Vol. 1, No. 6 (April 15, 2008)

Sara Khatun: Azerbaijan’s first female diplomat

Sevinge Yusifzade
Professor of History
Baku State University

Azerbaijanis have always taken great pride in the fact that their country was the first nation in the East to extend the franchise to women, a step it took even before the United States did.  But they have another reason to be proud about the role of women in public life: More than 500 years ago, an Azerbaijani woman played a key role in the politics and foreign relations of her country, centuries before women did so elsewhere. 
Throughout the 15th century and later, women like the mother of Shah Ismail I, his wife, and the sisters and wives of others at court not only helped to define Azerbaijan’s foreign policies but also to implement them.  But in this group of outstanding women, a special place is occupied by Sara Khatun, the mother of the ruler of the Akkoyunlu state – Uzun Hasan. 
His government played an enormous role in the history of Azerbaijan because he united in his own lands control over an enormous territory.  It had relations with the Principality of Moscow, with Poland, the Venetian Republic, the Vatican, Ottoman Turkey, India, the Golden Horde, and many others.  
During the years of Uzun Hasan’s rule, it acquired particular authority in the international arena.  And in defining its foreign policy conception, a major role was played by Sara Khatun.  Thanks to her outstanding mind, diplomatic skill and political position, Sara Khatun was well known both in Europe and in the countries of the East as a supporter of feudalisms who struggled against divisions within the state and the elite.
After the death of Turali bek Akkoyunlu, his sons engaged in a struggle for power.  That struggle exhausted the resources of the state.  But Sara Khatun by her wisdom and authority was able to stop this fratricide in the palace and put on the throne the politically far-sighted and militarily capable leader Uzun Hasan (ruler from 1453-1478).
Over the course of a short time, Uzun Hasan was able to pacify his military-political opponents and transform the Akkoyunlu state into a powerful feudal empire.  In all actions of her son Uzun Hasan, Sara Khatun was the chief advisor and most devoted comrade in arms.  Diplomatic dispatches from many countries of Europe and the East were addressed to her.  And foreign diplomats arriving in Tebriz sought audiences with her and even conducted negotiations directly with her.
In the primary sources for this period, one can find many extremely interesting testimonials to this.
In February 1473, for example, Iosofat Barbaro, an ambassador from Venice arrived at the palace of Uzun Hasan.  He had been given the following secret assignment, the documents say: “Meet with the mother of the ruler, show to her great respect and provide her with gifts … [and thus] try to incline her to the idea of continuing the war with Turkey.”
As a diplomat, Sara Khatun not only received ambassadors, she also conducted negotiations with the heads of neighboring states and successfully defended and advanced the foreign policy interests of Azerbaijan.  And at the most difficult times for her country, she displayed courage, wisdom and the highest degree of diplomatic art.
Several petty feudal states nearby, one of which was the Greek state of Trapezund, were obstacles on the path to the expansion of Ottoman Turkey, a path that Sultan Mekhmed II had been pursuing on and off for several years.  Then, in 1461, he decided to conquer Trapezund. 
The feudal holding of Trapezund was the only exit to the Black Sea for the state of Akkoyunlu and was its ally in the struggle against Ottoman Turkey.  And consequently, by seizing Trapezund, Mekhmed II not only broadened his possession but weakened his opponents by denying Akkoyunlu access to the sea and to Europe. 
In addition, Uzun Hasan was married to the daughter of the emperor of Trapezund, Ioan IV Feodor.  Wishing to protect his area, Mekhmed II before seizing Trapezund attacked Akkoyunlu.  Uzun Hasan was not yet prepared for war with a powerful Turkey, lacking both weapons and aid from Europe.  And consequently, the Akkoyunlu state was at risk of disappearing.  
Uzun Hasan had to play for time.  And it was decided to send Sara Khatun at the head of a delegation for negotiations with Mekhmed II.
Not far from Erzindzhan in the settlement of Yassychemen, where Mekhmed II had his military camp, the negotiations took place.  Sara Khatun’s goal was to dissuade the sultan from launching a war against Akkoyunlu.  
Sara Khatun, who enjoyed great authority in the Near and Middle East, was received by Mekhmed with great respect and honor.  In the course of the talks, it was decided that the state of Akkoyunlu would remain neutral during Mekhmed II’s campaign against Trapezund, and Turkey would not go to war with Akkoyunlu.  That accord had enormous importance for Akkoyunlu.  Indeed, it was thanks to this agreement that the state of Akkoyunlu preserved its independence.
But Sara Khatun sought even more.  Not being satisfied with that achievement, she accompanied the Turkish forces as they moved toward Trapezund and in the course of the entire trip attempted to convince Mekhmed II not to attack the cities.  In such circumstances, Sara Khatun made her own demands for the treasury of the Trapezund state, pointing to the rights of her daughter in law Feodora.  In the event, the city’s treasury was divided between Akkoyunlu and Turkey.  
Later she also served as the lead negotiator when the danger of invasion by Timurids’ leader Abu Said hung over the state of Akkoyunlu.  And later still, she again conducted talks with Sultan Mekhmed II.  
Consequently, despite some gaps in the historical record, we can assert with confidence that Sara Khatun was the only woman diplomat of the East in the 15th century and the first female diplomat in the history of Azerbaijan. 

Selected Bibliography 

Махмудов, Я. М. (1979). Взаимоотношения государств Аккоюнлу и Сефевидов с Западноевропейскими странами, Баку.

Махмудов, Я. М. (1976). Путешественники в Азербайджане, Баку.

Полиевктов, М. А. (1935). Европейские путешественники XIII-XVIII вв. по Кавказу, Тифлис. 

Успенский, Ф. И. (1929). Очерки по истории Трапезундской империи, Ленинград.