Çiragan* Palace’s history extends well beyond the visible structure we see today along the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Its multi-generational tale spans over four centuries, intricately linked to influential Ottoman male rulers. Yet, as I delved into my research and traced Çiragan’s origins, I was taken aback by a fascinating revelation: the first building on the Çiragan Palace grounds was brought to life by a woman named Ismahan Kaya Sultan, whose life story had its fair share of dramatic events.
Originally, Çiragan began as an imperial garden, but Kaya’s determination to build a wooden mansion overlooking the Bosphorus—modest in comparison to the grandeur that would later grace these historic grounds—set off a ripple effect that shaped the entire course of Çiragan’s development. Our appreciation of Çiragan today may even, in significant part, be attributed to that initial vision—the laying of that very first wooden foundation.
While the remnants of her house may have vanished, through this post, I aim to resurrect her legacy and shed light on her compelling story. Her life unfolds as a series of poignant and tumultuous events, set against the backdrop of an imperial environment steeped in tension, rife with death, intrigue, and betrayal. Kaya was celebrated at her birth, subjected to humiliation during her childhood, married at only 11, and departed from this world all too soon.
An Unstable Childhood Marked by Turmoil:
Born in 1933 to Ottoman Sultan Murad IV, renowned for his strong control over state affairs, Kaya’s birth was celebrated with grand festivities. For the first seven years of her life, Kaya must have felt comfortable and secure, especially under the protection of her grandmother, Kösem Sultan, the true power behind the throne, who helped maintain order and stability within the palace.
However, Kaya’s life took a downturn when her father, at the young age of 27, succumbed to cirrhosis. Shortly after his passing, Kaya’s childhood became entangled in the crossfire of fierce power struggles within the imperial family, particularly the rivalry between her grandmother, Kösem Sultan, and her uncle Ibrahim, her father’s successor. Kaya and her aunts were soon stripped of their privileges, compelled into servitude, and eventually banished from the imperial palace.
Furthermore, the young princess grew up in an environment filled with tension, surrounded by aunts and other female relatives whose lives were marked by constant turmoil. Many of their arranged marriages ended tragically, with their husbands perishing in battle or facing ruthless executions, sometimes even before their very eyes.
Kaya’s challenging times came to an end when Ibrahim was deposed and executed in 1948. His 6-year-old son, Mehmed, ascended to the throne. Mehmed’s mother should have assumed the role of Valide Sultan (the Mother of the Sultan), thereby wielding significant power and authority. However, opposed to this was Kösem Sultan, who plotted to have Mehmed poisoned, with the aim of placing a young orphan prince on the throne whom she could manipulate to maintain her position. In 1951, with the approval of Sultan Mehmed, Kösem was captured and executed. Kösem’s death must have sent shockwaves throughout the imperial family, including Kaya. It was another seismic event in these tumultuous times, where change seemed to be constantly on the horizon.
A Marriage of Convenience at a Very Young Age:
In 1644, at only 11 years old, Kaya was forced into marrying Melek Ahmed Pasha, an Ottoman statesman and a close ally of Kösem Sultan, who was 30 years her senior. This arranged marriage likely played a crucial role in Kösem’s strategy to solidify her alliances and strengthen her grip on power within the state. Elviya Çelebi, a traveler and Melek’s protégé, documented an incident where, on her wedding night, Kaya refused to share her husband’s bed and instead resorted to stabbing him with a dagger. It is also believed that the marriage remained unconsummated for over 7 years until Kösem Sultan ordered the couple to fulfil their marital duties and produce offspring, with the aim of further cementing Melek’s allegiance.
Some biographers report that Kaya and Melek’s marriage was a ‘happy’ one, with the princess supporting her husband through thick and thin, even saving him from assassination attempts and leveraging her influence within the imperial family to shield him from conspiracies. While the definition of a happy marriage may vary depending on the storyteller, it’s possible that, over the years, Kaya learned to consider her husband as a companion despite their differences. Adulthood brought the acceptance that Melek was a permanent fixture in her life, whether she desired it or not. Could it be that Melek’s gentle nature played a role in helping her accept and cope with the situation? Perhaps, she resigned herself to making the best of this inescapable relationship, seeking to avoid the fate of her aunts, whose successive husbands had likely left them feeling insecure.
Deep Anxieties or Dark Premonitions?
Kaya grappled with profound anxieties linked to both childbirth and death. The fear of death loomed large in her mind. As recounted by Elviya, she confided in her husband about a troubling dream she had experienced, seeking his interpretation, a common practice in Ottoman society. In her dream, her deceased grandfather, Sultan Ahmed, invited her for a stroll in a paradisiacal garden, symbolising the afterlife. This dream left her deeply anxious and consumed by worry, causing her a year of dread.
Both Kaya and her husband had recurring dreams about the afterlife, shaping their shared vision of it. In an attempt to provide solace and reassurance, Melek offered positive interpretations of these dreams, but Kaya grew increasingly apprehensive and skeptical of his explanations. Despite their efforts to find comfort, they both remained profoundly worried about what the future held.
To find solace, Kaya turned to religion, following a common practice of the time. She gave gifts and money to the poor and needy as a good deed to ward off any bad omens. Known for her generosity with her vast wealth, she made a significant difference in the lives of those around her.
A premonition that came true?
In 1659, during childbirth, Kaya experienced severe complications due to retained placenta, a condition that can have serious side effects and lead to life-threatening bleeding. Desperate midwives attempted to remove the placental tissues in a bid to save her life, but unfortunately, their efforts were in vain. Kaya’s condition worsened, and four days after giving birth, she passed away at the age of 27.
A few days later, in accordance with Ottoman law which regarded the wealth of princesses as not their own, all of Kaya’s possessions and properties were confiscated. Her inconsolable husband, without much enthusiasm, married her aunt three years later. He died the same year.
Kaya’s life is a succession of stressful events, each chapter filled with its own challenges and trials. From her early years, marked by the shifting tides of power within the imperial family, to her tumultuous marriage at a young age, Kaya faced a world where uncertainty and danger seemed ever-present. Her story, like the remnants of her existence within Çiragan Palace’s grounds, may have faded over time, but the memory of her resilience and her struggles continue to resonate through the centuries.
(*) Çiragan Palace is now a luxury hotel. I wish that were not the case because monuments are supposed, in my opinion, to be open to the public.