Monday, October 8, 2012

Consort Profile: Nurbanu Sultan, Valide Sultan of Turkey

The girl who would become one of the most prominent women in the Ottoman Empire was born Cecelia Venier-Baffo, probably sometime in 1525, on the island of Paros, today a part of Greece but at the time a client state of the Republic of Venice. Some sources refer to her as Olivia, others as Rachel but it seems she was the natural daughter of a local noble named Nicolo Venier and a woman named Violante Baffo. As such she was the niece of His Serenity Sebastiano Venier, Doge of Venice. It was he who, prior to his election, commanded the Venetian fleet at the historic battle of Lepanto. Little is known about the earliest years of Cecelia Venier-Baffo but when she was only twelve years old events took place which changed her life forever. In 1537 the island of Paros was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and Cecelia, along with many others, was captured along with other Christians for the slave markets. But she was a pretty little girl and must have caught the eye of someone important as she ended up being taken to the palace and placed in the harem of Prince Selim II in Constantinople. She was converted to Islam and given the name “Afife Nur-Banu”. Other stories exist about her origins but this is probably the most common.

Prince Selim II was greatly taken with the young girl and soon decided that she would be the one to bear his children, a fact which would give her greater status than all the other concubines. In time she bore him four children; three daughters and one son and heir; Prince Murad. Nurbanu became the “first lady” of the princely harem and was promoted to leadership of the imperial harem when the Prince ascended the throne as Selim II, “Grand Sultan, Commander of the Faithful and Successor of the Prophet of the Lord of the Universe” in 1566. This made his son, Prince Murad III, heir to the throne and as such added to the prestige of Nurbanu Sultan as mother of a future sultan. Of course, Selim II took numerous other concubines but Nurbanu Sultan always remained his favorite for both her beauty and her brains. Although it was far from normal at the time, Selim II would often ask Nurbanu for her advice on various subjects because of his respect for her good judgment. She was a devoted wife and a very loyal mother as later events would prove. The Ottoman Empire was far from being very stable at the top and clashes over the imperial throne were common. It was also not uncommon for the loser to have his entire family massacred along with him to prevent any future challenge. Nurbanu Sultan was determined, however, that when the time came for her son to succeed his father, nothing would interfere with that.

Prince Murad had been sent to serve as Governor of Manisa on the Aegean coast and was there when Sultan Selim II passed away in 1574. This would have been the prefect opportunity for someone to seize power with the Sultan dead and his son away from the capital. Nurbanu realized this as much, if not more, than anyone and took quick action. Security and privacy in the harem were the most strict anywhere and no one knew when Selim II had actually died. Nurbanu told no one and hid the dead body of her husband in an icebox and sent to Manisa for her son to come to Constantinople immediately. All the while no one was the wiser that Sultan Selim II had actually departed this life. It was not made known publicly until twelve days later when Murad arrived and Nurbanu delivered up the body of her late husband. Her son became Sultan Murad III and Nurbanu became Valide Sultan (effectively “Queen Mother”), the highest position a woman could hold in the Ottoman Empire. She became a formidable figure with far-reaching influence during this time, so much so that it is regarded by some historians as the beginning of the so-called “Sultanate of Women”. According to some sources (Italian mostly, from Venetian accounts) Nurbanu Sultan effectively ran the government alongside the Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmet Pasha. Because women of the imperial household, no matter how lofty, were quite restricted in their movements, she depended on her long-time friend Esther Handali, a jeweler, to bring messages back and forth for her. The two became so close rumors began to surface about the nature of their relationship.

Venetian accounts are the most prolific in describing Nurbanu Sultan as a woman who never forgot her Venetian origins. For the nine years she served as regent of the Ottoman Empire, her foreign policies were reputedly so partial toward the Republic of Venice that their primary competitor, the Republic of Genoa, came to view Nurbanu Sultan as an enemy of their state. She corresponded with Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France, and was always on the lookout for potential allies against the Hapsburg empire centered on Austria and Hungary that was the primary threat to the Ottoman Turks and the primary block to further European expansion. Nurbanu Sultan was also known for her charitable giving and her patronage of building projects, especially the construction of a magnificent building complex that included a mosque, madrassah and bath among other things. She was a beloved and respected figure when she died in her palace in Constantinople on December 7, 1583, presumably of natural causes though some (probably Venetian accounts) speculate that she was poisoned by a Genoese assassin.

Unfortunately, the Ottoman Empire did not fare so well after her loss as the reign of Sultan Murad III was generally one of decline, though certainly not resoundingly disastrous. Considering his mother’s correspondence with the Queen of France, one of the things Sultan Murad III is remembered for was his own correspondence with Queen Elizabeth I of England, arguing that the Protestants and Muslims had much in common and should unite against the Catholic powers, something the Queen very seriously considered during the war with Hapsburg Spain. In any event, both sides benefited from the sale of English tin and lead to the Ottoman Turks to update and expand their military arsenal.

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