I invite you to read my short story about Kösem Sultan’s last night at Topkapi Palace, on September 2nd, 1651. Kösem was one of the most prominent female regents (Valide Sultan – Queen Mother) in the Ottoman Empire. Instead of re-writing her biography, which is readily available online, I have chosen to imagine how that evening might have unfolded.
My story is inspired by historical events. (For definitions of specific terms used in this story, please refer to the index at the end).
The audio version of this post is available here:
Istanbul, Topkapi Palace, September 2nd, 1651
Kösem was breathless and knew she couldn’t outrun her assailants. Her only chance of survival, she thought, was to find a place to hide and wait for them to pass. She remembered a storeroom at the end of the corridor, adjacent to her reception room, a place she often visited with her servants to store clothes, furniture, and various items. She knew its layout well, even with her eyes closed. She ran towards the storeroom and pulled open the door. Inside, she spotted a wall cabinet and swiftly climbed into it, closing it behind her. Now hidden, Kösem struggled to calm her breathing in the confined cabinet, huddled among silk, satin, and brocade fabrics — materials intended for tailoring outfits for the Eid al Fitr celebration.
A Few Hours Earlier
On the evening of the sixteenth day into the month of Ramadan, Kösem was pleased with how the Iftar meal had unfolded, filled with the infectious laughter of her close relatives and grandchildren. After the fast was broken, she sat on the divan in the haremlik reception room, with her daughters on either side, and found herself gazing at her large family gathered to enjoy the evening festivities. It was in moments like these that she could shut off part of her mind, while the world outside the reception room’s walls remained uncertain. All evening, however, she couldn’t shake off a nagging weight pressing on her chest. Even the Tarawih prayer, performed minutes earlier, failed to bring peace to her restless mind. The walls of Topkapi Palace, the imperial residence that was once her seat of power, now felt suffocating, as if they were closing in on her.
It was past midnight, and before the Suhur meal had finished, Kösem preferred to retreat to her private chamber to rest. As she walked, escorted by armed guards to her bedroom through the haremlik’s corridors, no one could sense her growing tension, concealed beneath an impenetrable front. Yet, she often found herself looking over her shoulder, her trembling hands hidden in tight fists. “Not surprising” she thought, “The past weeks, months, and even years have dragged me through hell. Snakes lurk within these walls, ready to strike from behind at the slightest sign of weakness or inattention. My defeat would be their delight, but I won’t grant them such satisfaction”.
When Kösem walked into her bedroom, she sat on the edge of her bed and sighed deeply, feeling every ache in her 62-year-old body. Sometimes, these pains betrayed her diminishing physical form. But her face still held traces of the beauty and strength from her younger years. Her sharp brown eyes, the graceful way she held her head, and her unflinching voice commanded both respect and fear. Even her fiercest enemies often described her as a force of nature, one that nobody could weaken, let alone defeat.
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Kösem began to slowly remove her jewellery: the gold bracelets, rings, and the belt heavily encrusted with precious stones. She carefully put them away in a wooden chest. Then, she looked across the room at her lady-in-waiting, Feride, a woman in her seventies. Hunched and bearing deep lines on her face, Feride carefully carried a gilt copper basin and ewer filled with fresh water for her mistress’s nightly ritual of washing her face and hands. Feride’s movements had grown uncertain, and she sometimes, inadvertently missed steps of protocol. That night, for instance, she had forgotten to fetch a nightrobe from the large wooden chest before her mistress returned. But Kösem did not blame her for it.
“We have been through a lot together, Feride. You are the only one I trust enough to let me drift into sleep. Did you lock the door?” asked Kösem. “Yes, Valide Sultan,” said Feride, “and I checked it twice to be sure.” Kösem felt a comforting, though brief, sense of calm. “I am in good hands,” she thought as if to console herself. Every night, Feride made sure the chamber’s wooden double door and window shutters were firmly locked. This practice had become essential in recent months.
Kösem’s inner peace, however fleeting, was also fuelled by the unconditional support of her loyal friend, Sahin Ağa, who was recently appointed as the commander of the Janissaries, the elite force of the Ottoman army. For nearly four decades, Kösem had ensured timely payment of the Janissaries’ salaries and often dipped into her personal wealth to foster a strong bond with the elite force. This strategy had not only averted any chance of a rebellion led by the Janissaries but also guaranteed their allegiance to her command. Who could be better to protect her life than these expertly trained and highly disciplined soldiers? Every night, over three hundred Janissaries were deployed for security, along with the palace’s guards, at her private quarters, the doors of her chamber, the harem’s gates, courtyards, and corridors. It was only with their presence that the shadows of worry would dissipate, allowing her to catch a few hours of sleep.
Before she settled into her bed, Kösem, dressed in her nightrobe, approached the window overlooking the courtyard and carefully peered through the narrow gap between the shutter panels. “The Janissaries should be arriving any minute,” she said, her eyes searching for a sign of them at the gate where they were expected.
In recent nights, their delayed arrivals had forced her to wait in anxious anticipation, straining her already waning patience. Suddenly, Kösem felt a surge of anger rising within her, overtaking the worry that had consumed her just moments before. She began to pace the room back and forth, feeling her blood boil with each step, as a chain of unsettling thoughts rushed through her head:
“To what despicable depths of despair have I fallen? This room, this entire palace, has become my prison, as if I were no better than a rat in a cage. I can hardly believe this is happening! I, who have devoted my life, my days and nights, who have sacrificed my health, my wealth, and even my own children, my flesh and blood, to save this dynasty from crumbling into ruin!
Strangely, the same people who are now plotting against me once begged me to become the Regent for Mehmed, who had just turned six years old, to be his mentor and counsel. They even created a title to legitimise my new position, naming me Büyük Valide Sultan. Three years later, their stance has shifted, and their true intentions, driven by greed and a craving for control, are now as clear as daylight. Of course, they would prefer a Valide Sultan who bends to their will, one at the mercy of The Grand Vizier Siyavuş Pasha. A Valide Sultan who won’t challenge their plots, a spineless figurehead like Mehmed’s mother, Turhan.
What on earth would they know about ruling this empire? Does Turhan have the slightest idea of the many sacrifices one must make to earn the position of Valide Sultan? Blood ties alone are not enough; otherwise, any woman who bears a son would be fit to lead.
Have they forgotten that I was compelled to sanction the execution of my youngest son, Sultan Ibrahim, to secure Mehmed’s ascension and protect him from his father’s insurrection? No mother should have to endure the horrible suffering of witnessing her own child’s merciless end, regardless of his madness, transgressions, or failures. Ibrahim’s agonising face, gasping for air, haunts me to this day. Night after night, I lose sleep to the same nightmare. Shadowy figures emerge from the darkness, possessed with one purpose, chase me with the intent to kill. I can’t see their faces, but I know who they are. They surround me and flaunt a cord, the very one that choked the life from Ibrahim. They loop it around my throat, tightening the noose as I fight for air, my lungs crushed, my screams trapped, unable to escape. Every single time, I wake up drenched in a cold sweat.
It’s been three long years, and time has done nothing to ease my pain. Every time I look at Mehmed, I see Ibrahim drawing his last breath. Mehmed’s very throne is stained with his father’s tortured soul. Still, it seems no one remembers that I sacrificed my son for the sake of this dynasty’s stability and future.
I am well aware of the appalling plots that Siyavuş Pasha, Turhan, and that traitor Süleyman Ağa must be scheming to end my life. None of them could rival my skills, in life or in death. How many times have they tried to cast doubts over my capabilities as Valide Sultan, painting me as either overly empathetic or cruel and therefore unfit to lead? Haven’t I proved them wrong, time and again? The regency was not handed to me as a gift! After I was taken from my parents, I was taught to dance, sing, and stitch but nobody taught me how to rule. I had to learn on my own. I have earned this right through a long path fraught with danger and death. I—a woman—have demonstrated ample tenacity, exerting twice the diligence of any man. I have forged alliances, conquered territories, waged wars, resisted foreign enemies, negotiated peace treaties, and supressed unrest. At no moment did I flinch or show weakness when confronted with tough decisions.
How I regret taking Turhan under my wing. She owes her very existence to me, and now she is biting the hand that fed her. There was nothing remarkable about Turhan when I selected her to join Ibrahim as his consort. I had to persuade him to take notice of her for she lacked both beauty and wit. I taught her every ounce of grace and knowledge she possesses. Without my protection and guidance, she would just be an ordinary slave, doomed to a life of servitude.
How I miss having you by my side, my beloved, Sultan Ahmed. From the moment we met, when I was only 15 years old, you treated me as an equal. For twelve years, we saw eye to eye, working shoulder to shoulder, united in guiding the empire through times of prosperity and adversity. You were taken too soon, so very young. Since your passing, I have not had a single moment of respite. None of your successors—Mustafa, Osman, and Ibrahim—could match your wisdom for state affairs, nearly leading us all to the brink of disaster. They were either crushed by the burden of responsibility or prioritised their personal interests over the dynasty’s. They started wars they couldn’t win, ceded our lands to enemies, and blindly placed their trust in the wrong hands.
Only Sultan Murad, our son, truly honoured your legacy. Like you, he was taken too soon by illness, a profound loss for us all. In his younger years, he needed me more than ever by his side, not just as his mother, but as his confidant and first advisor. Step by step, brick by brick, we worked together through the turmoil left by Mustafa. Sultan Murad rose as the ultimate protector of Islam, restored order and revived the empire to its former glory, with Istanbul shining as the world’s capital.
How can I stand by while Siyavuş Pasha and Turhan’s actions threaten to destroy our hard-won achievements, endanger our society, and reduce the Ottoman dynasty to ashes? Is it vengeance they seek, or is the grip on power too tempting to resist? How could anyone blame me for wanting to eliminate Turhan and her son! Ordering the execution of another human being is never easy, and the first time was undeniably the hardest. But aren’t all leaders in the world faced with this very unpleasant aspect of power, the ugly truth that few of us are willing to admit? It is, indeed, a necessary evil and my last resort in the face of deceit. Today, this has become a matter of survival. How many times have I tried desperately to bring Turhan to reason, all to no avail?
This nonsense must end. Turhan and her son must be removed at once. All the other parasites will be tackled immediately afterwards. Tomorrow, I will summon Şahin Ağa to finalise a new plan for disposing of Mehmed and his mother. If only our recent attempt to poison him and execute her had succeeded! But the Janissaries, betrayed by the eunuchs, met with complete disaster. It is because of their dreadful failure that I find myself living in this state of anxiety. This time, we must do whatever it takes to achieve our aim, be it bringing in more soldiers, increasing their pay, or keeping suspected traitors at bay.
Our plan is crucial; upon its fruition, Mehmed’s half-brother, Süleyman, will be crowned, and at last, order will be restored. I will continue to serve as Büyük Valide Sultan, the steadfast authority of this empire as I have been for decades.”
Refusing to give in to anger or despair, Kösem was more determined than ever to act immediately after the Eid Al Fitr celebration, which marked the end of Ramadan. Little did she know that her fate had already been sealed. Nine-year-old Sultan Mehmed, in the presence of The Grand Vizier Siyavuş Pasha and the Grand Mufti, the highest religious authority, had just signed her death sentence.
Feeling a bit calmer, Kösem moved slowly towards her bed, ready to slide under the covers. Suddenly, she heard heavy footsteps fast approaching the bedroom door. They were getting closer and closer. Kösem and Feride exchanged anxious looks, troubled by the unfamiliar rhythm of the approaching steps. Something seemed to be amiss. Kösem swiftly moved to the window overlooking the courtyard, searching for any sign of the Janissaries. However, the courtyard was bathed in darkness and appeared devoid of life, with no guards or movements in sight.
Meanwhile, Feride carefully approached the double door, keeping it firmly locked. In a shaken voice, she asked the guards posted outside, “Have the Janissaries arrived?”. Silence. She then pressed her ear against the door and heard muffled grunts and footsteps halting right behind the door. A familiar voice said “Yes, they are here.” Both Kösem and Feride felt a chill run down their spines. They knew they were in grave danger – the voice was unmistakably that of Süleyman Ağa. He began striking the heavy door to force the lock open.
Kösem stood petrified, uncertain of her next move. With a hand gesture, Feride pointed towards the door leading to the prayer room, discreetly located at the back of the bedroom. Barefoot, Kösem hurried towards that door but abruptly stopped and turned back to her wooden chest containing her jewellery. She frantically opened the chest and grabbed as much as she could – earrings, diamonds, necklaces, and any other valuable pieces within reach. Some of the jewellery clattered to the floor beside the chest. Clutching the precious items tightly in her hand, Kösem hurried through the backdoor and disappeared into the prayer room, which led to a dark staircase. She hoped to get to the harem’s main courtyard as quickly as possible and find a guard or soldier who would protect her against her assailants in exchange for her valuable possessions.
Süleyman Ağa managed to break the door lock and stormed into the bedroom, followed by Ali Ağa, the Sultan’s Chief Guard, and five of his men. Süleyman Ağa’eyes swept across the room, searching for the Valide Sultan. He then marched towards Feride, shoved her to the ground, and demanded in a loud, menacing voice, “Where is she?” In a desperate attempt to divert his attention from her mistress’s escape, Feride whispered “I am the Valide Sultan.” Süleyman Ağa struck her face and yelled, “Liar! Where is she?” As Feride lay helpless on the floor, bracing for another blow, she shielded her face with her hands, but remained tight-lipped.
Ali Ağa, a tall and physically imposing man notorious for his ruthless ways, paced around the room, destroying tables, chairs, and anything that stood in his way. When he noticed that the door to the prayer room was slightly open, he dashed through it and called for his men to follow him. He couldn’t afford to waste any time. His mission was straightforward: find the Valide Sultan and kill her. Failure was not an option, as it would result in his own execution.
Kösem struggled to adjust her eyes to the darkness of the narrow, steep staircase. As she heard footsteps rapidly gaining on her from behind, she gripped the wall for support and hurried down the stairs as quickly as her aching legs would carry her, her bare feet pounding against the cold, hard ground. Finally, she reached the corridor adjacent to the reception room. There she found some of her own guards lying unconscious on the floor. Others seemed to have mysteriously vanished. She found herself utterly alone, with no one to seek protection from. Under the full moonlight, the open-air corridor appeared to stretch endlessly. She feared she would never reach the main courtyard before her assailants caught up with her. If only she could find a hiding spot, allowing them to pass while they searched.
Then, she noticed the storeroom at the end of the corridor. Just days earlier, she had been there, looking through the beautiful, expensive fabrics selected for new outfits for the Eid Al Fitr celebrations. Exerting every ounce of energy, Kösem ran towards the storeroom. She pulled open the door, then carefully shut it behind her. Despite the darkness, she was aware of the clutter of boxes, chests, tables, and chairs in each corner, and she moved cautiously to avoid stumbling. She couldn’t see clearly, but her memory guided her to a wall cabinet to the right of the door. She quietly opened it and slipped inside. “They would never think to look for me here,” she thought.
She quickly pushed away the fabrics inside the confined space, careful not to make any noise. The air in the cabinet was thin, and the space was cramped, allowing barely enough room to breathe. Kösem curled up as small as she could, holding her shaky legs tight to keep the door from accidentally opening. Her mind was consumed with thoughts of her daughters and grandchildren, who were, exceptionally, spending the night at the palace. She feared they were being tortured or worse killed. At this dreadful thought, she sobbed silently and prayed for their safety.
Süleyman Ağa, Ali Ağa, and their men reached the corridor and halted, not knowing where to look next. Süleyman Ağa shouted, “She couldn’t have gone far. Spread out, and do not leave any corner unchecked.” Kösem closed her eyes and held her breath, her heart pounding as she kept praying, hoping the Sultan’s guards would soon move on. Suddenly, she heard them burst into the storeroom, searching everywhere. They pushed and opened chests, boxes, and wall cabinets one by one until the door of the cabinet, where she was hiding, flung open. The guard standing over her yelled, “I found her, she’s here!” Ali Ağa and Süleyman Ağa joined him, followed by three other guards. Süleyman Ağa grabbed Kösem by her nightrobe and pulled her out of the cabinet.
He seized her by her arms while a guard grabbed her legs, dragging her across the storeroom floor. She kicked, screamed, and even bit one of her assailants’ hands, her resistance fuelled by intense fear. A third guard had to assist in keeping her still. “Let me go, let me go, I can pay you, look,” she pleaded, showing the jewellery in her hand. Ali Ağa, however, snatched it away, slid it in his pocket, and knocked her on the head while the others held her down. Standing behind Kösem, Ali Ağa pulled her back firmly, took a cord, wrapped it around her neck, and began to tighten it. They had been instructed to strangle her without shedding blood.
Kösem felt herself slipping away, unable to breathe or fight any longer, her hands dropping to her sides. She lost consciousness. The guards, believing her to be dead, stepped back to discuss how to deliver her body to Siyavuş Pasha, who had demanded her corpse as proof of her death. But Kösem wasn’t ready to give up without a fight. Slowly regaining consciousness, she tried to crawl away from her attackers. Ali Ağa, realising she was still alive, returned to finish his grim task. His bare hands tightened around her neck with such force that her eyes bled, as she drew her final, agonising breath.
That night, hundreds of the Sultan’s guards were tasked with eliminating Kösem at any cost, transforming Topkapi Palace into a veritable trap set for her assassination. They assaulted the haremlik, killing many of her guards. Meanwhile, the Janissaries who arrived later fled the scene. By that time, Şahin Ağa had significantly lost much of his influence over his men and was executed a few weeks after Kösem’s death. Many of her political supporters faced the same fate, including Feride, her loyal lady-in-waiting. Her daughters and grandchildren were spared.
Despite the many adversities she faced within the palace’s walls, Kösem was widely appreciated by the people of Istanbul for her charitable initiatives, which included the construction of schools, mosques, and kitchens. Her brutal death caused profound turmoil and anger within the community. In response, Turhan, who ascended to Valide Sultan, used Siyavuş Pasha as a scapegoat and took the decisive step of removing him from his position.
It is believed that in the final moments of her life, as Kösem struggled to escape and her jewellery was being stolen by her murderers, she firmly held onto only one item: a locket bearing the names of her sons, Murad and Ibrahim.
Index – in alphabetical order
1. Büyük Valide Sultan: The Queen Grandmother in the Ottoman hierarchy.
2. Consort: The wife or concubine of Ottoman monarchs.
3. Haremlik: The women’s quarters at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
4. Iftar: The meal consumed by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan.
5. Mehmed: Mehmed IV, an Ottoman Sultan, reigned from 1648 to 1687, a period that witnessed both the peak and subsequent decline of Ottoman power.
6. Mustafa: Sultan Mustafa I, the brother of Sultan Ahmed, was an Ottoman Sultan who reigned twice, first from 1617 to 1618, and then from 1622 to 1623.
7. Osman: Sultan Osman II, the son of Sultan Ahmed I and his consort Mahfiruz Hatun, reigned as an Ottoman Sultan from 1618 to 1622.
8. Sahin Ağa: The commander of the Janissaries who was executed in 1651 following the assassination of Kösem.
9. Siyavuş Pasha: A statesman who served as the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mehmet IV.
10. Suhur: The pre-dawn meal consumed before the fast begins at sunrise during Ramadan.
11. Suleyman Agha: The Chief Black Eunuch and the head of the eunuchs guarding the Ottoman Imperial Harem.
12. Sultan Ahmed: Ahmed I served as the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1603 to 1623.
13. Ibrahim: Sultan Ibrahim, the son of Sultan Ahmed I and Kösem, reigned from 1640 to 1648.
14. Sultan Murad: Murad IV, the son of Sultan Ahmed I and Kösem, was an Ottoman Sultan who reigned from 1623 to 1640.
15. Tarawih Prayer: An additional prayer performed after the Isha (night) prayer during the month of Ramadan.
16. Turhan: Turhan Hatice Sultan, known for being the mother of Sultan Mehmed IV, was a prominent and influential figure in the Ottoman Empire during the 17th century.
17. Valide Sultan: The Queen Mother in the Ottoman hierarchy.