This is a classic: The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire by Leslie P. Peirce (Oxford University Press, 1993). In this excellent text, Peirce presents a nuanced understanding of the Ottoman harem and its dynastic politics for a western audience.
To start, Peirce explains what the imperial harem was and what it decidedly was not. Orientalist assumptions have profoundly colored how westerners understood the harem, painting sexually lurid pictures. In fact, the harem was not especially sexual but was rather the place where the sultan’s family (his mother, consorts, children, and many, many slave servants) resided. Peirce emphasizes that part of this misunderstanding has come from modern western ideas of public vs private space (something which many historians of queenship are not doubt familiar). While the harem had restricted access, it was a space of power. Even the sultan was generally secluded; Peirce helps readers visualize this by describing how power in the Ottoman world was a function of outer to inner, rather than down to up as in many western places. The closer one moved inward, to the sultan, the greater that person’s power.
In order to understand the vital role women played in Ottoman sovereignty, Peirce next explains the dynasty’s reproductive strategies and succession practices. Although the first couple of Ottoman rulers made dynastic marriages, that practice quickly came to a halt as the family increased their power. As the premier dynasty in the region, the Ottomans had no need for legitimation through alliances. The trade-off of outside family alliances was not seen as worth the high-status brides. Consequently, the dynasty turned to reproduction through slave concubines, initially following a one mother-one son policy, which was broken in the 1500s. Because the Ottoman dynasty was of such high status, concubines who birthed sons were retroactively ennobled. This enabled these mothers to serve as part of the ruling dynasty.
Initially, when a prince reached his majority (late teens), he was sent to rule in a provincial city. His mother went with him, and was his main protector and one of his main advisors. This was a high-stakes duty because the dynasty practiced widespread fratricide until the end of the sixteenth century. The Ottoman dynasty as a whole was always regarded as more important than any individual, which sometimes led to fathers executing sons who threatened (or were thought to threaten) the father’s rule. A mother whose son did not became sultan was likely to lose her son to strangulation. In the generations after Süleyman (known as “the Magnificent” in the west), the pattern of father-son succession changed to that of seniority: the eldest male in the dynasty succeeded. A number of elements caused this transition, but the main causes were the ending of princely careers (the princes did not go to the provinces by stayed in the palace), the cessation of fratricide, the sedentarization of the dynasty as offensive war slowed, and the succession of several young sultans. These were all interrelated. When a young sultan who had not proven his reproductive capacity succeeded, it was unwise to execute his brothers and risk the extinction of the dynasty. With the princes remaining in the palace, they were not permitted to reproduce and thereby achieve full adulthood, which meant by around 1600 and beyond, every sultan was of unproven reproductive capacity. Fratricide was also more difficult for the populace to accept when it happened in Istanbul, in prominent view (one sultan was buried with his nineteen underage sons, killed by their elder half-brother). With a series of unproven sultans, the queen mother – valide sultan – became the glue that held the Ottoman dynasty together.
Peirce explains how the power of early sultans’ favorites, such as Hurrem the favorite of Süleyman, ultimately led to an increase in the power the valide sultan exercised in the 1600s. This power became institutionalized, and was reflected in the massive public works that queen mothers undertook and the huge stipends they received. Since valide sultans were beyond their sexual years (even if they were physically able, they were seen as socially past that stage of life), they were held in higher esteem and possessed greater power and influence than the sultan’s concubines. With the changed mode of succession, the “the relationship between mother and son … became the fundamental dynastic bond, in terms not only of its political utility … but also its public celebration” (229). The valide sultan represented the elder generation and so was the head of the dynastic family. She might even be called on to sanction the deposition of one sultan and his replacement by another Ottoman, again emphasizing how sovereignty was vested in the family as a whole. Her role was particularly important during the early 1600s when a series of youthful and incompetent sultans ruled, but waned over time. Her official role could not infringe on sultanic authority.
Peirce’s work excellently showcases how the early-modern Ottoman state relied on a family model of rule, although the sultan was obviously supreme. The valide sultan’s role was not a corruption of sovereignty but a necessary part of dynastic rule. The book also details how princesses, through their marriages to high-ranking officials, helped their mothers form blocs of power that could ultimately benefit their brothers. In the Ottoman system, “the principal tension within the dynastic family was generational competition for power” (285). As the family elder, the valide sultan had a vital role, although she could not obstruct the sultan’s exercise of power.