to give her a new name. This is actually the point in time she became “Kosem,” which means "leader of the herd". The name referenced her incredible political acumen even at such a young age. And oh boy, was she about to use it.
Soon enough, visitors to Constantinople and the sultan's court couldn't help noticing his beautiful bride. But she also riled up some dark suspicions. Although one English traveler described Kosem as "delicate" and "shy", he was also disturbed by just how much Sultan Ahmed was obsessed with his consort, and he accused Kosem of witchcraft.
Hocus pocus or not, though, Kosem had other means to get what she wanted.
Kosem’s “witchcraft” was actually just highly developed diplomatic skills. Or, to put it more crudely, outright manipulation. At the height of her powers, Sultan Ahmed wanted her continually by his side, and Kosem took every opportunity to make herself available to him. This meant she often got to be in the room with him when important discussions went down.
Still, her influence extended to another realm entirely...one that was much naughtier.
Some people make vision boards to realize their goals, but Kosem made babies. She had many children with the sultan—a whopping eight in total, with four sons in the bunch. Not only did this indicate just how much time she was spending with Sultan Ahmed, but it also gave him plenty of heirs to choose from. Only, there was an enormous snag.
Kosem might have risen above her peers in the Imperial Harem, but she had one towering rival to deal with: One of the sultan's very first concubines, Mahfiruz Hatun. Besides being slightly older than Kosem, Mahfiruz had also birthed Sultan Ahmed's first-born son, Osman. So it didn't matter how many babies Kosem gave her husband—Mahfiruz would always be on top when it came to succession.
Obviously, the uber-competitive Kosem wasn't going to let that stand. You know she had a plot to topple her frenemy.
Kosem didn't do things by halves. Her revenge on her rival was brutal. According to one story, she went up to Sultan Ahmed one day and informed him that "someone" had angered her. That special someone? Was likely none other than Mahfiruz. Even worse, the sultan was so in Kosem's pocket that he had his men beat the woman.
Urged on by this victory and her obvious influence over the sultan, Kosem took it even further.
The rest of Mahfiruz's life is a bit hazy—but that might be down to Kosem's own manipulation. Somewhere around the mid-1610s, Mahfiruz got banished to a remote palace to live out the rest of her years in obscurity. I, for one, think Kosem had a hand in putting her main female rival down for the count. But there's no rest for the wicked, and Kosem was on to her next target.
Now remember, Kosem was smart as heck, and her next move was brilliant. The heir Osman was still young and impressionable, so Kosem set out on a strategic friendship with the boy. The two bonded and Kosem even let him join her in carriage rides, where he would throw handfuls of coins to on-lookers. She was now positioned perfectly...until it all blew up in her face.
Kosem might have been the most cunning woman in the Ottoman Empire, but the trouble was everybody knew it. Reportedly, even her own husband—infatuated as he was with her—had his back up about her little friendship with Osman. Fearing for his son's safety, Sultan Ahmed eventually banned Kosem from even talking to Osman.
This wasn't good news at all for Kosem, and she had reason to be even more worried.
During the time Kosem was living in the Ottoman Empire, life came cheap, even for the sons of sultans. In fact, fratricide—executing your brothers—was extremely common for an incoming, young sultan looking to solidify his reign. This implanted a horrific fear in Kosem's head: That once Osman became sultan, he would execute all of her boys in one fell swoop.
One day, she got a very harrowing lesson in just this kind of brutality.
As Imperial Consort, Kosem held onto her husband's favor. Still, even she couldn't stop the storm that was coming. Although she had recently picked a groom, her ally Nasuh Pasha, for her eldest daughter Ayse, the sultan apparently couldn't stand the man and ordered his execution in 1614. Try as Kosem might, she couldn't convince the sultan to spare his life.
This must've deeply shaken Kosem's confidence in her ability to sway her husband when it mattered most. So, with her sons' lives flashing before her eyes, Kosem took to extremely drastic acts.
There was absolutely nothing Kosem wouldn't do for her brood, and her efforts to save them were Herculean. She worked tirelessly to keep Sultan Ahmed's own brother Mustafa safe from execution, hoping Mustafa would return the favor if and when he took the throne, and spare her sons' lives. Of course, she thought that would be in the distant future. It very much wasn't.
In late 1617, Kosem got a savage shock. Although Sultan Ahmed was only 27 at the time, he fell violently ill with typhus and gastric bleeding, and no doctors could cure him. Before the year was up, he was in the grave. The monarch's sudden passing threw the royal court into a state of sheer and utter panic, with the all-important succession up in the air.
Kosem had to use every ounce of her cunning to survive the days ahead, and she was about to play a very dangerous game indeed.
Kosem's sons were still far too young at this point to survive as rulers, so she needed to get Mustafa—the only horse she could back—on the throne stat. Lucky for her, after some money changing hands and lots of court maneuvering, her plot worked yet again: Her ally Mustafa became sultan. But oh, did this come back to bite her.
Although Mustafa did owe Kosem a big favor, the new sultan hid a dark secret behind the palace walls. Namely, he was completely unfit to rule. Having lived in a harem all his life, Mustafa knew absolutely nothing about statecraft. Besides, after watching 19 of his own brothers get executed in that ol' fratricide practice, he was (understandably) unhinged.
Fear not, though, Kosem had something special up her long and luxurious sleeve.
Kosem didn't stutter when she put Mustafa on the throne; she likely felt that the loonier Mustafa was, the easier he would be to control. The thing is, she majorly underestimated his mental illness. Once he was in power, Mustafa’s antics included yanking turbans off high-powered viziers and generally giving visitors the impression he was "psychologically disturbed".
Kosem couldn't have that. So instead, she dealt poor Mustafa a vicious betrayal.
Within weeks, everyone in the palace could see the tide was turning against Mustafa, and Kosem did nothing to protect him this time around. After an embarrassingly short three months in power, Mustafa found himself back in a remote palace with no throne to his name, though he did get to keep his life. Meanwhile, Kosem lay low and licked her wounds—and then her worst nightmare happened.
Wouldn't you know it? None other than Kosem's 14-year-old stepson Osman replaced Mustafa as sultan, becoming Osman II. And the young boy wasted no time punishing Kosem for plotting against him with Mustafa. He banished her, just as he banished her failed protege. But lest you think Kosem took the hint and retired from meddling...she most certainly did not.
Even while living the banished life, Kosem managed to sink her claws into power. Her biggest coup was unprecedented. A year into Osman's reign, the boy sultan went against all convention and paid Kosem a three-day visit. Apparently, all Kosem's sucking up to Osman had paid off; she still had his goodwill, and he didn't seem to want to execute her children. Or, so she thought.
By 1622, Osman's reign was going down the toilet thanks mostly to his inexperience. On the one hand, this was a great thing for Kosem, who now had even more opportunities to push her growing sons toward the throne. But on the other hand, it made Osman rightfully paranoid of his half-siblings all over again, and ever more likely to eliminate them.
With her sons' lives hanging in the balance, Kosem knew she had to act fast. Well, she was swift AND vicious.
That May, Kosem inflicted a brutal punishment on her stepson. Attacking him before he could attack her, she formed an alliance and booted Osman from the throne. But where Mustafa knew mercy, Kosem made sure Osman got none: She approved when guards brutally asphyxiated the fallen ruler. It was the first regicide in the history of the Ottoman Empire, and Kosem had a front-row seat.
Her biggest threat was finally gone, but she had one more hurdle to the throne.
With Osman growing cold in the ground, the old sultan Mustafa reigned again—but Kosem made sure it was very brief. Before long, Kosem had him put out to pasture once more...and then convinced everyone to replace him with her own 11-year-old son Murad. Like so much she set her mind to, Kosem pulled it off, and Murad became Sultan Murad IV.
Her son was on the throne at long last, and The Age of Kosem Sultan was in full swing. But its climax was even bloodier than its beginnings.
Since Murad was a minor, Kosem was essentially running the show as official regent. This was more harrowing than it looked. Kosem had to be on guard for any enemies, all while constantly staying at her young son's side so she could "advise" him on what to do with some of the most brutal revolts, rebellions, and raids in the kingdom.
Still, this was what Kosem had been waiting for since the day she entered the Imperial Harem. And she had one top-secret weapon in her arsenal.
Kosem could order men to attack or cut down councilors with her words, but her real power was behind the scenes and within her own family. As a consort, she had always had power over arranging her daughters' marriages and made advantageous matches all over the place. But Kosem took everything to extremes, and it got downright disturbing.
Brace yourself for this one. Kosem married off her eldest daughter Ayse eight times over the course of the girl's life—and paired off her next eldest girl, Fatma, to seven different men. And sure, it wasn't Kosem's fault that her sons-in-law kept kicking the bucket, but she certainly didn't help matters. In a letter to one Grand Vizier, Kosem wrote, “Whenever you’re ready ... We’ll take care of you right away. I have a princess ready".
Despite rivaling a Las Vegas chapel in her family's romantic endeavors, Kosem didn't stop at that.
When Kosem wasn’t pumping out political pawns or serving her daughters to suitors like burgers at the drive-thru, she was playing matchmaker for other women in the household. This Mrs Bennet on Adderall was a pro at setting up meet-cutes with powerful people, all so she could strengthen her alliances with Ottoman VIPs.
You can’t win ’em all though, as she would soon find out…
All boys grow up eventually, and Sultan Murad IV's adolescence was rockier than most. After all, he longed to throw off the influence of his meddling mother and tried to do everything in his power to dismantle her complex web of influence. Ever sharp, Kosem knew it, too: In one letter, she wrote “What can I do? My words are bitter to him now".
As Kosem's power over Murad waned, she found herself in very hot water.
After nearly a decade of being under mommy's thumb, Murad rebelled in a huge way. His actions left Kosem heartbroken and hateful. While he started by simply pushing her out of power, Murad soon decided he had to make a bigger play for domination—and executed two out of three of his brothers, despite Kosem's pleading with him to spare her sons. Little did she know, she was about to lose another.
Being a Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was a high-stress job, and it started to show on Murad early. While his mother could handle the pressure, the young ruler increasingly turned to drink to wash away his sorrows. So much so that at the age of 27, he got a fatal case of cirrhosis. It was the same age his father had been when he'd passed, and Kosem was just as powerless to save him.
Yet as her son drew his last breath, the sultan made one final, gruesome request.
Murad knew his time was up, but he had one more hurt to inflict. On his deathbed, he spoke angrily of his last remaining brother, Ibrahim, and even broached the subject of executing him. As chilling as it was, Murad had good reason: Ibrahim had never been of sound mind and, like his uncle Mustafa, the trauma of growing up as the younger brother of a sultan had driven him mad.
But this is when Kosem made one of the biggest mistakes of her life.
Hearing Murad's diatribe against his brother, Kosem faced a huge problem: If Murad ordered Ibrahim's execution, she would be straight out of sons. More than that, the Ottoman dynasty wouldn't exist anymore. Terrified of these prospects, Kosem assured her dying son that Ibrahim was "too mad to be a threat," that she could control him, and that he should drop the whole execution idea.
Unfortunately for Kosem, she had no idea what she was dealing with.
When Murad perished, it was up to Kosem to break the news to her surviving son and tell him that he was the new sultan. She got one rude awakening. At this point, Ibrahim was so batty and justifiably suspicious of everyone around him, he assumed this was just one of Murad's ploys. He believed that as soon as he exited the safety of the harem, Murad's guards would destroy him.
Ibrahim was so insistent on this point, Kosem had to plumb new, disgusting depths to convince him otherwise.
Ibrahim was the path Kosem chose, and she always had good follow-through. A little too much, actually. To convince her son that he really was a sultan, she displayed Murad's lifeless body right in front of him. To sweeten the deal, she even threatened him that he would face "strangulation not inauguration" if he didn't grow a pair and get out there.
Ibrahim, more scared of his own mother than he was of ruling, scuttled out immediately. But Kosem had only won the first battle—to keep Ibrahim in line, she was about to do much worse.
Kosem’s genius plan was to keep Ibrahim distracted while she ruled in his name. This forced her into an utterly vulgar habit. Kosem couldn’t just toss Ibrahim into therapy, so she opted for some sensual healing. As in, she would go to the body market herself and handpick virgins for her son so he wouldn't get bored, you know, ruling a huge empire.
More importantly, this would ideally produce an heir the dynasty so desperately needed. Except, well, it backfired.
Despite his mother feeding him a steady supply of virgins, Ibrahim had impotence issues, and he had them for a very disturbing reason. Mostly, he didn’t find consent sexy (yikes!). And while his preference for fat women was all well and good, he did once become obsessed with a particular cow's, er, equipment, and demanded his aides find a real-live woman with similar anatomy (they did).
To Kosem's discredit, she allowed Ibrahim all these luxuries and more. But when he stepped out of line, she made sure to punish him.
Dealing with Ibrahim was a daily headache, but Kosem was no saint herself. One day, she flexed her power in a deadly way. As Ibrahim's harem grew, more of his concubines grasped for the influence that Kosem wanted to keep for herself. She was particularly jealous of Sivekar, one of her son's favorites...and Kosem's jealousy was nothing less than a death sentence.
Kosem casually invited Sivekar to dinner one evening and then had her choked in front of her. Most chilling of all, the matriarch still had enough power over Ibrahim to convince him that Sivekar had succumbed to a mysterious illness. He accepted the explanation like a good little boy, but he couldn't have known that Kosem was about to turn her wrath on him.
Even though Ibrahim’s madness went unchecked for some time, Kosem eventually drew the line when her son started coming for his own family. Specifically, he massively humiliated his sisters. Not only did he give away all of their wealth, but he also forced them to work as maids for his wife. Kosem's reaction was utterly ruthless.
She turned against him from that point on. Then, after a period of negotiations with the court, she even gave her consent for his execution. Well, whatever Kosem wants, Kosem gets.
In the summer of 1648, executioners strangled Ibrahim the Mad, all while Kosem watched from a palace window nearby. Incredibly, after Osman II it was just the second regicide in Ottoman history, and both of the attacks had happened during Kosem's tenure. Not that she seemed to care about that black mark; she already had her next plot on the go.
Ibrahim hadn't been good for much, but he did eventually father another heir, Kosem's seven-year-old grandson Mehmed. Here, her ambitions reached garish proportions. The very same day she helped depose Ibrahim, she plopped Mehmed in front of the royal council and said—and I honestly do quote—"Here he is! See what you can do with him"!
Although it worked, it was a Hail Mary effort, and Kosem Sultan's desperation was starting to show in other ways.
According to custom, Mehmed's mother Turhan Sultan should have now been the Queen Bee, but that wasn't going to happen with Kosem around. While Kosem did try to back out as regent before the councilors convinced her otherwise, she wasn't exactly all sweetness and light to Turhan. In fact, she created an entirely new rank, that of buyuk or "elder," just so she could retain precedence over the younger woman.
It was a foolhardy, obvious ploy to cling to power. And as she took her place once more as regent, the cracks really started to show.
Despite many in the palace convincing Kosem to stay on as regent, there were dangerous and growing rumbles of dissent. It all came to a mortifying head. One day, Kosem was performing her usual duties by sitting with the young Mehmed, concealed behind a curtain, while he listened to the issues in the realm and she whispered at him what to say back.
Although this was a version of what she had done ever since the days of Osman II, this time it finally boiled over.
On the docket for the meeting that day was a massive defeat of the Ottoman army. The failure made the entire room tense, and the "sultan" (AKA Kosem) needed someone to take the blame. So when Mehmed told the Grand Vizier he was "not worthy" and turned him into the fall guy, everyone knew it was really Kosem speaking her displeasure.
In response, one of the man's allies proclaimed sassily, “Dear child, who taught you that, at your age"? It was an obvious potshot at the literal power behind the throne...and Kosem didn't take it lying down.
Kosem couldn't let the cabinet member’s thinly veiled "question" go unpunished. But she went way overboard in her rage. Breaking her ostensible silence, she ripped into now ex-Grand Vizier in a heart-pounding speech that made the men "[drown] in a sea of mortification". Then, for good measure, she ordered several executions on the worst offenders, causing many of them to flee.
It may have been a satisfying clap-back for Kosem, but karma was coming for her.
Kosem's late-in-life rival Turhan had never truly forgiven the matriarch for taking her son and her power from her. So as Kosem's grip on the kingdom began to loosen, Turhan was the first in line to grab the slack. Helped along by various meddling courtiers, Turhan took a page out of Kosem's book and began plotting against her.
Now, Kosem Sultan had done some pretty unhinged things in her time. But when she got wind that Turhan was stirring up trouble, she plunged into her darkest hour by far.
Kosem began to think there was only one solution to her Turhan problem: Remove the ambitious woman's son from the throne and replace him with her other grandson, Sulieman, whose own mother was easier to control. It led her to a breathtakingly evil act. She went to the palace’s head chef and promised him a promotion if he would serve young Mehmed something…special.
She then slipped him two bottles of poisoned sherbet. This isn’t what they mean when they talk about spoiling your grandchildren. Yet Kosem had more planned.
Simply offing her grandson wasn't enough for Kosem. For the next part of her truly wicked plan, she snuck over to the guards and asked them to leave the palace gates open. That way, her own loyal men could sneak into Turhan’s bedroom and take her out. Unfortunately for Kosem—and only for Kosem—the day before she executed her plan, it all unraveled.
Evidently, even Kosem's allies thought what she was planning was beyond the pale. In the end, her own attendant spilled the beans to one of Turhan's allies. In the blink of an eye, Kosem's whole world shattered. As word got around about the ghastly plot, her enemies first tried to storm her room. When that didn't work, they tried much darker methods.
In truth, the men didn't need Kosem present and accounted for to topple her from power. Instead, they gathered together in a room with the young Sultan Mehmed and accused her of high treason, laying out all the evidence before him. After much wheedling, they convinced the baby monarch to sign his own grandmother's death warrant, shaking hand and all.
Kosem, meanwhile, was hiding in her room and didn't yet know her fate was sealed. And when the time came, she didn't go gently.
When her enemies arrived at her door again, this time to officially execute her, Kosem still couldn't believe it. In fact, she thought the men were her own guards come to save her. When she realized her mistake, something in her snapped. She began stuffing jewels into her pockets and fled down the palace hallways, looking for a hiding place or an escape.
It was futile: Though she hid in a cupboard, the hem of her dress poked out, giving her away. Thus began one of the most mind-boggling ends in history.
Now, Rasputin had an infamously ludicrous, drawn-out death, but he has nothing on the fight Kosem Sultan put up for her life. When the men discovered her, they immediately tore her jewels off and began trying to choke her. Only, she wasn't a queen for nothing: The men were inexperienced, and while four of them were trying to do her in, Kosem bit one so hard that he knocked her unconscious in retaliation.
Green as they were, the assailants then thought she was dead and went to tell the sultan. But never, never underestimate Kosem.
After all this, Kosem was still alive, and very much still kicking. Clinging to life as she had clung to the throne, she tried to drag her body toward what was quite likely a secret passageway the minute she realized the men were out of sight. It was her last valiant effort: The men, seeing her escape attempt, came back and finished the job.
But even centuries later, drama still follows Kosem.
In 2015, the Turkish show Magnificent Century began airing the series Kosem, which followed the Imperial Consort's life and foibles. However, the drama so insulted one Ottoman descendant that he sued the studio that produced it. He said, “This show…offends the public’s feelings toward the Ottomans”. As “insulting” as it is, we’re willing to bet it isn’t boring.
Don't get me wrong: Kosem Sultan was a power-hungry, ruthless woman who stopped at nothing, like honestly nothing, to stay near the throne. Nonetheless, we should add a dab of Princess Diana to her portrait. Throughout her life, she actually visited hospitals and orphanages herself to ensure that her donations went to the neediest. She also went a strange step further…
You wouldn’t think that someone who roughed up their husband’s baby mama would have much concern for women’s rights, but some of Kosem’s charity work involved giving money to help orphan girls get a start in life, regardless of their religion. Kosem would also don disguises and step out amongst the unwashed to perform charitable acts.
Among her many achievements, Kosem often built and restored schools and mosques. In 1651, she also built the largest historic han, or commercial complex, in Istanbul. Amazingly, her han still stands today, and if you pay the caretaker, he will let you go on the roof for some of the best views in the city. Hashtag take me back.
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