The story of Roxolana or Hurrem Sultan, as she is known in Turkey, has been a fodder for legends, historical and quasi-historical narratives, and fictional novels since the sixteenth century. Small wonder – the combination of romantic love, royal intrigues and grand-scale history in Roxolana’s life excited imagination and formed a part of the West’s perception of the “Turk” and of women in power. Roxolana was either idealized or described as a ruthless schemer and opportunist. I suppose, as usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
That unusual woman became the topic of international gossip because of the correspondence of western ambassadors and travelers to the Sublime Porte in the course of the sixteenth century. Most notable of these were the reports of three Venetian ambassadors at Suleiman’s court, Pietro Bragadino, Bernardo Navagero, and Domenico Trevisano.
These sources told the Europeans of a powerful concubine in the imperial harem who bore the Sultan four sons – Mahomet (who died in his childhood), Selim, Bayazid, and Jihangir – and a daughter, Mihrimah. Europeans living in Istanbul called her Roxolana, Rosselane, Rossa, or Rosa, in reference to her Russian origin, although at Suleiman’s court she was known as Hurrem (from Persian: خرم – Khurram, “the cheerful one”) and in Arabic as Karima (Arabic: كريمة, “the noble one”), because of her charming smile, playful temperament, and musical talent. Süleyman’s exceptional treatment of his hasseki (or favourite) was a topic of great interest for the western observers. To Hurrem’s benefit, the Sultan broke practically every article of the imperial harem protocol that there was. Around 1533 or 1534 (the exact date is unknown), Süleyman even wedded Hurrem in a formal ceremony and bestowed a dowry of 5,000 ducats upon her. The event shook both the Ottoman and Western worlds. “In doing this,” wrote the Austrian ambassador Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, “he violated the custom of the sultans who had preceded him, none of whom had contracted a marriage since the time of Bajazet I.”Sounds rather serious.
Who was that exceptional woman and where she really came from?
Sixteenth-century sources are silent as to her maiden name, but much later traditions, for example Ukrainian folk tales first recorded in the 19th century, give it as “Anastasia” (diminutive: “Nastia”), and Polish traditions give it as “Aleksandra Lisowska”. “Roksolana” most likely wasn’t her proper name but a kind of nickname, referring to her Ukrainian heritage; “Roxolany” or “Roxelany” was one of the names of East Slavs, inhabitants of the present Ukraine, up to the 15th century. The nickname would literally mean “the Russian girl/woman”.
According to late-16th-century and early-17th-century sources, such as the Polish poet Samuel Twardowski, who researched the subject in Turkey, Hürrem was seemingly born to a father who was a Ukrainian (“Ruthenian” in the terminology of the day) Orthodox priest in the small town of Rohatyn, 68 km southeast of Lviv, a major city of Red Ruthenia (Chervona Rus so the Red Russia). Then it was situated in the Kingdom of Poland, today it is in western Ukraine. We know close to nothing about her childhood but probably in the 1520s as a young girl she was captured by Crimean Tatars who hunted non-Muslim people in order to sell them like cattle to the Turks. She was taken as a slave, probably first to the Crimean city of Kaffa, a major centre of the slave trade, then to Istanbul, and there she was selected for Süleyman’s harem. Every cloud has a silver lining, right?
Now a bit about the institution of harem itself. Most people think it used to be like a private brothel for rich polygamous kings and/or Muslim men. In fact it was much more than that, closer to the Greek gynaeceum. The word harem literally means ‘forbidden’ or ‘kept safe’, originally implying ‘women’s quarters’. It includes resting rooms for women, their young offspring, other female relatives, eunuchs and servants separated from the official part of the house.
The Imperial Harem of the Ottoman sultan, which was also called after the Italians seraglio in the West, typically housed several dozen women, including wives and concubines. It was also the place for the Sultan’s mother, daughters and other female relatives, as well as eunuchs and slave servant girls. During the later periods, the sons of the Sultan also lived in the Harem until they were 16 years old, when it was considered appropriate for them to appear in the public and administrative areas of the palace. The Topkapi Harem was, in some sense simply the private living quarters of the Sultan and his family, within the palace complex. Some women of Ottoman harem, especially wives, mothers and sisters of sultans played very important political roles in Ottoman history, and in times it was said that the empire was ruled from harem. As such, it was the nesting place of many political strategies, intrigues, murders and other attrocities – in short a rather deceptively dangerous place. Roxolana had to learn fast and adapt as well as she could if she wanted to survive. Apparently she was intelligent enough to manage it very well. She learned the language, adopted the Muslim faith and quickly came to the attention of her lord and master. Her success swiftly attracted the jealousy of rivals, though. There were many women in the harem who wanted to be Sultan’s favourites after all and most of them have had a better start. One day another Süleyman’s favorite, the concubine called Mahidevran or “Gülbahar” (Spring Rose) got into a fight with Roxolana and beat her badly. Her victory was very short-lived and proved to be rather disastrous in the long term- upset by their brawl, Süleyman banished Mahidevran to the provincial capital of Manisa, together with her son, the heir apparent, Prince Mustafa. This exile was shown officially as a part of the traditional training of heir apparents, sancak beyligi, but in fact was nothing else than falling out of grace. Soon afterwards Roxolana became Süleyman’s unrivalled favorite or haseki, one of the most important members of the harem.
Now we should present the sultan himself, a very interesting personality of his times. Süleyman became a prominent monarch of 16th century Europe, presiding over the apex of the Ottoman Empire’s military, political and economic power. He personally led Ottoman armies to conquer the Christian strongholds of Belgrade, Rhodes, and most of Hungary before his conquests were checked at the Siege of Vienna in 1529. He annexed most of the Middle East in his conflict with the Safavids and large swathes of North Africa as far west as Algeria. Under his rule, the Ottoman fleet dominated the seas from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.
An early description of Süleyman, a few weeks following his accession, was provided by the Venetian envoy Bartolomeo Contarini: “He is twenty-five years of age, tall, but wiry, and of a delicate complexion. His neck is a little too long, his face thin, and his nose aquiline. He has a shade of a moustache and a small beard; nevertheless he has a pleasant mien, though his skin tends to pallor. He is said to be a wise Lord, fond of study, and all men hope for good from his rule.” Some historians claim that in his youth Süleyman had an admiration for Alexander the Great. He was influenced by the vision of building a world empire that would encompass the east and the west, and this created a drive for his subsequent military campaigns in Asia and in Africa, as well as in Europe.
When Süleyman was known as “the Magnificent” in the West, he was always Kanuni Suleiman or “The Lawgiver” to his own Ottoman subjects. He tried to be a fair ruler of his multi-national country. He gave particular attention to the plight of the rayas, Christian subjects who worked the land of the Sipahis. His Kanune Raya, or “Code of the Rayas”, reformed the law governing levies and taxes to be paid by the rayas, raising their status above serfdom to the extent that Christian serfs would migrate to Turkish territories to benefit from the reforms. The Sultan also played a role in protecting the Jewish subjects of his empire for centuries to come. In late 1553 or 1554, on the suggestion of his favorite doctor and dentist, the Spanish Jew Moses Hamon, the Sultan issued a firman formally denouncing blood libels against the Jews. Furthermore, Süleyman enacted new criminal and police legislation, prescribing a set of fines for specific offences, as well as reducing the instances requiring death or mutilation. In the area of taxation, taxes were levied on various goods and produce, including animals, mines, profits of trade, and import-export duties. In addition to taxes, officials who had fallen into disrepute were likely to have their land and property confiscated by the Sultan.
Let’s return to our heroine now. Roxolana’s astonishing success at Süleyman’s court was suspiciously easy. People started to attribute it not only to her beauty, vivacity, intelligence and ambition, but also to her wickedness and witchcraft, in which she was reportedly assisted by a famous Jewish sorceress (an interesting combination btw: an Orthodox priest’s daughter using a Jewess to ensnare her Muslim master). Some part of the Ottoman public was undoubtedly very troubled by Süleyman’s violation of the old imperial tradition. As Luigi Bassano wrote, “Süleyman bears her such love and keeps such faith to her that all his subjects marvel and say that she has bewitched him, and they call her Ziadi, which means witch’”.
Busbecq also cited the Turkish public’s belief that Roxolana used witchcraft in order to entice Süleyman. While describing the Turkish belief that the hyena (sic!) had a great potency in love, he mentioned a few hyena owners residing in Istanbul, who were reluctant to sell them because they were saving them for the Sultana, “as the Sultan’s wife was commonly reputed to retain his affection by love-charms and magic arts.”
Was there any truth in that? Under his pen name, Muhibbi, Suleiman composed this poem for Roxolana:
“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.”
It doesn’t seem she needed all those magic tricks and dark arts to be sure of his affection. The sultan was apparently very deeply in love. Known as Hürrem Sultan after the official marriage ceremony, Roxolana also may have acted as Süleyman’s adviser on matters of state, and seems to have had an influence upon foreign affairs and international politics as well. Two of her letters to the last Polish hereditary king, Sigismund II Augustus, have been preserved, and during her lifetime, the Ottoman Empire generally had peaceful relations with the Polish state within a Polish-Ottoman alliance. Some historians also believe that she may have intervened with her husband to control Crimean Tatar slave-raiding in her native land. Aside from her political concerns, Hürrem engaged in several major works of public buildings, from Mecca to Jerusalem, perhaps modeling her charitable foundations in part after the caliph Harun al-Rashid’s consort Zubaida. Among her first foundations were a mosque, two Koranic schools, a fountain, and, most significantly, a women’s hospital near the women’s slave market (Avret Pazary) in Istanbul. She also commissioned a bath, the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, to serve the community of worshipers in the nearby Hagia Sophia. She was one busy queen.
Historian Leslie Pierce argued that making of Roxolana a relentless and power-greedy witch stemmed from the conflict between the two opposing roles she performed in the Ottoman harem – the sultan’s favorite concubine (a sexual role) and the sultan’s lawful wife (a post-sexual role) – these two functions had always been separated in the Ottoman tradition and were collapsed for the first time. Roxolana was “caught between two conflicting loyalties: mother to the prince, and wife to the sultan,” which caused her ambiguous legal status and the consequent animosity on the part of the more conservative Ottoman public.
You shouldn’t also ignore the larger political and social context in which she lived. The structure of the Ottoman slave family and system hardly encouraged such a success as hers. In the overcrowded and strictly regulated world of the harem, where fratricide (so a nasty habit of executing all the brothers of a new sultan in order to prevent feuds between royal siblings and civil war) was often utilized, Roxolana had to fight fiercely for her survival. If prince Mustafa, the son of her biggest rival, were to become sultan, not only Roxolana, but also all her sons, and the sons of her sons, would be literally doomed.
Roxolana’s unheard-of but enormous influence on the political developments in the Ottoman state was perceived as a female threat especially after the murder of Prince Mustafa, the eldest of Süleyman’s sons. As you might remember he was the heir apparent, the child of one of the biggest Roxolana’s rivals, Mahidevran or “Gülbahar”. Hürrem was undoubtedly aware that should Mustafa become Sultan her own children would be strangled. It was either him or her and her progeny. Yet Mustafa was recognized as the most talented of all the brothers and was supported by Pargalı İbrahim Pasha, who was by this time Süleyman’s Grand Vizier.
By 1552, when the campaign against Persia had begun, the intrigues against Mustafa increased. The new Grand Vizier, Rustem Pasha, the commander-in-chief and Roxolana’s son-in-law, sent one of Süleyman’s most trusted men to report that since Süleyman was not at the head of the army, the soldiers thought the time had come to put a younger prince on the throne; at the same time he spread rumors that Mustafa had proved receptive to the idea. Angered by what he came to believe were Mustafa’s plans to claim the throne, the following summer upon return from his campaign in Persia, Süleyman summoned him to his tent in the Ereğli valley, stating he would “be able to clear himself of the crimes he was accused of and would have nothing to fear if he came”. It was one fat lie and apparently the prince knew it. Mustafa was confronted with a choice now: either he appeared before his father at the risk of being killed or, if he refused to attend, he would be accused of betrayal. In the end, Mustafa bravely chose to enter his father’s tent, confident that the support of the army would be enough to save his skin. Perhaps he was also truly innocent. Busbecq, who claims to have received an account from an eyewitness, describes Mustafa’s final moments. As Mustafa entered his father’s tent, Süleyman’s eunuchs attacked Mustafa, with the young prince putting up a brave fight. Süleyman, separated from the struggle only by the linen hangings of the tent, peered through the chamber and “directed fierce and threatening glances upon the mutes, and by menacing gestures sternly rebuked their hesitation. Thereupon, the mutes in their alarm, redoubling their efforts, hurled Mustafa to the ground and, throwing the bowstring round his neck, strangled him.” Moreover, Roxolana was blamed for plotting the death of the murdered Mustafa’s young son. Not a nice thing to be accused of.
It was a cruel incident but if you think now that Roxolana/Hürrem has become a totally mean, manipulative and ruthless hag and deserved to be hanged on the spot ponder on this. Although she was Süleyman’s wife, she exercised no official public role as her contemporary in England, Anne Boleyn, had done. Since the Empire lacked any formal means of nominating a successor, succession usually involved the death of competing princes in order to avert civil unrest and rebellions. In attempting to avoid the imminent execution of her sons, Hürrem used her influence to eliminate those who supported Mustafa’s accession to the throne. What would you do if you were in her place? Of course in the Mustafa’s political drama, many Roxolana’s contemporaries saw a warning against a powerful female whose machinations brought about a violation of the law and state order – such a view was prevalent in most historical works on Turkish matters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They seemed to forget that a powerful woman is not different from a powerful man especially if she is also a mother and her children are in imminent danger.
Finaly it was Roxolana’s son, Selim II, who succeeded Süleyman following his death in 1566 after 46 years of rule.
Let me quote at the end one more poem of Süleyman, which is simply timeless.
The people think of wealth and power as the greatest fate,
But in this world a spell of health is the best state.
What men call sovereignty is a worldly strife and constant war;
Worship of God is the highest throne, the happiest of all estates.
While pondering on this poem’s message for a moment have some Turkish coffee with Turkish Delight, a truly Ottoman confection!
Agathangel Krymsky, Istoria Turechyny (Kyiv [Kiev]: Akademia Nauk, 1924) 185.