The story of Hurrem Sultan is a unique facet of the Ottoman Empire’s rich history. Hurrem, also known as Roxelana, lived a life that shocked her contemporaries and still inspires fascination in modern-day audiences. Hurrem Sultan was a trailblazer of gender politics, and her story is all the more intriguing due to her mysterious and humble beginnings. What personal qualities did Hurrem Sultan possess that elevated her position from that of a foreign harem slave to the chosen Queen of Suleiman the Magnificent, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire?
Hurrem Sultan: The Maid From Russia
Much of Hurrem Sultan’s early life is speculative or simply unknown. Her name may have been Anastasia or Alexandra Lisowski or Lisowska, and she may have been the daughter of an Orthodox Christian priest. It is generally accepted that she was born between 1502 and 1506.
What is more definite is where she came from. Hurrem was believed to have been captured by Crimean Tatars in a slave raid in the Ruthenia region of what was then part of the Kingdom of Poland, which today is part of Ukraine.
The Tatars conducted regular raids on this region, capturing people to be taken to Caffa on the Crimean Peninsula to be sold at the slave market. Hurrem Sultan was one of these people. The Ottoman Empire owned the slave market at Caffa. From here, Hurrem would have been taken to another slave market at the heart of the Ottoman Empire itself in Constantinople. The journey took around ten days by sea.
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Hurrem would have been a teenaged girl by this stage, and it was this that would have been her saving grace. Young and attractive female slaves had the highest value at the slave market. Therefore they would have been treated quite well, relatively speaking, in order to preserve their appeal and value.
It was at this slave market that Pargali Ibrahim Pasha allegedly purchased Hurrem as a gift for his childhood friend, Suleiman, who was the son of the Sultan. Russian slaves were highly valued for their pale skin and fine features, and Pasha may have known what Suleiman the Magnificent found attractive in a woman. Hurrem is often depicted with red hair, a common feature amongst people from Ukraine, and may have been considered exotic in the Ottoman Empire’s epicenter.
Being a Christian was another factor that worked in Hurrem’s favor. It was customary for the Sultan to father sons with Christian women to avoid the dynastic struggles that might emerge if two powerful Islamic houses intermarried. One cannot doubt Hurrem’s good fortune up to this point, considering how things could have fared for her as a slave. But what happened afterward was less to do with luck and more to do with her innate intelligence, ability to adapt, and political savvy.
A Concubine in the Sultan’s Household
The young Ruthenian slave acquired two new names once she entered the royal household. One of these names was “Roxelana”, meaning “maid from Ruthenia”, and was given to her by some Venetian ambassadors. Her other name was the one by which history best remembers her. She was called “Hurrem”, which means “joyful”, or “the laughing one” in Persian. This name tells us a great deal about her nature and why Suleiman the Magnificent found her company so compelling.
Many female slaves entering the palace were put to work in a domestic capacity. One story about Hurrem indicates that her first role was that of a laundress. In this rather romantic version of events, it was said that Suleiman walked past the part of the palace where Hurrem toiled, and he was charmed by her lovely voice as she sang an old Russian folk song.
He stopped to converse with her and was struck by her happy-go-lucky nature, and her ability to converse. Whether or not this story is true, we will never know. But it does tell us something about her personality.
In other stories, it was Suleiman’s mother, Hafsa Sultan, who selected Hurrem to spend a night pleasuring her son. There were hundreds of women in the Sultan’s harem, and the likelihood of these women ever meeting the Sultan in person was slim. In preparation for this meeting, Hurrem would have been bathed, shaved, anointed with fragrant oils, and dressed in fine clothing in order to please her master.
The New Favorite
However their first meeting played out, fate decreed that Hurrem would spend a night with Suleiman. Venetian ambassadors described her as being attractive but not beautiful, slender, and graceful. The combination of her fine Russian features, her unusual red hair, her daintiness, and her joyful manner must have been a compelling combination because Suleiman called for Hurrem to join him again and again.
Suleiman already had a favorite, who was also his consort. Her name was Mahidevran Sultan, and she had given Suleiman a son. Now that Hurrem was making a name for herself at court as the Sultan’s new favorite, one day Muhidevran took matters into her own hands and attacked Hurrem, scratching her face. When Suleiman called for Hurrem that night, she refused to see him on account of her appearance. Intrigued, Suleiman called for her again and saw the marks on her face that Muhidevran had left. Hurrem’s position as the Sultan’s favorite concubine was solidified even further after this incident. These events are very telling about how clever Hurrem was, and they show that she instinctively knew how to play the political game to her best advantage.
Wife, Mother, Ruler
Suleiman the Magnificent became Sultan in 1520, which was around the same time that Hurrem became his concubine. She bore him a son, Mehmed, the following year. When Suleiman’s mother, Hafsa Sultan, died in 1534, this left a vacant position of power in the harem over which she had presided. Hafsa’s death also meant that Suleiman was now truly independent and, therefore, able to make a decision that would change the course of history. In 1533, something truly astonishing happened. Suleiman the Magnificent freed Hurrem from her concubinage in order to marry her. Islamic law forbade a Sultan to marry a slave, so in order to make Hurrem his queen, he had to free her.
A Genoese ambassador documented this momentous occasion in an undated letter, writing, “this week there has occurred in this city a most extraordinary event, one absolutely unprecedented in the history of the Sultans. The Grand Signior Suleiman has taken to himself as his Empress a slave-woman from Russia, called Roxolana”.
The empire was to be shaken up once again when Hurrem bore her husband yet another son. Prior to this, it was customary that concubines only bore the Sultan one son, so that she could then focus on her son’s upbringing and education. Yet, Hurrem and Suleiman had six children together in all, five sons and one daughter.
Despite the fact that Islamic law allowed the Sultan to take up to four wives and keep as many concubines as he pleased, Suleiman the Magnificent remained true to Hurrem and spent time with no other women. When his first consort, Muhidevran, left the harem to follow her son to his first political posting (which was customary; concubines were accordingly educated to be able to advise their sons on matters of politics and religion), this left Hurrem as the undisputed head of the harem. Eventually, in another unprecedented move, Hurrem convinced her husband to allow her to leave the harem and join him at Topkapi Palace, where she was given a suite of apartments next to his.
Love and Influence in the Ottoman Empire
Hurrem Sultan was an intelligent woman. She shared a love of poetry with her husband, and no doubt they had much in common. When he was away on military campaigns, he entrusted her with keeping him informed about affairs back at home. It is even speculated that Hurrem was instrumental in having Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, who was by this time Grand Vizier and now her rival, killed due to his unbridled ambition.
Hurrem had to have her wits about her if she was to protect herself and her children from the plotting and intrigue of the court. It was less the case that she was cunning and more so that she was adept at doing what she had to do to keep herself and her loved ones safe. She protected what was hers, even to the extent of throwing tantrums when fresh young Ruthenian slaves entered the harem, and having them married off to other nobles lest her husband take a liking to them.
But there was more to Hurrem than just looking after her own. Due to the level of trust between Hurrem and Suleiman, she earned herself the freedom to preside over infrastructure works in the city, such as the creation of public drinking and bathing facilities, charitable projects, such as the establishment of soup kitchens for the poor, and religious works, such as the building of mosques and hostels for pilgrims. Hurrem was also a patron of the arts.
Hurrem Sultan and Suleiman the Magnificent: a True Love Story
Several extant love letters between Suleiman the Magnificent and Hurrem Sultan demonstrate the genuine love these two shared for one another. In one such letter, Hurrem wrote, “I only find peace next to you. Words and inks would not be enough to tell my happiness and joy, when I am right next to you”. His letters to her show no less fervor.
As it would turn out, Hurrem would change the history of the Ottoman Empire yet again, even after her passing. Her wish to be right next to her Sultan was granted not only in life, but also in death. She died in 1588 and was laid to rest in a mausoleum in the Suleymaniye Mosque, where the Sultan himself was buried in an adjacent mausoleum eight years later. The century that followed was to become known as the “Sultanate of Women”, one in which royal wives and mothers wielded power via political influence over their royal men — all due to the legacy of a nameless Russian slave.