Hurrem Sultan, the Cheerful Rose of Suleiman I and a Powerful Woman of the Ottoman Empire

Hurrem Sultan, the Cheerful Rose of Suleiman I and a Powerful Woman of the Ottoman Empire



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Hürrem Sultan appeared in Topkapi Palace as a slave, but in a very short time she became one the most influential women of the Ottoman Empire . The name Hürrem was given her by the Sultan Suleiman I, and means “the cheerful one”- but in the eyes of many of her rivals she was the most dangerous weapon in Constantinople’s armory.

Suleiman Meets Hürrem

From 1520-1566, the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Suleiman I, who many claim was the greatest Sultan in history. He was also known as Suleiman the Magnificent or Kanuni – The Lawgiver. During his time in power, he made an impact on the history of many countries in Europe and the Middle East.

Portrait of Suleiman I, the tenth and longest reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. (1530) By Titian .

Suleiman’s life took a radical change in 1520. In September of that year, his father Selim I passed away accidentally, and with his death, Suleiman’s carefree life in the Manisa province came to an end. He was called to the capital city to rule the empire. At the same time, he met the woman who would forever change his life.

History has remembered her as Roxolena or Roksolana, Roxalene, Roxolane, and Rossa. However, the name she was called for most of her life is Hürrem. She received this name due to her cheerful personality.

Hürrem was born as Alexandra Lisowska in the town of Rohatyń, 68 km (42.3 miles) southeast of Lwów in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland (today in Western Ukraine). In the 1520s Crimean Tatars captured her during one of their raids in this region. They took her as a slave to a major center of the slave trade in the Crimean city of Kaffa. Then she was transported to Constantinople and selected for the harem.

Hürrem’s influence on Suleiman was almost immediate - it only took a few months from the day that she met Sultan Suleiman to the moment when she became the most important consort in the harem .

Due to her beauty and intelligence she quickly came to the attention of the Sultan. At the same moment she attracted the jealousy of her rivals in the harem, including Mahidevran Sultan, mother of the heir apparent Mustafa. Historians note that these rivalries led to a few attempts to take Hürrem’s life. The most famous is Mahidevran's attack on Hürrem, which was followed by Suleiman banishing his former favorite, and her son, to the provincial capital of Manisa.

Roxelane und der Sultan ( Roxolena and the Sultan). (1780) by Anton Hickel.

The Ruthenian Witch

The bond between Hürrem and Suleiman was more than unexpected for the society of the time. Their close relationship became the first time in the history of the dynasty when the sultan focused on only one woman. Hürrem’s influence over the Sultan soon became legendary. She gave him six children: Sehzade Mehmed, Mihrimah Sultan, Sehzade Abdullah, Selim II, Sehzade Beyazit and Sehzade Cihangir.

This strengthened her position in the palace so much that she initiated a new order in the harem. Since her arrival to Topkapi Palace, she was sure to take as many lessons as she could. From her studies she learned the Ottoman language, mathematics, astronomy, geography, diplomacy, literature, and history. Apart from this, she was very interested in alchemy. During the excavations in the Edirne Palace some of her tools for preparation of perfumes were discovered.

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Due to her excellent education, she also became Suleiman’s adviser on matters of the state. Hürrem had an influence upon foreign affairs and international politics. For example, she took care of maintaining the peaceful relations between the Ottoman Empire and Polish state with a Polish-Ottoman alliance. According to Crimean historians, she also intervened to control Crimean Tatar slave-raiding.

Letter from Hürrem to Sigismond Auguste complimenting him upon his acsending to the Polish throne (1549).

In spite of her various positive aspects, for other advisers of Suleiman the position of Hürrem was too high for a woman. They started to believe that she must be a witch who put a spell on the Sultan and began to spread rumors about her. When Suleiman discovered these stories, he punished everyone who repeated the negative tales about his love.

More Than a Haseki

Haseki was the title given to the chief consort of the Ottoman Sultan. The title was created in the16th century and Hürrem Sultan was the first holder of this title. But this standing did not satisfy the ambitious and demanding woman. According to the French writer and historian Fontenelle, she decided that she had to find a way to marry Suleiman.

First, she asked to be instructed in the Muslim religion. Suleiman saw no objection and took care of her religious education. Once instructed, she told him she wished to become a Muslim. Converting her from Christian Orthodox to Islam made the Sultan so happy that he decided to free her.

After the conversion ceremony, Hurrem declared that her new religion would not allow her to have a sexual relationship with a man she was not married to. According to Ottoman historiographers her plan worked - Suleiman resisted three days, then married her.

La Sultana Rossa (c. 1550s) by Titian.

Poems to The Polish Rose

Suleiman was not only a sultan, but a poet. Many of his poems are dedicated to Hürrem after she became his wife. He signed these poems as "Muhibbi," meaning "lover" or " sweetheart." This is one example of a poem he wrote:

Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.
The most beautiful among the beautiful...
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf...
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world...
My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief...
I'll sing your praises always
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.

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A Philanthropist

Apart from her political interests, Hürrem was a great philanthropist. She engaged in several major works of public buildings. Her first works were two Koranic schools, fountains, several mosques, and a women’s hospital near the women’s slave market of Avret Pazary in Constantinople.

She also commissioned a bath, the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamam, to serve the community of worshipers in the nearby Hagia Sophia and Suleiman's mosque. This Hamam continues to function today. In 1552, she went on to establish the Hasseki Sultan Imaret in Jerusalem. This was a public soup kitchen to feed the 500 poor and the needy people twice per day.

The Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamam. Istanbul, Turkey.

The Death of a Sultan's Wife

Hürrem died on April 15, 1558 of an unknown illness. Suleiman buried her in a mausoleum which belongs to the complex of Suleiman's mosque. He joined her 8 years later - finding his final resting place in the same complex.

The türbe (mausoleum) of Hürrem Sultan in Suleiman Mosque at Fatih, Istanbul , Turkey. (CC BY SA 2.5 )

Hürrem is remembered for her social work and as the woman to whom Suleiman was faithful. She was also noted to have performed many schemes and was ready to do anything to protect her family. After Suleiman died, her son Selim ascended the throne. He ruled the Ottoman Empire until his death on December 15, 1574.

Featured Image: Rosa Solymanni uxor. (16th century). Source:

By: Natalia


Hurrem Sultan, the Cheerful Rose of Suleiman I and a Powerful Woman of the Ottoman Empire - History

Hurrem, sometimes known as Roxelana¹, was born Aleksandra or Anastasia Lisowska in Podolia Ukraine, which was then part of the Polish Kingdom. Not much is known about Hurrem's early life, however it is generally accepted that she was the daughter of an Orthodox Priest, and was carried off as a slave by Tartar raiders when she was about fifteen. She was then taken to Constantinople, where she entered the harem of Suleiman I as a servant.

Hurrem
Now, it must be said that Ottoman harems weren't the sexy den of vice that many people envision today. While the harem was a place for the sultan's many concubines, it was also a place of political intrigue. The women in the harem wielded considerable power, particularly the sultan's mother and the mother of his heir. Additionally, concubines were frequently married off to advisers and other powerful men that the sultan wished to reward or win to his side. It was in this bed of intrigue that Hurrem flourished.

It didn't take long for Hurrem to be noticed by the sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Her fiery red hair, and pale skin made her stand out instantly. She was fearless and cheerful, and soon attracted Suleiman's attention. Both Hurrem and Suleiman were great lovers of poetry, and their surviving love poetry paints the picture of an affectionate couple completely devoted to each other. Hurrem was also very educated she took full advantage of being the Sultan's concubine to learn Turkish, geography, and astronomy. She also dabbled in alchemy. It's hotly debated between historians if Hurrem was beautiful or not, but even if she looked like a troll, her personality would have attracted Suleiman. This is proved by the fact that Hurrem entered the harem in 1520, and by 1521, had born her first child to Suleiman.

Hurrem's meteoric rise through the harem ruffled more than a few feathers. As the sultan began to consult her more and more on matters of state, his advisers began to grumble, and spread rumors that Hurrem was a witch who had ensnared their sultan. Suleiman, unlike a certain contemporary, quickly executed anyone who accused Hurrem of witchcraft, but he could not entirely suppress the rumors.

Suleiman the Magnificent
Additionally, Hurrem had rivals within the harem. Mahidevran, Suleiman's former favorite and the mother of his heir, was no great lover of Hurrem. She resented Hurrem's displacing her in the sultan's favor, and feared that Hurrem's influence over the sultan would impact her son's, Mustafa, chances of succeeding Suleiman as sultan. This dislike culminated in Mahidevran calling Hurrem 'sold meat', then physically attacking her, scratching Hurrem's face, and tearing out her hair.

However, Hurrem was no dummy. When the sultan called for her she refused to come, claiming that her scratched face and torn out hair made her unworthy to be in his presence. Suleiman, not used to being told no, stormed down to his harem to find out what was going on. When Hurrem told him what had happened with Mahidevran, Suleiman sent both Mahidevran and Mustafa to the province of Manisa.

The Ottoman custom of the time was that each concubine was allowed to have only one son, and when that son came of age he and his mother would be sent out to govern a province. However, she and Suleiman broke with tradition, having six children together--five sons and a daughter. As time went on, Suleiman became monogamous, and started marrying off his other concubines. After his mother's death in 1534, Suleiman once again broke with tradition, and married Hurrem in a magnificent ceremony.

The marriage of Suleiman was a fairly big deal. It had been hundreds of years since a Sultan had married. The women that bore the Sultan's children were considered concubines, not wives. This was because upon marriage the groom gave the bride a dowry that became her property. Marrying dozens of women became astronomically expensive. Additionally, having concubines prevented one woman from becoming too powerful, and holding too much sway over the Sultan. So when Hurrem became queen, the people became nervous.


Ibrahim Pasha
Most nervous was Ibrahim Pasha, the Grand Vizier. Ibrahim had consistently supported Mahidevran and her son, which put Hurrem and her sons in danger. Hurrem wanted one of her sons to become sultan after Suleiman, and Mustafa was in the way of that. Ibrahim's continued support for Mahidevran and Mustafa, combined with his failures in the war against the Safavid peoples meant he was on thin ice with the sultan. When Ibrahim signed a document using the title of sultan, Suleiman ordered him executed, and Rustem, Hurrem and Suleiman's son in law, was installed in Ibrahim's stead.

Another person with every right to be nervous was Mustafa. He was incredibly popular with the people, and popular princes had led coups before. As he grew older Suleiman was, understandably, nervous that his son would overthrow him. Rumors of rebellion reached him, and in 1553, Suleiman had his eldest son executed.

Some people of the time, and many historians accuse Hurrem of having motivated Suleiman to execute his former friend and eldest son. They are convinced that it was her scheming that turned the sultan against his former favorites, and that she was ruthless in clearing the path for her sons to become sultan. While this may be true, there is no conclusive evidence that it is. There are very few written records from this time, and no records of conversation, or letters between Hurrem and Suleiman discussing the matter.

However, it would not have been out of character for Suleiman to have taken Hurrem's political advice. Hurrem was an intelligent woman, skilled in diplomacy and politics. While Suleiman was off at war, she kept him appraised of the goings on back in Constantinople. She had a vast network of spies, and Suleiman relied on her advice when dealing with internal and international affairs.

Haseki Hurrem Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
There is significant evidence of Hurrem having played a role in the diplomacy of the Ottoman empire. There are letters between her and the Polish king Sigismund II in which Hurrem congratulates Sigismund on his ascension to the throne, and proposes a diplomatic relationship. In addition to that, Hurrem strengthened ties between the Ottomans and her homeland by helping to repatriate Polish slaves, and putting restrictions on the Tartar-Polish slave trade.

Hurrem also helped with the internal affairs of the Ottoman empire. She did a great deal of charity work--building hospitals, schools, and soup kitchens. She instituted one of the first schools for women, and was known for improving living conditions all across the empire. She was a great builder, and she had a magnificent mosque built in Constantinople. She was one of the few women to have her name inscribed on a building while her husband was still alive.

In 1558 Hurrem fell ill, and died. Suleiman grieved for his wife, and buried her in the mosque he had built, then commissioned a mosque, school, and women's market in her name. When Suleiman died in 1566, he was succeeded by their son, Selim II.

Because of her position as queen Hurrem was able to do a lot of good for the Ottoman Empire. Though historians rarely give her the credit, it is certain that Suleiman would not have achieved the title of 'the Magnificent' without her. The nearly fifty years of Suleiman's reign were some of the best in the Ottoman Empire, and Hurrem undoubtedly played a big part of that.

These rumors have led many historians to paint Hurrem as a scheming villainess, possessed with self interest, and willing to murder anyone who stood in her way. While Hurrem was certainly no innocent, many of these accusations are based on hearsay. There are not many Ottoman documents from this time period, and most historians rely on reports written by European ambassadors, many of whom had never met Hurrem, and relied on rumors.


¹'Roxelana' was the name given to Hurrem by European ambassadors. It is general supposed to mean something along the lines of 'Russian'


The Polish woman in the Ottoman court: the amazing story of the Pole who married the sultan

Hurram Sultan, who was born as Aleksandra Lisowska in Poland. Public domain

Married to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, a 16th-century ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Hurram Sultan, also known as Roxelana, was one of the most powerful women in the world. But before she rose to prominence from the sultan’s harem she was born as Aleksandra Lisowska in Poland, far from Ottoman lands.

Lisowska was born in 1505 in the town of Rohatyn, near Lviv, then a part of the Polish Kingdom. Her father was most probably a Ruthenian Orthodox priest. Little Aleksandra was captured during a Tatar ride and sold to the Ottoman Empire.

The husband: Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Public domain

Known for her beauty, the Slavic girl received a new name, Hurrem, the cheerful one, converted to Islam, and entered the imperial harem as a slave before the year 1520 and Suleiman’s ascension to the throne.

The smart, charming, and alluring woman quickly rose through the ranks – she gained her freedom and in 1531 officially married the sultan. A ruler’s marriage to a former slave was something unheard of at the time, and Lisowska went on to have six of his children, including his successor Selim II.

Hurrem converted to Islam, and entered the imperial harem as a slave before the year 1520 and Suleiman’s ascension to the throne. Public domain

She also used her love to exert influence over matters of state. As the sultan’s advisor and confidante, she was the first to receive the title ‘Haseki Sultan’ – the chief consort. Hurrem also managed to ensure that it was her son, and not one from the other wives or concubines, who inherited the throne.

Another break from tradition was allowing Hurrem to stay at court with her husband for the rest of her life. Previous wives of the sultans would be sent away with imperial heirs to some remote locations unless they were chosen to succeed the throne.

The Haseki Hurrem Sultan Hamam bathhouse, built at her request. Public domain

The powerful Hurrem Sultan took an active role in internal politics and international relations, not just connected to the fate of her children. Often described as manipulative and power-hungry (she was accused of bewitching Suleiman), Hurrem was also involved in several charity initiatives.

Hurrem was also responsible for the construction of a mosque, two Koranic schools, and the Haseki Sultan Complex. Public domain

Among Hurrem’s legacy is the still functional bathhouse Haseki Hurrem Sultan Hamam. Constructed by Mimar Sinan at her request on the site of the ancient public baths Zeuxippus, it served worshippers in their traditional ablutions. It is worth noting, that a religious structure commissioned by a woman was a rarity.

Hurrem didn’t stop there, she was also responsible for the construction of a mosque, two Koranic schools, and the Haseki Sultan Complex, which contained a temple, a school, a soup kitchen for the poor and a hospital.

Actress Meryem Uzerli playing Hurrem Sultan with Halit Ergenç playing Suleiman in ‘The Magnificent Century’. Meryem Uzerli-Xourem Soultan/Facebook

Another object proving her importance is a letter dating back to 1549. Roxelana wrote to Polish King Sigismund II Augustus, in which she offers her condolences to Sigismund on the death of his father Sigismund I the Old.

Roxelana did not live to see her greatest ambition, the ascension of her son to the throne, become reality. She died on April 15th, 1558 – eight years before her husband’s death, and her son Selim becoming the ruler of the Ottoman Empire. She was buried in a mausoleum in the courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque.

Her last resting place. Bernard Gagnon/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

But her legacy and her fame live on. She became known to a worldwide audience via the popular by the Turkish TV series ‘The Magnificent Century’, which was seen by over 200 million viewers in 56 countries.


Suleyman The Magnificent & Hurrem Sultan

Suleyman was the only son of Sultan Selim I the Resolute responsible for increasing the Ottoman Empire in size by 70 per cent during his reign (1512-1520) by conquering the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and the Middle Eastern heartlands. Selim I became the guardian of the pilgrimage routes to Mecca and Medina and is generally remembered as the first legitimate Ottoman Caliph. Sixteenth-century Italian historian Paolo Giovio who compiled a book on Turkish history wrote it was inconceivable to expect that “the dauntless lion would leave his throne to mansuetto angelo (a timid lamb).”

Another European historian of the Ottoman rulers called Selim and Suleiman: “Patris fortis filius fortior,” (a courageous father of an even more courageous son).

In September 1520, twenty-six years old Suleyman’s carefree life as governor in the Manisa province came suddenly to an end when he was called back to Constantinople after the accidental death of the Sultan he succeeded his father and subsequently established the classical Ottoman state and society he made important new conquests in the East and West, including Belgrade, Rhodes and much of Hungary all the way up to Vienna he overhauled the legal system he also patronised artists and writers at his court so the arts and culture scene flourished. Thus, with his reign began the golden age of Ottoman history.

Sixteenth century Venetian chronicler, Marino Sanuto in Tome XXXV of his historical chronicles quoted a report of the Venetian ambassador: “His not being prone, in contrast to his father and many other Sultans, to pederasty (homosexuality) made his majestic dignity and nobility of character shine even brighter.” Rather in his case, it turned out to be the love of a fair Ukrainian slave girl that was to enslave this Sultan for life.

Hafsa Valide Sultan Sultan Selim I the Resolute Expansion of Ottoman Empire by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566) Ottoman dignitaries on horseback during a march Battle Of Mohács Depiction

Intelligent, benevolent and erudite but also a sound military tactician, Suleyman, in contrast to his father who expanded his Empire to include other Muslim realms, began his rule with campaigns against the Christian kingdoms in Central Europe and the Mediterranean, starting with Belgrade in 1521 that led to a large-scale advance north of the Danube. The Island of Rhodes ruled by the Knights of St. John was conquered in 1522. In 1526, Suleyman defeated the combined Hungarian-Croatian-Czech forces and took over Hungary. Hungarian King Louis II drowned ignominiously in a bog during the battle. A Turkish historian wrote at the time that “there has never been a battle like this since ancient times.” Turkish soldiers piled 2,000 heads of their enemies (eight heads belonging to bishops) in a heap close to the Sultan’s tent as a tribute to the victor. Suleyman drove the Habsburgs from all of Hungary and besieged Vienna in 1529, but could not sustain the siege. Facing problems with supply, transport, and military organization, the Sultan wisely realized he had reached the limit of possible Ottoman expansion in the West.

Though Ukraine was never conquered by the Ottomans, it became a steady source of white slaves for the Ottoman Empire. Back then just as now, Ukrainian women were highly prized for their fair skin and delicate bone structure. Muslims, it was argued, were barred by the Quran for capturing fellow Muslims as slaves, but non Muslims were fair game. The Crimean Tartars flourished in this lucrative trade of supplying white Christian slaves. Mykhailo Lytvyn, a Ukrainian diplomat in the service of the Lithuanian government, wrote in his memoirs (1548–1551) that the krymchaky (Crimean Tartars) engaged only in two trades: cattle-breeding and capturing Ukrainians to be sold to the Ottomans as slaves. “The ships that often come to their ports from across the sea, bring weapons, clothes and horses, which are exchanged for slaves who are loaded onto these ships. And all the Ottoman bazaars are full of these slaves who are sold and bought to be used in the households, to be resold, to be given as presents….There was one Jew, amazed at the great numbers of these slaves to be seen at the slave markets who asked whether there were any people left in the land where these slaves are brought from.”

Holy Roman Empire’s Charles V Versus Ottoman Empire’s Suleyman I

From among the countless virgins captured during military raids and auctioned at the slave markets, the rare gem of a girl was handpicked for the Sultan’s harem. One such was the adolescent daughter of a Ruthnian (Russian) Orthodox priest. According to the Polish poet Samuel Twardowski who visited Turkey in the sixteenth century, Roxolana, the girl from Roxolania or Ruthenia, was born in the town of Rohatyn, 68 km southeast of Lviv, a major city of the Ruthenian Voivodeship in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland (today in western Ukraine). Reportedly named either Aleksandra or Anastasia Lisowska, she was captured by Crimean Tatars during a regular raid who transported her to the Crimean city of Kaffa, a major centre of the slave trade. Then the little slave girl was shipped to Constantinople, where she was selected by Valide Sultan Hasfa Sultan as a gift for her son Süleyman and taken to his harem in the old palace in Beyazit, 2 kilometers away from Topkapi.

Imperial Room Stained glass window

The Sultan’s harem was strictly cloistered, guarded by eunuchs and ruled by harem hierarchy and full to the brim with nubile beauties that had “dark burning eyes like black olives, big sensuous lips, and ample, zaftig, curvaceous and voluptuous figures.” The newly acquired slave girls were first taken to the hamam where they were inspected for diseases and flaws, and then deloused, scrubbed, polished, massaged, oiled and clothed. Then, their extensive grooming and training process started. Looks were not enough to ensure success at the harem as there were countless virginal beauties on display. Under the supervision of the kagia-kadin, the top female attendant in charge of the harem, the virgins were trained in housekeeping, gardening, sewing, embroidering, dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, manipulating puppets, reciting fairy tales they were also taught the basics of Islam, literature and philosophy last but not least, they were given pointers on the essential the art of erotic love. The trainees had to pass through several stages in mastering these skills before they could take part in the final selection: the adjemi (novice), jariye, shagird, gedikli and usta. At this final stage, the Sultan’s mother, the Valide Sultan would carefully pick only the best to offer up to her son at the Topkapi Palace.

Unlike the West where royals married into other royal houses to make strategic alliances, Ottoman Sultans used slaves for procreation so that there would not be any other family to gain prominence or aspire for power in the empire. Moreover, the established imperial harem principle of “one concubine mother — one son” was designed to prevent both the mother’s undue influence over the Sultan and the feuds of the blood brothers for the throne. Once the Sultan’s son reached maturity at 16-17, he was sent to a far off province as governor with his mother and could only return on his ascension to the throne after the death of his father. There was no formally designated heir. Once the new Sultan’s ceremony of girding the sword had taken place, his half brothers were killed. This seemingly cold system ensured the longevity and stability of the Ottoman realm.

Concubines from the imperial harem not chosen for the Sultan were given as gifts to his favourites or high ranking government officials. Some got married to these men and became the head of their own household. Those that had been “promoted” to the imperial harem were given separate rooms and servants. The haseki lucky enough to bear the Sultan sons were clothed expensively in silks, brocades and furs, allowed to publicly kiss the Sultan’s as a mark of high status and received the title bash-kadin. The girls in the harem were ranked as Gözde (the Favourite), Ikbal (the Fortunate), Kad?n (the Woman/Wife) and Valide Sultan (Queen mother). As can be expected, there was intense rivalry between the women of the harem. Additionally, there were strict rules to be followed. For example, if a harem wife was walking from one part of the seraglio to another, heard the click of the Sultan’s silver-studded shoes, she would have to quickly get out of the way and hide as unsanctioned meetings with the Sultan were considered a gross violation of the harem rules and offense to the Sultan. Offenses or violations of the harem hierarchy were punished severely, even by death.

Portrait of Hurrem Sultan titled Rossa Solymanni Vxor, c. 18th century (Topkapi Palace Museum)

Modern reproductions of Hurrem Sultan’s jewellery Roxolena & the Sultan (1780) by Anton Hickel

After being educated and trained according to palace etiquette, Roxolana was renamed Hürrem, meaning the cheerful or joyful one in Middle Persian, due to her smiling face and good-humored personality. Süleyman met fifteen year old Hürrem the same year that he succeeded to the throne and hit it off with her nearly immediately. She was pretty, but not beautiful and on the short side. “Giovane ma non bella” (young but not beautiful) , “graceful and short of stature,” a Venetian ambassador was told in 1526.

Since her arrival, she had voraciously gathered as much knowledge as she could in Ottoman language, mathematics, astronomy, geography, diplomacy, literature, and history. She was even interested in alchemy. During recent excavations in the Edirne Palace, some of her tools for the preparation of perfumes were discovered. Additionally, the Ottoman Empire’s economy was largely based on textile production and trade of carpets, silks and cottons mainly with Europe to which women confined to their homes contributed by spinning cloth and embroidering. The finest, most intricate embroidery in the empire came from the imperial harem and other harems of high officials. Hurrem’s embroideries, or partly done under her supervision, that was gifted in 1547 to Tahmasp I, the Shah of Iran, and in 1549 to King Sigismund II Augustus have survived to this day and can be viewed at the Topkapi Palace.

La Sultana Rossa (c. 1550s) by Titian Hurrem Sultan holding court in the harem Letter from Hürrem to Sigismond Auguste complimenting
him upon his acsension to the Polish throne (1549)

The clever girl with the strong survival instinct transformed herself into a fit companion for the Sultan. It only took a few months from the day that she first met Sultan Suleyman to the moment when she became the most important consort in the harem. This strengthened her position in the Palace so much that she initiated a new order in the harem.

The next year she gave birth to their first son, Sehzade Mehmed. As per tradition, the harem girls who became mothers to Shehzade (a sultan’s son) were given the title haseki (mother of a prince), meaning has gelin (the royal bride). Hürrem too was now called Hürrem Haseki. Loath to part from her, Hürrem was exempted from the rule of one haseki one son and was allowed to give birth to more than one son. Soon after their only daughter Mihrimah Sultan, Sehzade Abdullah, Sultan Selim II and Sehzade Bayezid followed in quick succession. Their last child Sehzade Cihangir was born later and had a hunchback. Mehmed became Süleyman’s favourite child but he died at a young age after contracting an infectious disease. In his memory, Süleyman built the Sehzade Mosque in Istanbul.

One day Suleiman’s jealous former favourite, Mahidevran, also called Gülbahar (Rose of Spring) got into a fight with her chief rival Hürrem and beat her badly. To punish her, Suleiman banished Mahidevran to the provincial capital of Manisa with their son and the heir apparent, Mustafa. Officially, it was not called and exile but was portrayed as the traditional training of heir apparent, Sancak Beyli?i. After this, Hürrem became Suleiman’s unrivalled favourite haseki.

Hurrem was hardly the odd Slav out at court. Due to the expansion, an ever increasing number of Slavs had become integrated into Ottoman life not just as part of the Janissaries (armed forces) and harems but even the ruling elite. Serbian language could be heard spoken from bazaars to the Sultan’s court and was used in official documents in addition to Turkish. The Polish traveler Strijkowskij wrote that when he was in Istanbul he heard with his own ears kobzari (bards) singing songs in Serbian in the streets and in the taverns about victories of valiant Muslims over the Christians.

Gulbahar Sehzade Mustafa, her son with Suleyman and the heir apparent who was later assassinated

Giovio wrote: “At the court (of Suleyman The Magnificent) several languages are spoken. Turkish is the language of the ruler Arabic is the language of the Muslim Law, Koran Slavic (Sclavonica) is mostly used by the Janissaries, and Greek is the language of the populace of the capital and other cities of Greece.”

Bassano, an Italian visitor to Suleyman’s court, claimed that “he (the Sultan) respected and highly valued his wife (Roxolana) and understood her native language to some extent.” One of the Sultan’s viziers was Rustem Pasha, a Croat.

Oleksiy Pyvovarenko, head of the Lviv Club of Socionics in his article about the psychological portrait of the couple Suleyman-Roxolana, wrote that they were “duals,” two persons who ideally matched each other in character. The Sultan became faithful to Hurrem whose main asset was her mind. She was able both to entertain the Sultan with clever and witty talk and give good and sound advice. Due to her excellent education, she also became Suleiman’s chief adviser on matters of state and had a considerable influence upon foreign affairs and international politics. For example, she took care of maintaining the peaceful relations between the Ottoman Empire and Polish state with a Polish-Ottoman alliance. Two of her letters to King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland have been preserved and survive to this day. According to Crimean historians, she also intervened to control Crimean Tatar slave-raiding.

Suleyman & Hurrem’s
daughter Mihrimah Sultan Their Croat born son in law, Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha

During their 200 year long dynasty, on the rare occasion the Sultan married, his legal wife would belong to a foreign royal house or a distinguished Ottoman family. Suleiman was about to break with that tradition, carefully manipulated by Hurrem who did not outright ask him to marry her. In 1533, she confessed to him her growing love for Islam and how badly she wanted to convert to the true faith. He was thrilled and readily consented. After converting to Islam, Hurrem did not allow the Sultan to come to her bed, citing that now it was against the teachings of the Quran. After three days of being kept at a distance, the Sultan capitulated and married his concubine in a magnificent formal ceremony. She received the title Haseki Sultan (Empress) becoming the first consort to hold this title. An Ottoman Sultan had married a haseki for the first time in history. The title of Haseki Sultan was used for the next century and reflected the great power of imperial consorts (most of them former slaves) in the Ottoman court, elevating their status higher than Ottoman princesses. In this case, Süleyman not only broke the old custom, but created a new tradition. With Hurrem’s new title came a stipend of 2,000 aspers a day, making her one of the highest paid hasekis. Sultan started to be viewed by his people as being dominated and controlled by his foreign wife.

A fawning love letter penned
by Hurrem for her Sultan:
After I put my head on the ground and kiss the soil that your blessed feet step upon, my nation’s sun and wealth my sultan, if you ask about me, your servant who has caught fire from the zeal of missing you, I am like the one whose liver (in this case, meaning heart) has been broiled whose chest has been ruined whose eyes are filled with tears, who cannot distinguish anymore between night and day who has fallen into the sea of yearning desperate, mad with your love in a worse situation than Ferhat and Majnun, this passionate love of yours, your slave, is burning because I have been separated from you. Like a nightingale, whose sighs and cries for help do not cease, I am in such a state due to being away from you. I would pray to Allah to not afflict this pain even upon your enemies. My dearest sultan! As it has been one-and-a-half months since I last heard from you, Allah knows that I have been crying night and day waiting for you to come back home. While I was crying without knowing what to do, the one and only Allah allowed me to receive good news from you. Once I heard the news, Allah knows, I came to life once more since I had died while waiting for you. My dearest sultan! If you ask about Istanbul, the city still suffers from the plague however, it is not like the previous one. God willing, it will go away as soon as you return to the city. Our ancestors said that the plague goes away once the trees shed their leaves in autumn. My dearest Sultan! I am begging Allah for you to send me your blessed letters. Believe me when I say this: if I cannot hear a word from you for more than two weeks, the world collapses. There will be rumors about your well-being around the city. Please do not think that I want to hear from you just for my own sake.”

After becoming the legal wife of the Sultan, Hurrem Sultan was exempted from harem rules. She became the first woman to remain in the Sultan’s court for the duration of her life. In the Ottoman imperial family tradition, a sultan’s consort only remained in the harem until her son the Sehzade came of age and following the practice of Sanjak Beyligi, both mother and son would leave for a faraway province. The Sultan kept Hürrem close to him at Topkapi Palace, even after three of their sons were sent off.

“The current wife of the Turkish Sultan who loves her dearly is a woman who was captured somewhere in our lands,” wrote Mykhailo Lytvyn, ambassador of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to the Crimean Khanate.

The complex of Haseki Hurrem Kulliyesi, the first in the Ottoman Empire named after
a woman, designed by Mimar Sinan Aga (1539), also included darussifah (hospital),
imaret (soup kitchen), mosque and hamam The Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamam

The Venetian ambassador, Navagero, also reported in 1533, “There has never been a woman in the Ottoman palace that had more power than she.”

When Hafsa Valide, Süleyman’s mother and the daughter of the Khan of Crimea died, Hürrem became the sole female power in the Topkapi Palace.

Traditionally, to avoid rebellions and civil unrest, it was the prevailing Ottoman custom called kardes katliami that when a new Sultan gained the throne, all of his brothers were killed in order to ensure the stability of the empire. This is why one haseki was only allowed to bear one son. Mahidevran’s son Mustafa was the eldest of the Sultan’s sons and preceded Hürrem’s children in the order of succession. To avoid the eventual execution of her sons, Hürrem used her considerable influence on the Sultan to eliminate those in power, like Süleyman’s Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha who supported Sehrezade Mustafa’s accession to the throne she flexed her muscle to push for his 1936 execution after he had made some tactical blunders. Later, 1544 onwards, the post of Grand Vizier was held by Suleyman and Hurrem’s wily Croatian born son in law Rustem Pasha who was in cahoots with his mother in law.

Mausoleum of Sultan Suleyman in the Süleymaniye Complex

Iznik tiles decorating Hurrem’s tomb Inside Hurrem Sultan’s mausoleum Selim II Selim The Sot

When the Sultan left for military campaigns through which he annexed Persia, Mesopotamia, Central Asia, Yemen and Abyssinia (in total he spent 10 years out of 46 year reign away from court on military campaigns) Hurrem Sultan was left in charge by him to oversee palace order, head state affairs, deal with foreign emissaries and even be his eyes and ears gathering intelligence for him. She apprised the Sultan of the latest news through her constant stream of neat, grammatical letters, interspersed with sentimental poems. One such read: “My lord, Your absence has kindled a fire in me that cannot be put out. Take pity of my suffering soul and write a letter to me as soon as You can so that I could find at least some consolation in it. My lord, I hope that when You read these words, Your wish to write to us will be fortified and You will express all Your longing to see us again. When I read Your letter, Your son Mehmed and Your daughter Mihrimah were close by my side and tears were rolling down their to the Sultan.”

The Sultan replied:“At last we shall unite in souls, in thoughts, in imagination, in will, in heart, in everything that I have left of mine in you, and have taken of you with me, o my only love!”

In the public realm, Suleyman won the title of Muhtesem (The Magnificent) for his military exploits and political success. He was also referred to as Suleyman Kanuni (the Lawgiver) as he had all the archaic laws of the empire updated and reorganized and was compared to the Biblical King Solomon because of “his wisdom and the splendour of his court.” In addition, Suleyman became known as “the creative conquerer” who wielded a pen as well as a sword. His reign became known as the Ottoman Golden Age. Culture and the arts flourished. The architect Sinan, the poet, thinker and writer, Fuzuli, the mathematician, painter and cartographer, Matrakci Nasuh, and the innovative illuminator Karamemi all lived and worked under his patronage.

The book of Suleyman’s poems Muhibbi Divani written in Talik inscription
by the calligrapher Mehmed el-Serif and illuminated by Karamemi

When Hurrem was fifty and well past her prime, the Venetian ambassador Navagero wrote: “His Majesty the Sultan loves Roxolana so much that never has in the Ottoman dynasty been a woman who would enjoy a greater respect. They say that she has a very nice and modest appearance, and that she knows the nature of the great ruler very well.” Though the Europeans were very impressed by the slave girl turned Empress because she favoured them however, the Turks felt otherwise about Hurrem.

Handsome and brave Sehzade Mustafa had grown extremely popular amongst the common people due to the generosity he lavished upon them and amongst the soldiers that he led valiantly in many successful campaigns. He reminded the people of his grandfather Selim I and was generally expected to succeed Süleyman even though there was no formal succession system in the Ottoman Empire. As Süleyman ruled for 46 years, the younger generation wanted Sehzade Mustafa to take the throne instead of his elderly father, but Hurrem knew this meant the death of her sons.

In 1533, during Suleiman’s Persian campaign, the Sultan halted his army in Eregli on the Black Sea where his Grand Vizier and son in law/husband to his daughter Mihrimah, Rüstem Pasha invited Mustafa to join his father’s army. Duplicitously, Rustem convinced Suleyman that Mustafa was coming to kill him. Not realizing he was being double crossed, Mustafa assembled his army to join his father’s. Suleyman thought he was revolting and ordered the execution of his son. When Mustafa entered his father’s tent to meet with him, Suleyman’s guards attacked the Sehrzade and after a long struggle strangled him using a bow-string.

Angered at their warrior leader’s senseless murder, Mustafa’s Janissaries and Anatolian soldiers railed against Suleiman’s peremptory decision. Suleiman dismissed Rüstem from his position as Grand Vizier and sent him back to the capital, but even there the people blamed Hürrem, Rüstem and Mihrimah for their cunning plot and the Sultan for being duped by them. That year—1553, Constantinople was filled with tension and fear. Topkapi Palace was attacked by thousands of angry protestors crying out against the foreign “witch.” To appease them, Suleiman ordered that Mustafa be given a state funeral with a full week of lying in state at Hagia Sophia for the people to pay their respects. Mustafa was laid to rest in a large mausoleum in Bursa. After the death of her son, Gulbahar lost her high status and moved to Bursa. It is said that Cihangir, Hürrem’s youngest hunchback son died of grief a few months after the news of his half-brother’s horrific murder that lay at his mother’s door.

My resident of solitude, my everything, my beloved,
my shining moon
My friend, my privacy, my everything, my shah of beautiful, my sultan
My life, my existence, my lifetime, my wine of youngness, my heaven
My spring, my joy, my day, my beloved, my laughing rose.
My plant, my sugar, my treasure, my delicate in world
My saint, my Joseph, my everything, my Khan of my
heart´s Egypt.
My Istanbul, My Karaman,
my land of Rum
My Bedehsan, my Kipchak,
my Bagdad, my Horosan
My long-haired, my bow like eyebrow, my eye full of discord,
my patient
My blood is on your hands if I die, mercy o my non-Muslim
I am a flatterer near your door,
I always praise you
Heart is full of sorrow, eye is full of tears, I am Muhibbi and I am happy.

Mustafa’s execution had caused great unrest in Anatolia, especially in Amasya, Manisa and Konya where he been a just governor. The people remembered him as Sultan Mustafa, even though his life had been cut short before his ascension to the throne, and his legend grew to become a part of Anatolian Turkish literature. The poet Taslicali Yahya composed a haunting elegy for Mustafa that read:

“The slander and the secret grudge of the liars shed tears from our eyes ignited the fire of separation

He never murdered anybody, but his life was drowned in the flood of calamity, his comrades were disbanded

I wish I had never seen this event. What a shame: my eyes didn’t approve this treatment to him”

Rustem Pasha strove to get Yahya executed as punishment. The Sultan prohibited his execution but instead deprived him of his offices and banished the poet to the Balkans. In 1574-75, while in Bosnia, Yahya met Mustafa Âlî, a well known Ottoman historian and bureaucrat who referred to him as “a poet too talented to be supported by jealous politicians and subsequently condemned to exile in the border provinces.”

Both Hurrem and her son in law the Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha made a deadly team successful in cut throat court politics and intrigues. They were the outsiders not only surviving, but flourishing at the Ottoman court. Suleyman himself lived to regret both the executions that of his Grand Vizier and of his son and heir. European historians argue that Mustafa did not deserve the throne. Although he was courageous, he lacked two important qualities for a ruler, patience and cautiousness. After Mustafa’s death Selim, his son from Hurrem, became the heir apparent. Though obedient to his father, he was unpopular for being cruel and an alcoholic. Süleyman and Hürrem did not hesitate to execute their own son Sehzade Beyazid and grandsons in 1561 when they revolted over the issue of succession, such was their tenacious grip on power and control.

Given the grisly backdrop of the bloodshed, in 1554, Dominico Trevisano wrote about the Sultan and Hurrem’s continued love affair: “His Majesty the Sultan loves her (Roxolana) so much that, as they say, he has refused to be with any other woman but her none of his predecessors had ever done that and such a thing is unheard of among the Turks who have a custom of sleeping with many wives.”

Because of her inordinate amount of power and influence from which even Suleiman’s own children from other women were not safe, her meteoric and unprecedented rise and her unassailable position for forty years, Hurrem Sultan was widely believed to be a witch who had put a hypnotic spell on the Sultan using voodoo incantations and potions. At the time, this was not a farfetched theory. Only a century later, Louis IV’s mistress Madame de Montespan would be disgraced and banished for visiting the witch La Voisin to perform rituals by killing babies to make love potions used on the French King. Similarly, the Austrian ambassador Busbek wrote in 1554 that he was told of women in the capital who supplied Hurrem Sultan with bones from the skulls of hyenas which were believed to be a very strong aphrodisiac. After investigating the claims, he wrote, “But none of them agreed to sell these bones to me saying they were meant exclusively for Hurrem Sultan who, they said, made the Sultan continuously attached to her by making love potions and other magic means.” It was a wide-spread popular belief that Suleyman was so obedient to his wife and putty in her hands because of the magic spell that she put on him. She, people said, was behind the Sultan’s decisions to execute Ibrahim, his closest friend and vizier, and Mustafa, his first-born son and heir to the throne. Her children had directly benefitted from these heinous crimes.

One day, Hürrem became suddenly very ill and perhaps deciding to atone for her sins, curry favour with Allah and win people’s approbation, she dedicated herself to charitable works. Inspired by the Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s consort Zubaida, she commissioned many public works including two domed mosques built in Istanbul’s Haseki neighborhood along with fountains and madrasahs, a poorhouse and the Haseki Hospital for women near the women’s slave market of Avret Pazary that is remarkably still functional. She also commissioned a bath, the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamam, to serve the community of worshipers in the nearby Hagia Sophia and Suleyman’s mosque. This Hamam also continues to function today. In 1552, she went on to establish the Hasseki Sultan Imaret in Jerusalem a public soup kitchen to feed 500 needy twice a day. Ironically, the money to build the mosques had come from the customary tithes that the Christian pilgrims had to pay for visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem. Suleyman imposed fees on the use of mosques as well, when the need for extra money arose usually to fund a military campaign.

Hürrem died in 1558 and was buried in a purpose built domed mausoleum türbe built by Mimar Sinan Aga the Grand Architect and decorated with exquisite Iznik tiles depicting the Garden of Paradise in memory of her joyful nature in the courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque. It is said that Suleyman was so sad that he did not regain happiness for the rest of his life and pined away for his wife. Eight years later in 1566 the aged Sultan too died while besieging the fortress of Szigetvar in Hungary and was laid to rest in a somber mausoleum adjacent to that of his beloved.

Their remaining son ascended the throne as Selim II and ruled the Ottoman Empire until his death on December 15, 1574. One of his first acts was to save Mahidevran from penury and put her on a lavish salary. Despite all of Hurrem’s machinations, her son did not make a good ruler, in fact he became the first sultan who took no interest in military matters. Instead he lived a debauched life steeped in alcohol and orgies, earning him the sobriquet Selim The Sot (the drunkard). He left all state matters in the hands of his Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokollu, a Bosnian native.

Hurrem Sultan, the slave girl who became “The Wife of the Sultan of the World” caught European imagination and inspired many paintings, musical works (including Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 63), an opera by Denys Sichynsky, a ballet, plays, and several novels mainly in Ukrainian, but also in English, French, and German. In 2007, the Muslims in Mariupol, a port city in Ukraine, opened a mosque to honor Roxelana. In the vastly successful Turkish TV series Muhtesem Yüzyil (Mera Sultan), Hürrem Sultan is played by Turkish actress Meryem Uzerli.

Suleyman’s faithful love and ardor for Hürrem is best illustrated by the love poems he sent to her when he was away on campaigns. The book of Suleyman’s poems Muhibbi Divani written in Talik inscription by the calligrapher Mehmed el-Serif and illuminated with beautiful and evocative illustrations by Karamemi is a testament to his love for her. Suleyman’s love poems to his wife were signed Muhibbi (lover or sweetheart) and include the following:

Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.

My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.

The most beautiful among the beautiful…

My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf…

My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world…

My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia

My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan

My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief…

I’ll sing your praises always

I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.

And so the powerful Sultan Suleyman The Magnificent broke with the old Ottoman tradition and created a new one of being monogamous till the end of his days to a slave girl that he willingly made his legal wife and consort.


Hurrem Sultan – Suleiman’s true love

Roxelana was an unlikely candidate to have made a mark in history. She was a young girl who was captured by slave traders and became a concubine in Suleiman’s harem. However, Roxelana overcame great odds and became Suleiman’s wife. She would bear the Sultan five sons – one of whom would become the next Sultan – and a daughter. Roxelana was also a great builder and philanthropist. She would be the only royal woman to inscribe her name in structures while her husband was alive.

No one knows Roxelana origins or her real name. Roxelana sprang from Western sources meaning “The Russian”. [1] She is more commonly known as Hurrem Sultan, meaning “The Laughing One”. [2] One source claims her name was Aleksandra Lisowska and was born probably around 1504 in Rogatin. [3] The source also claimed that she was the daughter of a Ruthenian priest. [4] What is known is that she was purchased by Suleiman’s grand vizier and best friend, Ibrahim Pasha and was, in turn, a gift for the Sultan. [5] Roxelana made the best of her situation. She was a woman of great beauty who stood out from the crowd because of her flaming red hair. [6] Roxelana was also smart and had a vibrant personality. [7] It was not long until she gave birth to a son named Mehmed. [8] Roxelana quickly became Suleiman’s favourite. Suleiman broke the rule of only abandoning a concubine after she has a son because Roxelana bore a daughter and four more children. [9] One of the reasons why Roxelana was favoured by the Sultan was because they both had a love for poetry. [10] Suleiman would, later on, pen the famous poem for his own favourite:

“Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.

My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.

The most beautiful among the beautiful…

My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf…

My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world…

My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia

My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan

My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief…

I’ll sing your praises always

I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.” [11]

The death of the queen mother, Hafa, prompted the marriage between Suleiman and Roxelana. [12] This is because Suleiman did not want to jeopardise his mother’s position by having a wife. This would be seen as offensive to his mother because she had worked hard to obtain her rank in the Ottoman empire. [13] Roxelana, as Suleiman’s wife, was now the most powerful woman in the Ottoman empire. She left the Harem palace and moved into the Sultan’s quarters at Topkapi Palace. [14] This gave her the opportunity to be involved in both court and state matters. [15] When Roxelana became his wife, Suleiman freed all his concubines and married some of them to his high-ranking officials. [16]

However, Roxelana’s elevation as queen created great hostility between her and Mahidevran, Suleiman’s concubine and mother of his eldest son, Mustafa. Suleiman made him a governor of Manisa, a province far from Suleiman’s capital of Istanbul, and his mother went with him. This was seen by many as Roxelana’s influence to get her rivals out of the way. However, the reality was that it was an honour for Mustafa, for he would have his own household and Mahidevran was most likely delighted to be in charge of her son’s female court. [17]

Rumours also spread that Roxelana had Suleiman’s grand vizier Ibrahim executed because he favoured Mustafa and Mahidevran rather than Roxelana and her sons. However, while Roxelana may not have liked Ibrahim, she may not have influenced Suleiman in executing him. [18] Ibrahim’s bad judgement on the long war against the Safavids may have lost Suleiman’s favour. [19] Once Ibrahim fell out of favour, he was dispensable. Suleiman executed him because he had no use for him. [20] Roxelana did support her son-in-law, Rustem, to become Ibrahim’s successor as grand vizier. [21]

Suleiman eventually killed his oldest son, Mustafa. Many rumours claimed that it was to satisfy Roxelana’s wishes by making one of her sons the next Sultan. [22] Again, while Mustafa must have been a thorn in Roxelana’s side, it was most likely Suleiman who wanted his son dead. Mustafa was popular among the people. His popularity was what killed him because Suleiman may have thought that his own position was threatened in case people plotted a rebellion. [23] Still, Mustafa’s death paved the way for Roxelana’s own sons to take the throne. The most likely candidates of Roxelana’s sons were Selim and Bayezid. Mehmed, the oldest son, died in 1543. [24]

As queen, Roxelana gave generous endowments to the poor. She built mosques, religious schools, bathhouses, and resting places for pilgrims travelling to Mecca. [25] She also commissioned Mimar Sinan, one of the greatest architects of the Ottoman empire, to construct Suleiman’s mosque. [26] However, her most famous charitable work was the Great Waqf of Jerusalem, which was completed in 1541. This was a great soup kitchen that fed the poor and the needy. [27] Roxelana died in 1558. She did not live to see her son, Bayezid’s execution and her other son, Selim’s ascension to the throne. [28]

Roxelana remains one of the history most controversial figures of the Ottoman Empire. Many claim she was a conniving and ruthless woman, who had anyone executed who stood in her way. However, her philanthropic works speak of a queen who cared for the poor and hungry. In the end, her legacy as a queen is almost as elusive as her origins.

Adler, Philip J., and Randall Lee Pouwels. World Civilisations . Cengage Learning, 2016.

Berit, Ase, and Rolf Strandskogen. “Suleiman I, The Magnificent.” Lifelines in World History:

“The Ancient World”, “The Medieval World”, “The Early Modern World”, “The Modern

World” , Routledge, 2015, pp. 533–540.

Peirce, Leslie. Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman

“Roxelana (c. 1504–1558).” Dictionary of Women Worldwide: 25,000 Women Through the Ages ,

edited by Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer, vol. 2, Yorkin Publications, 2007, p.

Talhami, Ghada. Historical Dictionaries of Women in the World: Historical Dictionary of Women


Hurrem Sultan, the cheerful rose and a powerful woman of the Ottoman Empire

Hürrem Sultan appeared in Topkapi Palace as a slave, but in a very short time she became one the most influential women of the Ottoman Empire. The name Hürrem was given her by the Sultan Suleiman I, and means "the cheerful one"- but in the eyes of many of her rivals she was the most dangerous weapon in Constantinople's armory.

From 1520-1566, the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Suleiman I, who many claim was the greatest Sultan in history. He was also known as Suleiman the Magnificent or Kanuni - The Lawgiver. During his time in power, he made an impact on the history of many countries in Europe and the Middle East.

Suleiman's life took a radical change in 1520. In September of that year, his father Selim I passed away accidentally, and with his death, Suleiman's carefree life in the Manisa province came to an end. He was called to the capital city to rule the empire. At the same time, he met the woman who would forever change his life.

History has remembered her as Roxolena or Roksolana, Roxalene, Roxolane, and Rossa. However, the name she was called for most of her life is Hürrem. She received this name due to her cheerful personality.


A Self-Made Woman With Power Ruled the Ottoman Sultanate 400 Years Ago

Talking about women with power is often still, in the 21st century, a controversial or sensitive subject. The poster of Rosie the Riveter girl with a clenched fist and a red bandana was iconic in popular culture, but it was not until the late 1970’s that female power was considered as a significant agent of change within the society of the western world. About 400 years ago in the Islamic World, the Ottoman Sultanate was ruled by a self-made woman whose name is remembered for her bold steps to accessions.

Her name is Hurrem Sultan, known in the western world as Roxelana and was once a slave from the Crimean area. She eventually succeeds to gain power and exert a great influence in the Ottoman Sultanate and the European society.

Background
Hurrem Sultan was born as Alexandera or Anastasiya Lisovskaya on March 19, 1534 in Rogatyn City (Now part of Ukraine). At the age of 12, she was kidnapped by the Crimean Tatars who frequently raided the region. She was sold into the Ottoman Imperial harem in the early sixteenth century. In the year 1520 Suleiman I was in the throne to succeed his father Selim I. There, he met Hurrem between year 1517-1520 in the age of 15. On a short time, Hurrem bore the first son of Suleiman I, Mehmet in 1521, just a year after Suleiman’s ascension to throne. Her quick rise as an important figure in the sultan’s side brought many speculations behind the harems wall and spark rumor through the region. She looked different than the other women within the harem. Her skin was rather pale and her hair was red.

Her way to accession
Hurrem was witty, cheerful and joyous hence the name Hurrem (from Persian: خرم‎ Khurram, “the cheerful one”). She showed her intelligence in her passion to learn the Ottoman language, mathematics, astronomy, geography, diplomacy, literature and history. Apart from this, she was very interested in alchemy. During the excavations in the Edirne Palace, some of her tools for preparation of perfumes were discovered. Because of this advantage, Suleiman did not only see as a beautiful company who later became his legal wife, but also an advisor for himself as a Sultan. Hurrem’s relationship with Suleiman was rather romantic, particularly when he was absent from Istanbul on his numerous military campaigns.

She regularly sent letters to the Sultan, in which, in addition to expressing her great love and longing for him, she also informed him of the situation in the capital and of any events that required his immediate attention or action. She assisted Suleiman in state affair because as his sole legal wife, Hurrem was also concerned for her husband’s interest. She helped Suleiman keeping his political rival away from the throne. Because of her resilient willpower, she gained Suleimans trust more than any minister within the Ottoman government. Standing above the ministers in the time of Ottoman’s golden age, made her the most powerful woman in the world.

A controversial figure
But of course, jealousy is of all times. The hostile harem created rumors about the deep intimacy between Hurrem and the Sultan. According to them, she used love potions or sorcery to delude Suleiman’s mind. Her reputation as a dark witch preceded her own presence outside the Ottoman territory, as the European society was once haunted by the fear of women with authority. Nevertheless, her survival from an ordinary slave to reigning sultana was admired in Hurrem’s country of origin, Ukraine. Her story flourished! Facts and fiction collided and become a national pride for Rohatyn city. Hurrem was famous for her stance toward the Kingdom of Poland, she congratulated the accession of Sigismund II Augustus that was well written in a letter. Her gentle policy to the Kingdom of Poland later laid the foundation for the Polish-Ottoman Alliance. She was also known for her generosity for the people of the Ottoman Sultanate. Among her first foundations were a mosque, two Koranic schools, a fountain, a public bath, and a women’s hospital near the women’s slave market (Avret Pazary) in Constantinople.

It is not like you heard Cinderella story in everyday live, right? They say that behind every powerful man, there’s a woman. And behind the powerful Suleiman, Hurrem stood proudly.


Origins of Hurrem Sultan

Hurrem, from Persian Khorram, means "the cheerful one." The name was given to her for her joyful spirit and playful disposition. Hurrem became a rival to Mahidevran in the Istanbul harem , and her power over the Sultan quickly became legendary. Hurrem was permitted to have several sons, which was a clear breach of the old imperial harem rule of "one concubine mother - one son," which was intended to avoid both the mother's control over the sultan and blood brother feuds for the throne. Suleiman allowed her to bear the majority of his children.

Hurrem Sultan 's popularity made her one of the most influential women in Ottoman and world history at the time. Her power as a consort was comparable to that of the Imperial Harem's most powerful woman, who was traditionally the Sultan's mother or valide sultan. As a result, she has become a divisive figure in Ottoman, accused of conspiring against and exploiting her political opponents.

Hurrem went on to become the first woman to spend her entire life in the Sultan's court. A sultan's consort was only supposed to stay in the harem until her son reached the age of majority, after which he would be sent away from the capital to rule a distant province, and his mother would accompany him. Sancak Beylii was the name given to this custom. Unless their sons succeeded to the throne, the consorts were not allowed to return to Istanbul. Hurrem defied tradition by remaining in the harem even after her sons were sent to rule the empire's far-flung provinces. She died peacefully in Istanbul in 1558 and was buried in the Suleymaniye Mosque .


The Story of Roxelana

Roxelana was most probably born in Ruthenia which is in modern-day Ukraine.

As a young girl, she was captured by Tartar raiders who then sold her to the Istanbul slave market. Eventually, Roxelana was purchased by Suleiman’s grand vizier and best friend, Ibrahim Pasha who gave her as a gift to the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Writers of that era claim that she stood way different from the other slaves, by her way of talking, poise, and of course her breath-taking beauty and flaming red hair. She was said to be strong-willed and brave and had a quick decisive mind to make the best out of any situation.

Roxelena knew right from the offset that, if she has to succeed and rise above the thousands of concubines vying for the sultan’s attention. She needs to have a healthy mind also in addition to a healthy body. She would need not only to know the customs (for example, how to dress, when to bow, etc.) but also to use her intelligence wisely to survive in a cutthroat world where everybody was a rival.

And before Roxelana came on the scene, Suleiman already had four children. Each prince had a different mother and the sultan’s most favorite concubine was Mahidevran, whose son Mustafa was the eldest son of the Sultan thus giving her the highest position in the sultan’s harem. She was Roxelana’s s bitter most rival.

Roxelana became. Suleiman&aposs favorite queen


How a Slave Girl Became an Ottoman Queen

Because she burst through the Ottoman Empire’s glass ceiling … in the 16th century.

The letter reads as genuinely as any piece of correspondence a longing lover might send to their beloved: “Like a nightingale whose sighs and cries for help do not cease, I am in such a state due to being away from you. I would pray to Allah to not inflict this pain even upon your enemies.”

Depending on whom you ask, the words are those of a wife possessing exceptional charm and a deep sense of devotion, or those of a cunning manipulator influencing one of history’s pre-eminent Ottoman sultans.

Either way, one thing is clear: Roxelana, better known as Hurrem Sultan, used a potent combination of intelligence and grace to transform herself from Suleiman the Magnificent’s favorite concubine into a key political operator in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire. Upending hundreds of years of tradition, Roxelana acquired the kind of outsize influence no woman before her had ever enjoyed in the empire, leaving a lasting imprint on both Ottoman history and European imagination, according to DeSales University English professor Galina Yermolenko. “It really is a unique love story,” she says.

What made Roxelana’s meteoric rise even more impressive were her humble beginnings. Kidnapped by Tatar traders from an area controlled by the kingdom of Poland (now in modern-day western Ukraine), the Slavic teenager was enslaved and transported to Istanbul sometime between 1517 and 1520. There she was trained in how to be a concubine, a task she undertook with a keen sense of survival, says Leslie Peirce, a history professor at New York University and author of Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire.

Rules be damned: Roxelana rocked the Sultan’s court.

Introduced to Suleiman around 1520, either just before or during the first year of his reign, Roxelana wasted little time winning his heart. Within a few short years of giving birth to a son, Mehmed, Roxelana bore Suleiman another four, plus a daughter — thus ending the Muslim empire’s one-son-per-concubine tradition — while also marrying the sultan. These were just two among many Ottoman conventions that Roxelana would gradually undo as she rose to prominence within the closed imperial court. “A lot of rules got broken,” says Peirce.

Commanding Suleiman’s affection allowed the convivial Roxelana (her Ottoman name meant “joyful one”) to burrow deep into the heart of power. When the sultan was away conducting military campaigns abroad, she served as his eyes and ears at home, keeping up regular correspondence and even offering political counsel in the process. She oversaw massive construction projects in the capital — the activities of concubine mothers were usually reserved to the provinces — and dabbled in diplomatic relations on the sultan’s behalf. “He pretty much trusted her with everything,” says Yermolenko. Foreign diplomats and other political observers were reportedly well aware of Roxelana’s stature: Her name was given to her by contemporary Ottoman-watchers as a nod to her Slavic background, since her birth name was unknown.

Why Suleiman chose to elevate his favorite concubine to such prominence is still unclear. Love, of course, is a powerful argument. But Peirce also points to the emergence of other powerful women in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, such as Isabella I of Castile and Anne Boleyn, and speculates whether the sultan sought a European-style queen to rule alongside him. Either way, Peirce says, by establishing the foundation for what would eventually become the imperial harem, Roxelana brought “women right into the heart of government.”

Yet for centuries, before more detailed evidence became available, Western chroniclers portrayed Roxelana as a conniving, power-hungry social climber. Many believed her influence was downright devious. Ordinary Ottomans were already resentful of her place in their ruler’s court, but her image worsened after speculation that she had convinced Suleiman to order the 1553 execution of Prince Mustafa, his 38-year-old firstborn son by another woman. In power for decades, the aging Suleiman feared a potential threat to his throne from his popular and strong-willed son, while Roxelana shared an interest in propelling her own sons — who lacked the same level of public popularity — into power. The event also influenced her image abroad as a cold and calculating schemer, as well as a cautionary tale to European princes, Yermolenko adds, who may have been keen on including women in their own courts.

But not so fast, many contemporary historians say: The Ottoman world’s most successful sultan wasn’t easily fooled, and Mustafa’s execution may well have been Suleiman’s sober-minded choice. More accurate, they believe, would be to portray the power couple as mutually reinforcing — and, yes, in love. “Just about everything about her [Roxelana] has been so embellished,” Yermolenko says, “that at this point, it is very hard to separate fact from fiction.”

Roxelana died in 1558, a few years before one of her children with Suleimain, Selim II, succeeded his father to the throne. Claiming her spot in history alongside other powerful women who began as mistresses, such as King Louis XV’s Madame de Pompadour, the Ottoman “empress” may not have been universally loved. But in true revolutionary spirit, she would change the Turkish empire for generations to come — regardless of what anyone thought.


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