The Harem Slave Who Ruled The Ottoman Empire
April 25, 2018|María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards
Hurrem Sultan changed history by ending the traditional harem and becoming the only rightful wife of the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
“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…” -Suleiman the Magnificent-
The 16th century was perhaps one of the most interesting centuries in history in terms of the number of women in power and how the many ideas about them being the "weak" gender were shattered by these figures. It was the time of Queen Mary and Elizabeth Tudor in England, Catherine of Medici as the mastermind behind the throne in France, and the woman who became the most important and influential in the Middle East, Roxelana, better known as Hurrem Sultan.
La Sultana Rossa - Titian (c. 1550)
Born somewhere in Rohatyń (the Kingdom of Poland, now western Ukraine) between 1502 and 1504, Alexandra Lisowska was the daughter of a priest. In one of the many Tartar raids in the region, she was captured and enslaved along with many other women, men, and children. It’s said that she was an extremely beautiful young woman, and for that reason, she was bought to be part Suleiman I’s (the Ottoman Sultan) harem. She was renamed Roxelana, which literally meant “The Russian,” and sent immediately to the monarch. According to records from the time, she was quite a determined woman willing to do anything to survive and suceed, and, realizing that the Sultan had been captivated by her beauty, she decided to play that card.
She became to be known as Hurrem for her bubbly and cheerful personality, but her looks and attitude weren’t the only things that made the Sultan fall madly in love with her. As the daughter of a priest, she was well versed in culture and poetry, something that appealed to Suleiman even more, being a poet himself. Suleiman ruled the Ottoman Empire for 46 years, during which he became the most powerful man in the Middle East. I mean, he was called Suleiman the Magnificent after all, and went down in history as the greatest Sultan in the land. Nonetheless, the truth is that he couldn’t have become who he was without the influence of his precious Hurrem, but I’m getting ahead of myself now.
Rossa Solymanni Vxor - Unknown artist (18th century)
As if she had cast a spell on the Sultan (and many at the time believed she had and were severely punished for even saying it), it only took Hurrem a couple of months to become his most important consort in the harem. Suleiman was so infatuated with her that she earned herself many important enemies in the court, including Mahidevran Sultan, Suleiman’s previous favorite and mother to Mustafa, heir to the Empire. Not willing to let a foreigner with bright red hair win what she had already won for herself, she made many attempts on Hurrem’s life, but it was after the last attem that Suleiman realized what was going on and banished her and his son from Constantinople. Eventually, after Mustafa and his mother continued plotting against Hurrem, Suleiman ended up killing his son, although many historians believe that this had nothing to do with Hurrem, but was actually a strategy, since Mustafa was winning the heart of the people and feared a civil war.
Anyway, the point is that Hurrem won Suleiman’s trust, and soon she was working as his adviser on state matters and foreign affairs. They had six children together, one of which would inherit his father’s throne, but Hurrem wasn’t content with being only the Haseki (chief consort) of the Harem. For that matter, she decided to learn as much as she could about the culture, which was still strange to her. She mastered the Ottoman language, as well as its history and traditions, she became proficient in mathematics, astronomy, geography, literature, as well as diplomacy and state matters. Soon, despite the many pieces of advice her rivals gave to the Sultan about her having too much power as a woman, she became the only wife of the Ottoman sultan.
Roxelane und der Sultan - Anton Hickel (1780)
Some time later, she asked to be converted to Islam. This, of course, made the Sultan really happy, and he decided that she was the only woman he needed by his side. Following the new fashion, Suleiman married the rest of his harem to his closest advisors and high-ranking officers, thus ending, at least for a while, the notion of the harem. Naturally, as soon as Hurrem and the other harem women were married, they were granted their freedom, and for Hurrem, this was something crucial. What's important to get about her is that she didn’t only want luxuries and power for herself; she also had really good ideas to help people, and she knew that her influence on the Sultan wasn’t enough to achieve them.
She is credited for many of the buildings created for social purposes during Suleiman’s reign, including several schools, mosques, gardens, baths, and even a women’s hospital near the slave market in Constantinople. Perhaps her most important philanthropic work was the Haseki Sultan Imaret in Jerusalem, a public kitchen to feed the poor. On top of that, her many pieces of advice to Suleiman helped his empire become the most powerful of his time despite the many European attempts to destroy it.
Rossa Solumanni Uxor - Anonymous (16th century)
Hurrem died in 1558 of an unknown illness, leaving Suleiman in a very deep and severe emotional crisis. He built a mausoleum in the complex known as Suleiman’s mosque, where she was buried, and eight years later he would join her in eternal rest.
For more strong women in history, take a look at these: