Nurbanu Sultan – The pious Queen Mother of the Ottoman Empire

Merve Boluğur as Nurbanu in Magnificent Century (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Nurbanu Sultan was one of the most powerful figures in the Ottoman Empire. She was the favourite concubine and eventual wife of Selim II, the son of Suleyman and Roxelana. However, her power increased when she became the queen mother of Murad III. Nurbanu would reign as queen mother until her death. Like her mother in law, Roxelana, Nurbana would also be known as a philanthropist. She would build schools, bathhouses, and soup kitchens. Her lasting legacy was the Atik Valide Mosque.

Nurbanu was a noblewoman. She was born Cecelia Venier Baffo in 1525.[1] She was the illegitimate daughter of Niccolo Venier, the Duke of the island Paros.[2] She was captured at twelve years old in 1537 by the Ottoman admiral, Barbarossa-Hayreddin Pasha.[3] It must have been a traumatising experience for Cecelia to go from a noblewoman to a slave. However, she made the most of her situation. She became a concubine for Prince Selim. She was beautiful and intelligent.[4] She captured Prince Selim’s eye and gave birth to a daughter.[5] Nurbanu then gave birth to three daughters and finally the longed-for son in 1546. During her time in the Prince’s harem in Manisa, Nurbanu would maintain a good relationship with Roxelana.[6] She would later follow in her mother-in-law’s footsteps.

When Selim took the throne in 1566 at the age of forty-two, his son, Murad, was his father’s heir.[7] However, because Murad was the only son, Selim decided to produce more sons by other concubines in case Murad died before he could be sultan.[8] However, by taking other concubines, this did not diminish Nurbanu’s position. Nurbanu was still the head of Selim’s harem. She was also Selim’s favourite and his beloved.[9] Shortly before his death, Selim II married Nurbanu, and she became his queen.[10]

When Selim died in 1574, Nurbanu secured her son’s succession from his other half-brothers by preserving her dead husband’s body in ice until Murad came to the capital. She also had the grand vizier conceal the demise of the sultan.[11]Therefore, Nurbanu safely enthroned her son as sultan, and unlike the previous generation, there was no bloodbath. For this reason, Murad greatly respected and relied on his mother.[12] Nurbanu became queen mother and the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire.

As queen mother, Nurbanu was a shrewd diplomat. She not only protected her Ottoman subjects, but she also rescued slaves and protected Jewish merchants.[13] She maintained good relationships with Venice and France.[14] One Venetian ambassador claimed, “She has done me good favours.” [15] She remained on good diplomatic terms with Catherine de Medici. She invited Catherine to send an embassy to Istanbul to maintain their relationship and renewed French trading privileges within the empire.[16]

Nurbanu was also known for her charitable donations. One of them was located in the Asian Uskudar, where she built mosques, schools, bathhouses, and soup kitchens.[17] Nurbanu also became the first woman to establish libraries within the capital of Istanbul.[18] The library Nurbanu established consisted of sixteen Qur’ ans, several from the last sixteenth century and commissioned by Nurbanu herself.[19] Her lasting legacy was the Atik Valide Mosque, which was completed in 1583, the same year Nurbanu died.[20] The Atik Valide Mosque was built by Sinan, one of the Ottoman Empire’s greatest architects. It would be his last work because he built it at the age of eighty. [21] Nurbanu’s mosque was the first constructed in the capital by a woman of the dynasty to have two minarets.[22]

Nurbanu died in December 1583. She was given many honours after her death. At his mother’s funeral, Murad was supposed to remain in the palace during the funeral. Instead, he attended it. He accompanied his mother’s coffin on foot, weeping, to the mosque of Mehmed the Conqueror.[23]For forty days, high-ranking statesmen and religious officials had to pay their respects to Nurbanu’s tomb.[24] Murad also broke tradition by having his mother be buried with his father. Thus, Nurbanu became the first concubine of the dynasty to be buried together with the sultan, who was her master.[25] Thus, Nurbanu was one of the great queens of history, although she is not as well known as some other great queens of her generation. However, she was as powerful as any woman in her time, and her compassion for the poor in the Ottoman empire drove her to be a philanthropist of great renown.


Peirce, Leslie P. Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. Oxford

            University Press, 1994.

_____________. Empress of the East How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the

            Ottoman Empire. Basic Books, 2017.

Kayaalp-Aktan, Pinar. The Atik Valide Mosque Complex: A Testament of Nurbanu’s Prestige,

            Power and Piety. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 200

[1]  Peirce, The Imperial Harem, p. 92

[2] Pinar, p. 40

[3] Peirce, The Imperial Haremp. 92

[4] Peirce, The Imperial Haremp. 93

[5] Peirce, The Imperial Harem, p. 92

[6] Peirce, Empress of the Eastp. 238

[7] Peirce, The Imperial Harem, p. 93

[8] Peirce, The Imperial Harem, p. 93

[9] Peirce, The Imperial Harem, p. 93

[10] Peirce, The Imperial Harem, pp. 93-94

[11] Peirce, Empress of the East, p. 312

[12] Peirce, The Imperial Haremp. 94

[13] Peirce, Empress of the East, p. 312

[14] Peirce, Empress of the Eastp. 312

[15] Peirce, Empress of the East, p. 312

[16] Peirce, Empress of the East, pp. 312-313

[17] Peirce, Empress of the East, p. 313

[18] Peirce, The Imperial Haremp. 208

[19] Peirce, The Imperial Harem, p. 208

[20] Pinar, p. 100

[21] Pinar, p. 149

[22] Peirce, The Imperial Harem, p. 189

[23] Peirce, The Imperial Harem, p. 189

[24] Peirce, The Imperial Haremp. 189

[25] Peirce, The Imperial Haremp. 189


About Lauralee Jacks 93 Articles
I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. I live in Tennessee where I taught first grade. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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