At the height of the Ottoman Empire's power and glory, a unique event happened in their history, which arguably had a longing effect on world politics and Eastern culture. Women rose to power in a time frame that is even known as “the Sultanate of Women.” This is extraordinary for many reasons, considering that the Ottomans had strict rules to prohibit such a thing from happening. What is even more impressive is that most of these women, who proved themselves to be exceptional leaders, came to the court as slaves or concubines.

One of the most remarkable queens of this era was Safiye Sultana, who left an indelible mark on history during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Her life journey, diplomatic and political skills, pivotal influence, and incredible ability to create powerful allies shaped the course of the Ottoman Empire.


Early life and Albanian Origin

Safiye Sultana was born in 1550 in what is now modern-day Albania. Her origin was from Dukagjini Highlands, but there are some records from the Ottoman court that mention that the Safiye might have been born in the city of Valona (today’s Vlora). The precise location of her birthplace is unknown, as there are not enough historical records. Her origin is often confused with her mother-in-law, wrongfully mistaking Safiye Sultan for Venetian, or sometimes from Bosnia mistaking her for her daughter-in-law. However, it is considered a fact by scholars and historians that she was Albanian because as she rose to power,

Safiye continuously appeared in the court records and chronicles, which are considered to be a primary resource. The diplomatic correspondences she exchanged, as well as the report from foreign emissaries, mention on many occasions the Queen's origin, leaving no place for doubts.

The Venetian ambassador, Bernardo, wrote about Safiye in one of his letters and mentioned her origin, as well;
: “Frà le più favorite si sua maestà è la serenissima sultana, di nazione albanese, e molto cara a quel signore” (”Among His Majesty’s most favourites is the most serene sultana, of Albanian origin, and very dear to the King”)

It is believed that Safiye was fluent in multiple languages, one of them being Albanian, in which she was a native speaker, further proof of her heritage.
Apart from her origin, little is known about her early life or family. Safiye was born during a time when significant cultural and political shifts were taking place as the Ottoman Empire continued to expand its rule in the Balkan land. While a deeply troubled place due to ongoing wars of the time, it’s likely that Arbanon (Albania in the Middle Ages) provided a rich and unique blend of Western and Eastern cultural education, as they clashed continuously in the

region. This could have marked Safiye’s future reign and set a great foundation for her exceptional diplomatic skills.

 Turkish actress Hülya Avsar in the role of Sultana Safiye

Journey to the Ottoman court

Safiye Sultan came to the Ottoman court in 1563. She entered the harem as a slave and was presented as a gift to the heir apparent of the throne, who would later become Murad the III. It was there that she was baptized with the name Safiye, which translates as the pure one, due to her golden hair and fair skin. While her beginnings are very humble, it is obvious that Safiye was not just a peasant who came to extraordinary luck; she was educated, had knowledge of the protocol, and even a good sense of politics and diplomacy since her earliest days. It is unclear if she came from a privileged family and was taken as a slave or abducted during the war due to the significant lack of historical records. It’s important to remember that this was a time when the Ottoman armies slaughtered their way through the Balkan and all of East and Southern Europe. It was a common Ottoman practice to take children and young adults - even those born into aristocracy- as slaves. Safiye arrived at the court during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificient, who counted 300 slaves in his harem. The Ottoman Empire was a theocracy at its core and furthermore considered itself to be a Muslim caliphate, which meant that harems were a symbol of political and military power. The more land the Ottomans invaded, the more sultan’s harem expanded in numbers.

Little is known about what life was like in the harem; the women were strictly prohibited from leaving the imperial palace or having any kind of interaction with other members of society. With that being said, the harem had a great political impact because any of the women living there could produce the next heir to the throne. According to the Ottomans, the sultan was above everyone else in the empire, so if he chose to marry a free woman, especially one from the high society, it could be interpreted as a political act and make the monarch one-sided in matters of governance affairs.

That’s why life in the harem was very strict and far from the Western fantasy of being a sex playground for the sultan. In many ways, the harem was the only university for women in the Ottoman Empire. All of the girls took intensive lessons in literature, philosophy, music, arts, history, etc. They also learned and practiced embroidery, which was a very practical skill, as they were allowed to sell their creations outside the palace and earn money for themselves. Certainly, Safiye was one of the women who also received a great education for the time, appropriate for a future queen. Furthermore, it’s believed that Safiye had the strong support of the all-powerful Mirhimah Sultana, the only daughter of Suleyman the Magnificient, who had delegated her a lot of political influence. Mirhimah Sultana might have had her own ambitions, so she acted as a mentor to Safiye, teaching her all about internal governance diplomacy but also how to navigate through the court’s intrigues.


The mother of the heir

Safiye was the favorite concubine of Murad the III, while he was still a prince. Even though he was the eldest son of the heir apparent (his grandfather Suleyman the Magnificient was still on the throne), his position was not solid inside the court.
According to the Ottoman rules, every prince had equal rights to the throne; that’s why when a new sultan came to power, he ordered the murder of all his brothers.

For Murad to ensure the throne, he needed to secure powerful allies and prove himself to be good in governance affairs. The Sultan appointed him as the governor (sancakbey) of the Aksehir province. When his father, Selim II, became sultan, he appointed Murad as the governor of Manisa province, breaking off from the tradition of keeping the heir apparent on the court. During all the time, as Murad waited to become the next monarch, Safiye was with him. For many years, she was the only woman in his life. It is believed that Murad fell madly in love with her and refused other concubines. After giving birth to two daughters, Safiya had her eldest son, Mehmed, in 1566, who was born in Manisa while Murad was still a prince.

The birth of the next heir to the throne, strengthened the position of Safiye in the court, giving her a new status and increasing her influence. Safiye also gave birth to two other princes, Selim and Mahmud, while living in Manisa, but none of them survived infancy. However, this is significant because, according to the Ottomans, a concubine could only have one son. The rule was established due to the Ottoman law of executing all of the legitimate heirs once a new sultan was crowned. In most of history, the mother of a prince was his biggest ally and the most trusted political advisor who helped the heir to get the throne. It was considered to be only fair for an heir to be the only son of his mother so the prince would not divide the help and attention with his brothers, who were also his rivals. Sultan Suleyman the Magnificient was the first to break this rule when he allowed his favorite concubine, Hurrem Sultan, to give birth to four sons. Prince Murad did the same with Safiye, a gesture that showed the love and great affection he had for her.

Later on, Safiye and Murad also had three other daughters. In total, Safiya gave birth to eight children: Hümaşah Sultan, Ayşe Sultan, Sultan Mehmed III, Prince Selim, Prince Mahmud, Fatma Sultan, Mihrimah Sultan, Fahriye Sultan.
Throughout all the years that Murad was still a prince, Safiye was his first and only concubine.


The wife of the Sultan

Ottoman sultans did not have to marry and were not expected to. However, many of them broke off the tradition and married their favorite concubines, who had birthed their eldest heir. It is unclear if Murad III married Safiye, which would make her the official wife of the heir apparent and later the wife of the sultan. Safiye is referred to as the legal wife of Murad III in the chronicles of Mustafa Ali, the most famous historian of his time. This is contradicted by the reports of the English and Venetian ambassadors, which adds shades of doubt on the legacy of the supposed marriage.

Whatever the case might be, Safiye held significant influence on Murad III and was treated as his wife. When Murad ascended the throne and became sultan, he took Safiye with him

to the imperial palace in Constantinople. She was immediately given the title Sultana and promoted as the chief woman, making her the one to rule over the harem, the staff, and the family. The only one above Safiye in rank was the sultan’s mother, Nurbanu.

With her new-found title, status, and power, Safiye was quick to make new political alliances and use her influence in matters of governance affairs and foreign politics. She tried to establish herself as an advisor of the sultan, but unfortunately for Safiye, he listened to no other woman but his mother when it came to his reign. Even so, Safiye still managed to interfere in state affairs, was introduced to foreign ambassadors, and began correspondence with several European monarchs, including Elizabeth I, the Queen of England.

Safiye’s ambitions and the love the sultan had for her soon became a problem for the Nurbanu Sultana, who wanted no rival inside the palace. In less than a year, Safiye also took the Haseki title, which made her even more powerful, giving her special privileges within the court. This title was of great importance because it was given to the mother of the heir apparent. This meant that Safiye’s oldest son, Prince Mehmed, was established to be the next in line to the throne.

At the time of the arrival in the imperial palace, Safiye, for many years, did not give birth to other children, which was a crisis for the monarchy because there was only one living heir. The infant death rates were very high at the time, and it was considered an absolute necessity for the sultan to have many sons in order to ensure the continuity of the Ottoman dynasty. The Queen Mother tried for a long time to introduce Murad to other concubines, but he refused them all in favor of Safiye.

This made Nurbanu Sultana accuse Safiye of having cast black magic over her son. There was a lot of tension between both of them, which was, in fact, a clash for power.
The Queen Mother did not like just how powerful Safiye Sultana was. The rumors of witchcraft grew intensively, putting Safiye in an awful position, considering that even the sultan believed in such things.

The conflict reached a crisis point, and Sultan Murad, influenced by his mother, sent Safiye in exile to the so-called Old Palace (Eski Saray) alongside her daughters. Many of her servants, close allies, and even friends were exiled or, worse, tortured and killed.
After this decision, Murad's loyalty to Safiye ended, as for the first time, he accepted other concubines. Soon enough, other heirs were born. Sultan Murad had many other children, to the point that it was rumored that 100 cradles were rocked inside the harem at the same time.

However, Safiye’s son. Prince Mehmed was still the heir apparent, and he openly and strongly took the side of his mother and fought bitterly with the sultan. This worried Nurbanu Sultana to no end because while she didn’t like Safiye, she loved her grandson. Nurbanu feared Mehmed rebel attitude and the fact that he impregnated a woman from the palace who belonged to the sultan’s harem (an act strictly forbidden) could lead to his execution. The Queen Mother protected Prince Mehmed by ordering the murder of the pregnant slave girl to keep the secret and convincing her son, the sultan, to get back on good terms with his heir. The relationship between the sultan and Prince Mehmed was restored right before the sudden death of Queen Mother Nurbanu Sultana in 1583.

Two years later, the Sultan called his old love, Safiye, back to the imperial palace. With the absence of his mother, Murad III needed a new woman advisor to take her place and rule over the palace. Without any other rival or woman to outrank her as Haseki Sultan, Safiye became even more powerful than before. Disillusioned by Murad treatment of her, Sayife used her better judgment and did not oppose or show any kind of jealousy or resentment toward other concubines of the sultan. She proved herself to be a great diplomat and politician by becoming one of Murad III's most trusted advisors and creating strategic alliances with high-ranking officials. In the last years of Sultan Murad's reign, Safiye Sultana became one of the most predominant figures of the time. Her main goal was to ensure that her only living son, Prince Mehmed, would ascend the throne.


Queen Mother (Haseki Sultan)

On 16 January 1595, Sultan Murad III died of natural causes.
At the time of his death, he had 20 legitimate male heirs, including Prince Mehmed.
To ensure that her son would be the one to inherit the throne. Safiye Sultana, with the help of her most trusted servants and allies, hid the body of the Murad for several days. She managed to delay the death announcement of Sultan Murad until Prince Mehmed arrived from Manisa, where he served as governor, to the imperial palace in Constantinople.
The first order of the new sultan was the execution of his nineteen brothers, who were all murdered within the first night of his arrival. Seven pregnant concubines were drowned, as well.

Sultan Murad III was buried on the same day as his 19 infant sons, including little babies. While the transition of power was smooth, the act and the fact that there had been so many murderers caused turmoil among the people. However, Safiye Sultana managed to achieve her primary goal: putting her son on the throne and getting rid of all the opponents. With the other princes dead, there was no one who could have claims over the throne and, therefore, threatened the position of the new sultan.

With the crowning of Sultan Mehmed III, Safiye was now the Queen Mother or Valide Sultana of the Ottoman Empire. This was the highest title, rank, and position for a woman. The only one to outrank the Valide Sultana within the royal family was the sultan himself, who held absolute power and authority.

Sultan Mehmed had a strong affection for his mother and was committed to her in extremes, delegating a lot of his power to Safiye. With her son's unconditional support and her incredible skills and intelligence, Safiye became one of the most important queens in the history of the “sultanate of women” period and the history of the Ottoman Empire.

Safiye used her influence to put her most loyal subjects in key positions in the government. Furthermore, when her son, Sultan Mehmed III, went to war, he entrusted Safiye with the imperial treasure and the government's affairs in his absence. During the 9-years of her son’s reign, Safiye Sultana was, without a doubt, the most powerful person in the empire. Safiye was not discrete at all about her ambitions or taste for power. While other queens before her had preferred to avoid the spotlight, Safiye was known for her incredible

influence, to the point that normal citizens would throw themselves over her carriage with the hope that she would help them. Even before becoming the Queen Mother, Safiye had control over the administration, but now she was the one to appoint everyone, from the prime minister (the grand vizier) to minor civil servants.

 Turkish actress Hülya Avsar in the role of Sultana Safiye

Influence on international politics

Safiye Sultana's best skills and talent were in handling international diplomacy. Throughout her political career, she maintained a very pro-Venetian policy, which helped immensely in bilateral relations but also promoted trade.
Even when her son was still a prince, Safiye Sultana started a regular correspondence with Queen Elizabeth I of England. It was Safiye who wrote the first letter to propose a diplomatic alliance with the British monarch. The letter, sprinkled in gold, is now in the British Museum. Queen Elizabeth had Safiye in high regard for her skills and position and considered her to be the most powerful ally that the British had within the ottoman court. This helped England establish better relations with the Ottomans, increase trade exchanges, and sign a series of agreements.

Safiye Sultana was highly respected by other foreign ambassadors as well, who considered her to be “a woman of her word.


The richest woman in Ottoman history

Safiye Sultana is considered to be the richest woman in Ottoman history. It was clear to her from the beginning that if she wanted to gain and exercise power, she needed more than just a title. Safiye had a mind of business, and using her position, she started accumulating wealth since she was a concubine. When Safiye became the Queen Mother (Valide Sultan), she arranged a payment of 3000 aspers a day. The sum was extraordinarily large for the time; her mother-in-law, Nurbani, only got 2000 aspers.

Furthermore, Safiye often accepted lavish gifts and donations of gold from ambassadors, who were eager to have her favors in court. Queen Elizabeth often exchanged gifts with her, and one time, she sent Safiye a luxurious carriage made of gold.
The accumulation of exceptional wealth attracted a lot of attention to her, and many people resented her for it. There were many rumors that Safiye Sultaan was taking bribes to appoint specific people to important posts. However, Safiye was already wealthy when she became the Queen Mother and even used her personal finances to sponsor her son's wars or for other public works.
Sufiye Sultan remained a very rich woman until her death and used her money to influence the politics of the Ottoman court.


A fall from grace

Safiye Sultana’s open interference in governing the state raised many eyebrows among the elite and the common people, who were not used to seeing a woman being so front and center of power. When one of her most trusted foreign advisers was arrested and executed for espionage, many accused the Queen Mother of being part of the complot that could bring the empire to its knees. This made her unpopular, and even her son, Sultan Mehmed III tried to put some limit to her power and influence.

However, with her enormous wealth and the excellent network of her own loyal people in key positions in the government and administration, Safiye Sultana remained undefined. Despite the intrigues within the court and many nemesis that prayed for her downfall, Safiye was the true power behind the power.

But, this situation made Safiye Sultana hyper-aware of potential complots within the court or the palace, to remove her or the sultan from the throne.

Sultan Mehmed III did not marry any of his concubines; however, he had children with three of them. As Queen Mother, Safiye had absolute control over the harem, and she was the one who picked the concubines for her son but never allowed any of them to gain influence or even hold titles. Safiye favored, in particular, Lady (kadin) Halime, who was the mother of Mehmed III's eldest heir. But one episode with her would spin the wheel of fate and history.

Halime Kadin, the favorite concubine of Mehmed III, asked for a future prediction from a fortune teller who lived outside the imperial palace; whoever that person was, they predicted that the sultan would die within six months and a prince would come to the throne. Safiye Sultana, having her loyal servants everywhere, heard of this prophecy and told her son because she was worried that there was a plan on work to kill the sultan. This had the sultan's eldest son, Prince Mahmud, and his mother, Halime Kadin, arrested and even tortured for complot.
It is said that with the persistence of Safiye Sultana, the sultan ordered the execution of his own son, changing the line the succession.

Strangely, the prophecy did come true. Six months after the murderer of Prince Mahmud, Sultan Mehmed III died on 22 December 1603. Many historians believe that the sultan died due to the high stress after ordering the murder of his son, but others argue that it was due to the plague.

Sultan Ahmed I was the one to inherit the throne, and his mother, Handan, became the new Valide Sultana of the Ottoman Empire. One of the first decisions of the new sultan was the banish Safiye Sultana to exile so that her influence would not overshadow his reign. All her loyal servants were also banished, and her most trusted advisors were removed from the government. This caused a crisis because when Safiye Sultana and her people left, the palace was almost empty. It was the duty of the new Queen Mother to replace the staff and appoint other servants in key positions within the palace. However, she did not manage to step up the task like her mother-in-law did in matters of politics or diplomacy.

Safiye Sultana spent the last years of her life in exile in the Old Palace (Eski Saray).
While she had lost her position in court, she still had some influence due to her wealth and her old allies. All of the other sultans who ascended the throne were her descendants. Safiye Sultana died on 20 April 1619 and was buried with a state ceremony within Haga Sofia, next to Sultan Murad III.



Safiye is remembered as one of the most powerful sultanas in the history of the Ottoman Empire. She exercised power like no woman before she had done, setting a precedent for others to follow. Safiya remained in the heart of the Ottoman court for more than 20 years, during the reign of her husband, Murad III, and her son, Mehmed III.

Safiye was known to be very charitable and spent a lot of her wealth supporting the poor, widows, and orphans. She also supported the Ottoman army by making generous donations. In her name were built several mosques, including the famous “Yeni Cami” (the new mosque) in Istanbul and “Melike Safiye Mosque.”

 Written by Eldolina Këputa, who resides and operates from Tirana, Albania, where she passionately delves into the realms of Albanian history and culture. With a profound love for reading, researching, and writing, Eldolina is a graduate of Journalism and Communication from the University of Tirana.

March 06, 2024