This article was written by Ezgi Özcan.
Safiye Sultan was the chief consort of Murad III and queen mother of Mehmed III. She was one of the most powerful chief consorts and queen mothers in Ottoman history. Contrary to the previous chief consorts or queen mothers, Safiye Sultan didn’t need a great love story, and she never hesitated to show her intelligence and ambitions.
Her background is quite unclear, like every woman in the harem. While some argued that she had Venetian roots, some of them claimed she was Albanian or Bosnian. Whatever her origins, it is clear that she didn’t come from a peasant family. Her further acts showed that she had strong courtier education and diplomatic sense.
In 1563, she came to the court as a present for the heir apparent (later Murad III). They called her Safiye (pure one) because of her golden hair and fair skin. There is no information about her education period in the harem, but she had her first child (the future Mehmed III) in 1566. As the mother of the oldest son, she had a bit power and freedom in the harem. Safiye remained as Murad’s only woman for several years in an unusual way, but they had no other son. At this point, Safiye used her logic and accepted Murad’s other concubines without jealousy. Moreover, she sent concubines to take control over him. Over time, Sultan Murad had twenty-five sons out of fifty children from different women.
During Murad’s reign, Safiye enjoyed state events and was highly respected as the mother of the first prince. Moreover, she was very active in foreign affairs of the Empire; she corresponded with European rulers directly. She even received a golden coach from Queen Elizabeth I. She used to go around the city with her gorgeous coach and caused a scandal. At these times in the Ottoman Empire, it was very odd to see a woman with a coach. Also, ambassadors knew of her fondness for gold and precious gifts, and soon she became the richest women in the Empire. Safiye Sultan had very good relations with the Venetian ambassador who never forgot to send gifts and gold.
When she became queen mother in 1595, she became more active in internal affairs and continued to support Venice on foreign affairs. She had to handle serious internal struggles and struggles with the army instead of her son. She gave money for the war expenses from her personal account to support her son. Safiye Sultan arranged the highest allowance ever for herself as queen mother. Although she enjoyed her allowance, Safiye Sultan was famous for her generosity and charity works. The most famous thing that she built was the New Mosque. In 1598, Safiye Sultan started the building process; it was the last big mosque complex built by the Ottomans. The building process stopped after her death, and the mosque was abandoned for a while. It was finally finished in 1665.
In 1603, Safiye Sultan supported the execution of Prince Mahmud (her oldest grandson) with his mother, after an argument between her son and Prince Mahmud. Prince Mahmud and his mother were executed that same year. Tragedy struck in her life right after the executions; her son died on 21 December, so she lost her title as queen mother and her role in the court. She was exiled to the old palace, but she continued to take her allowance. During her grandson’s reign, she couldn’t return to the main court except for short visits. In 1619, while returning from a court visit, she suddenly fell ill inside her coach and died the same day.
In the end, Safiye Sultan’s story wasn’t about a great love, but a strong desire to govern. She showed everyone that if a woman wants to govern, she doesn’t need to stay behind the curtain.1
TDV İslam Encyclopedia, page 373