Ukrainian-born consort Roxelana (c. 1505–1558) ascended a remarkable trajectory from enslaved teenager to the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire during the mid-16th century. As the wife of Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent, Roxelana served as one of his most trusted advisors. Unusual for its time, her status was referenced in multiple sources that originated on the desks of European diplomats and trade officials in Constantinople.
When Roxelana was seized in Rohatyn, likely by Crimean Tartar raiders, she joined a convoy of other captives and walked some 300 miles to the Black Sea under guard. These captives were then transported to the slave market at Kaffa (now the Crimean port city of Feodosia), where she was selected for the fabled harem of the Eskiserai Palace in Constantinople. Her first owner is believed to have been Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, also known as Ibrahim of Parga after the area of northwestern Greece from which he was seized as a boy. Ibrahim was a close friend of the newly installed Sultan Suleiman I, and he was said to have presented the pretty Ukrainian teenager to Suleiman as a gift. Evidence of her presence as a kullar, or slave in the royal household of the Ottoman sultan, first appears in 1520, which gives her an approximate age of 16 when she gave birth to a male heir, Mehmed, a year later.
The Ottoman sultans of the Suleiman's Osman dynasty eschewed traditional marriage, believing that filial love was too incendiary an element to be allowed into the inner chambers of the palace. Even the path to succession was not guaranteed to a firstborn son; instead, it was common that multiple half-brothers vied against one another to seize control of the throne upon the death of their father. The Ottoman emperors believed in a one mother-one son rule, employing their harem as a pool from which to select captives suitable for producing heirs. Foreign-born slaves, with no family ties, were considered ideal maternal material, for they had no other role but to serve their master. Should a male heir be born out of the dalliance, his mother would be retired from duty in the harem and be guaranteed an income and certain privileges. When her son reached the age of majority, the former consort was required to accompany him to the remote province he would be assigned to govern; only when a prince governed wisely and advanced to the title of supreme ruler would his mother be permitted to return to court at Constantinople.
The women confined to the Eskiserai Palace were said to be the most beautiful concubines in all of Eurasia. The word Eskiserai lent itself to the medieval Italian word seraglio, a term that conjured in Europe the image of a luxurious royal brothel whose guards were a cadre of brutally castrated men known as eunuchs. Among the 300 women of the harem competing for Suleiman's attention, Roxelana was said to have gained his notice due to her lovely singing voice and her pleasant disposition. Through her story, her Slavic-root name—alternately spelled Roxalana or Roxolana—is famous in the West, but in Turkey she is equally revered as Hürrem (or Hurrem), a name that translates as “joyful” or “laughing one” and was given to her after her conversion to Islam. Likely in love with her, Suleiman spurned his previous favorites, and Roxelana's continued presence in his life after the birth of Mehmed incited jealousy among the other royal concubines. Her second child, daughter Mihrimah, was born in March of 1522, and possibly one other son, Abdullah, arrived before she gave birth to future Sultan Selim II in May of 1524. A year later, another prince, Bayezid, was born, and the couple's last child, a hunchbacked boy they named Cihangir, entered the world in December of 1531.
The exact date of Roxelana's marriage to Suleiman is unknown, but a firsthand account from an employee of the Genoese Bank of St. George referenced “a most extraordinary event, one absolutely unprecedented in the history of the sultans,” according to Leslie P. Peirce's The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. The account continues: “The Grand Signior Suleiman has taken to himself as his Empress a slave-woman from Russia, called Roxalana, and there has been great feasting…. At night the principal streets are gaily illuminated, and there is much music and feasting. The houses are festooned with garlands and there are everywhere swings in which the people swing by the hour with great enjoyment.” The Genoese banker also mentioned a jousting tournament “and a procession of wild beasts, and giraffes with necks so long they as it were touched the sky…. There is great talk about the marriage and none can say what it means.”
Following her marriage, Roxelana moved into Topkapi Palace, another significant departure for the Osman royal court. Nor did she leave Constantinople when her sons were sent off to govern remote provinces. Instead, she was granted the newly created title of “Haseki Sultan,” or Imperial Consort. Given a generous salary by Suleiman, she focused on philanthropic ventures and building projects. Her legacy as empress is the Haseki Sultan Complex, which was designed by a prominent imperial architect in the 1530s. It includes a mosque, soup kitchen, school, and a women's hospital, all of which were located inside the official government and religious district zone of Constantinople, a reflection of Roxelana's elevated status.
Roxelana's husband was often away from Constantinople, leading vast armies to conquer lands in Europe and the Middle East not yet under Ottoman rule. Early in his reign, Suleiman conquered a significant part of the Kingdom of Hungary, which at the time included portions of modern-day Romania, Poland, and the Balkan states. He later joined with France to attack Italian and Venetian holdings in the Mediterranean and waged a long war against the Safavid dynasty in Persia. During his absence, Roxelana and Suleiman corresponded with frequency in letters that reveal a strong marital bond. They are in Turkish and were likely written for Roxelana by a scribe; early ones mention her efforts to become fluent in the language. “My sultan, there is no limit to the burning anguish of separation,” she declared in one of them, translated in Peirce's volume The Imperial Harem. “When your noble letters are read, your servant and son Mir Mehmed and your slave and daughter Mihrimah weep and wail from missing you. Their weeping has driven me mad, it is as if we were in mourning.” Suleiman composed poetry for Roxelana, with one missive containing a most ardent paean, reproduced by scholar Galina Yermolenko in her introduction to the volume Roxolana in European Literature, History and Culture. Here the emperor addressed his wife as “My life, the gift I own, my be-all / my elixir of Paradise, my Eden / My spring, my joy, my glittering day/my exquisite one who smiles on and on.”
Roxelana was a controversial figure in her time, both in Constantinople and outside of the Ottoman sphere. Her husband's incursions into southern Europe roused interest among foreign-policy experts at the imperial court of the Habsburgs in Vienna as well as on the Italian peninsula. The Renaissance portraitist Titian painted Suleiman with an enormous turban in an evocative portrait, and either the Italian master or one of his students is believed to have memorialized Roxelana in a lost portrait known as “La Rossa Sultana.” At the venal, occasionally murderous Ottoman court, Roxelana was especially resented for her influence. Her detractors linked her to the mysterious death of Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, who in March of 1536 was invited to Topkapi Palace and then ordered slain in his bed after a dinner with Roxelana and Suleiman. Pargali was the current Grand Vizier, or prime minister, and had amassed enormous wealth in the years since his boyhood friend had become sultan.
Roxelana's daughter Mihrimah married a rising talent at the Ottoman court, a Bosnian who received a new name and the title Damat Rüstem Pasha after his 1539 marriage. As Roxelana's son-in-law and later the Grand Vizier, Rüstem played a role in several intrigues against Mahidevran's son Mustafa. These troubles inside Suleiman's house eventually spurred the sultan to put his firstborn son to death, and this tragic event took place in Aleppo, Syria, in October of 1553, during Suleiman's final campaign against the Safavid dynasty. Mustafa was summoned from north-central Turkey to his father's tent and was allegedly strangled by eunuchs there; the death was said to have devastated Roxelana's youngest son, the hunchback Cihangir, who died two months later.
Roxelana died on April 15, 1558, in Constantinople. The couple's first son Mehmed died in 1543 in Constantinople at age 22 under unknown circumstances. Of the surviving sons, Selim and Bayezid engaged in a fratricidal struggle following the death of their mother. Suleiman eventually showed favoritism to Selim, which forced Bayezid to flee to Persia, where he was slaughtered with his sons by assassins sent by Selim, who succeeded his father to become Sultan Selim II in September of 1566. Selim's primary consort was another foreign-born woman, Nurbanu, who also attained the title of Haseki Sultan. Described as either a Greek captive or a woman born of an extramarital dalliance between Venetian nobles, Nurbanu followed her mother-in-law's example and played a decisive role in political affairs during her husband's brief reign and even after its end. Selim was also known as Selim the Drunkard and died after a fall in 1574. The son of Nurbanu and Selim, Sultan Murad III, brought the Osman dynasty and Ottoman rule to the height of its influence as a global power.
Peirce, Leslie P., The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Yermolenko, Galina I., editor and author of introduction, Roxolana in European Literature, History, and Culture, Routledge, 2016.
New Yorker, February 17, 2014, Elif Batuman, “Ottomania.”❑