The following is the tale of a loving wife and mother. A philanthropist and a catalyst for change both within a stuffy old establishment, and among a wider nation. The tale of a figure of great fascination in her own time, especially to Europeans. It is the story of someone who rose from – well we don’t know enough about her beginnings in Rohatyn – a town near Lviv, Ukraine to say humble beginnings- but our protagonist did ascend the heights, from slavery to royalty.
She was no action hero. She never burnt a bath-house to the ground while crammed full of Drevlian warlords like Olga of Kiev; but was impressive in other ways. For one to survive what she did, and thrive after, shows a remarkably cool headed, brave, and adaptable character. The Ukrainians thought Roxelana – our heroine – remarkable enough, that on gaining freedom from the USSR in 1991, they built a bronze statue of her in Rohatyn. Ukraine, in looking for heroes and role models from their past, saw fit to include Roxelana in their pantheon.
Before we get to Roxelana, Hurrem, or Haseki Sultan – all names she was known by – we need to detour to mid 13th century Anatolia, modern day Turkey to add a little context.
At an unspecified date in the mid 1200s, a Turkish warlord named Ertugrul made his way to Anatolia, accompanied by his tribe of ‘four hundred tents.’ Like the Seljuks who arrived a few hundred years earlier, they were Steppe people – in their case from Uzbekistan. More likely than not, they were refugees, who suddenly had to flee the Mongol hordes. Initially, the Seljuks gave the Turks some of their land to settle in, but in the course of a couple of generations, the Seljuks lost their prominence – while the Turks rose to prominence in the region. Ertugrul’s son, Osman graduated from warlord to king. In a dynasty which ran for 37 Emperors, Osman – Uthman in Arabic – would be their first; and lend his name to the dynasty. Uthman soon becoming Ottoman to western ears.
By their seventh Sultan, Mehmed II, the land was all theirs – with the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 1453, Mehmed’s armies conquered the Byzantines at Constantinople – renaming the city Istanbul. He arrived with a numerically superior army and navy, but succeeded where many other large armies failed by using cannons and bombards as wall breakers. The fall of Constantinople ushered in a new age of warfare where the most impressive of defensive walls no longer guaranteed you victory.
Not that I buy into ‘great man’ theories of history, but Mehmed II was an impressive commander, whose actions changed the world. As impressive as Mehmed was, a legend pervaded that their tenth Sultan would really be something else entirely.
Sari Saltik was a Turkish Dervish who travelled deep into the Balkans, proselytising Islam to the people. His hagiography became wildly popular with Islamic children for it’s tales of adventure. One day, Sari Saltik allegedly came across a magnificent European city, with a beautiful church. Atop the church roof a golden sphere. To the saint, the sphere looked just like a golden apple. As he sent men up to bring him the golden apple, the prophet Khizr was said to have appeared and warned him to leave the apple where it was. That apple was only to be picked by the tenth Sultan – who will be their greatest conqueror.
Time rolled on, and with a couple of Ottoman Sultans engaged in empire building – the presumed location of the golden apple moved upwards and westwards. As Emperor number ten came into focus with his coronation in 1520, the apple was believed to be in Hungary. That emperor, a man named Suleiman, would become a great conqueror – much to the chagrin of European kings who hoped for a peaceful emperor next. The son of the bellicose Emperor Selim I, he continued in that family tradition, personally leading five major campaigns. However, as we will see he was an altogether more complex individual than his father, and many of his other ancestors. We’ll come back to Suleiman the Magnificent in a moment.
In 2022’s The Old Man of the Mountain, we briefly mentioned the Crimean Slave markets, when discussing a Mongol raid into modern day Bulgaria in the 1220s. This was a mission to punish the Kipchaks – another steppe people who had gotten on the Mongols’ bad side. One boy captured and sold off to a wealthy Egyptian through those markets, rose through the ranks to become the leader of a movement which overthrew the Egyptian ruling class. Known as Baybars, he became the first in a long line of Mamluk sultans. The slave markets, established in the 12th century, would continue until 1769.
By 1475, Venice and Genoa – two Italian maritime nations – were ejected from their established bases in the Crimea, having briefly taken over the Black Sea slave trade. Control was passed over to the Giray Tatars – a Crimean vassal state of the Ottomans who were of Mongol origin. From just before this handover, in 1468, until Russia finally put a stop to them in 1769 – the Tatars of the Crimean Khanate ‘harvested the steppes’ of Ukraine and Southern Russia for tens of thousands of villagers every year. Their ideal target were young women, who could be sold into domestic work, or into sexual slavery. From Baybars’ time up till the abolition of the Crimean slave trade, around 6.5 million people were rounded up and sold. The slaves lives were generally harsh, and thoroughly miserable – their treatment often cruel. A Lithuanian observer told of domestic servants who were branded on their foreheads or cheeks like cattle. They also told of people locked in cold, damp dungeons when not engaged in work.
Many also died on their way to market, a fate considered a blessing by the Ukrainians and Russians they preyed upon. Evliya Çelebi, a Turkish courtier and traveller writing in the mid seventeenth century stated it was a wonder any slaves got to market, they were so poorly treated on the slave trails. Success stories like Baybars, were extremely rare.
On an unspecified winter day, when the Tatars could quickly traverse the frozen rivers on horseback – a band of slavers flooded into Rohatyn. The two most likely years 1509 or 1516 – two years they definitely reached Rohatyn. They slashed and burned everything in sight, killed anyone who fought back, then rounded up any villagers they deemed saleable at market. The prisoners, our hero included, were forcibly marched for weeks to the Black Sea port of Caffa. If captured in 1516, Roxelana would have been thirteen – very young, but at a push, as capable of taking care of herself as most adults on the long march. If captured in 1509, aged six, it doesn’t bear to think of how terrifying this must have been for the young child. Legend has it, recorded with less evidence than the tale of Sari Saltik’s golden apple – she was the daughter of a preacher. Other tales suggested a name, Aleksandra Lisowska – also without evidence. Soon her birth name would be deleted. Her religion supplanted by Islam.
Transported to the Caffa Slave Markets, she would have been examined like livestock, bought as part of a bulk purchase, then put onto a ship for a ten day voyage – to the slave markets of Istanbul.
We don’t know where Roxelana spent the following years until 1520, though we know she would have been taught about Islam, and learned the basics of Ottoman language and culture. We can also guess her owners saw something special in her – seeing her as just the kind of slave a Sultan would pay them a lot of money for. This possibly affected the level of training the young girl had.
The sultans kept harems of the only best quality slaves, kept separate from the men in Istanbul’s Old Palace. One important reason for the slaves was to keep their bloodline going.
In the early years of the Ottoman Empire, emperors chased old world authenticity, by strategically marrying children to foreign royals. As their kingdom grew, and their neighbours’ golden apples looked far too good to resist, this caused a problem. What if they declare war on the princess’s homeland – and that princess turns saboteur on them? What if, God forbid, a princess murders her own children to deny any further Ottoman emperors?
Around 1400, potential Ottoman emperors stopped marrying. When it came to love or procreation Sultans courted slaves from the harem. A sultan would be expected to have many favourites over their reign. Once a favourite became pregnant, that favourite would be elevated to a much higher position in the harem, with a large bump in pay. She would take on much of the responsibility of bringing up the child. The sultan would, typically dump her for a new favourite.
When a sultan passed on, there was no regulated order of succession, and the male children often fought one another to the death for the top job. Suleiman’s father not only went to war with his brother, but personally deposed his own living father to take the crown. In 1402 the emperor Bayezid I lost a war against the warlord Tamerlane, which led to a succession crisis. His son Mehmed I fought a bloody four-way civil war with his remaining brothers. Bayezid himself had his younger brother strangled upon becoming Sultan, to avoid getting into a civil war.
This made for complex dynamics at court.
Another element to this is young, would be Sultans usually turned to outsiders as their top advisors and generals. Many enslaved boys were brought up in Istanbul’s New Palace, and trained to be advisors. Suleiman’s top advisor was a young Greek or Albanian man given the name Ibrahim. A close friend since childhood, Ibrahim Pasha would become Suleiman’s Vizier and a top general.
In September 1520, while making plans for a European invasion, Selim I died suddenly. Suleiman, then a 25 year old father of four and governor of Manisa – rushed back to Istanbul to take the reins. His mother, a former slave named Hafsa, rushed ahead of him to prepare his ascension.
Around this time, as Suleiman took charge unopposed, someone – possibly Ibrahim – bought and gifted Roxelana to the Sultan.
Were this Suleiman’s tale, we’d discuss his quest for the golden apple. He led five major campaigns personally, and oversaw several others – vastly expanding Ottoman territory. By 1526 he ruled much of Hungary after a heroic victory at Mohacs. He captured Rhodes and Corfu. He defeated the Persians, and unsuccessfully faced off against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Vienna, Austria. Today we’re interested in his wife.
In Manisa, royal protocols around dumping favourites once they bore you a child were looser – he had a favourite in the mother of one of his children – a beautiful Circassian named Mahidevran. When Roxelana arrived at the harem, a clear pecking order was in place. Hafsa, Suleiman’s mother ruled the roost, followed by Mahidevran. Roxelana found allies in the harem – she was very likeable, and apparently a ray of sunshine; the name given to her in the harem, Hurrem – meaning the joyful one – is testimony to that.
The one ally she absolutely won over though was the Sultan – by all indications, one day he crossed the road from the new palace to the old palace looking for somebody to spend a little time with – and when he saw Hurrem, the Sultan was thunderstruck. They spent time together, then spent a little more time together, and at some time Mahidevran was said to have become insanely jealous and attacked Hurrem – scratching up her face and tearing out tufts of hair. Once Suleiman found out, he was furious with Mahidevran. Ignoring all the things we don’t know, and some of the things we do – like the couple’s massive power imbalance alone should give us pause for thought before saying this – but it appears the couple may have fallen in love. By the fall of 1521, Hurrem bore Suleiman their first child.
When he was away chasing golden apples, the couple exchanged love letters. Roxelana’s survive – only scraps of Suleiman’s do. Of course when he returned, in spite of the dump the concubine and get yourself a new one rule, the couple remained together. In spite of others in his court gifting him a pair of beautiful Russian concubines, Suleiman was now pretty much a one woman man. Between military campaigns they had more children – six all up. Roxelana rose to prominence in important circles – by 1526 the Venetian ambassador Pietro Bragadin wrote she was “young but not beautiful, although graceful and petite.” – As if Bragadin’s observations meant a jot to the Sultan.
With growing prominence, Roxelana took on the role of Suleiman’s eyes and ears in the kingdom while he was away. Her role as a diplomat also increased over the years – by the 1540s she was in regular contact with King Sigismund II Augustus of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – one of Europe’s great powers at the time.
Despite the couple living in separate palaces for years, in 1530 they were officially recognised as a couple at the circumcision of the three eldest sons. No mere operation, this was a nearly three week long party with half the known world’s dignitaries on the guest list. Among the feasts, fireworks, performers, large scale war re-enacters, and exotic dancers – the acknowledged first couple were on display. They would not move in together, and officially marry until some time soon after the death of Suleiman’s mother, Hafsa. When they did, it was the first time in anyone’s living memory an Ottoman Sultan had married.
Now of course they were hated by some – For one the Sultan’s elite Janissary troops – a group apt to riot over extended times of peace – detested Roxelana. As did a number of Istanbul’s wealthier citizens, who spread rumours she must be a witch – how else could she have won the Sultan’s heart if she hadn’t hexed him?
And then there were those rumours she was a Machiavellian schemer, responsible for several high profile executions – including Suleiman’s closest friend Ibrahim Pasha, and Mahidevran’s son, Mustafa. The former had been in charge of the 1532 invasion of Persia – and had largely been responsible for the invasion taking far too long, and the victory coming at an eye-wateringly high cost. Some say Suleiman had him garrotted in March 1536 because Roxelana convinced him to do so. Others say Ibrahim had become haughty and arrogant, and a liability on the battlefield. Contemporary sources claim Suleiman executed Mustafa in 1553 because he was caught plotting to kill his father and declare himself Sultan.
But Roxelana had a lot of fans too. She brought back marriage among the women of the Old Palace – playing matchmaker to hundreds. This led to an uptick in marriages in general. She sponsored mosques and hospitals, and schools – improving the living standards in the empire. The Haseki Sultan complex, built between 1538 and 1551, contained a mosque, school, hospital, and soup kitchen. She established foundations to pay for her public works for generations after her passing.
The couple had a long, apparently happy marriage. Roxelana never lived to see her children fight it out for the crown. There was no fight, though succession was messy. With Mustafa strangled, Mehmed dying of smallpox, and Bayezid dying of also getting on Suleiman’s bad side while plotting to take out his brother – Selim II, an unlikely contender popularly known as Selim the Drunk – ended up last man standing. Roxelana, or Hurrem, or possibly Aleksandra? Pre-deceased Suleiman by a little over eight years, passing of an unknown illness in April 1558.
Over the following weeks I’m planning to move us from domesticity of a kind – to warring samurai, a murder mystery, corporations fighting literal wars against one another, filibusters, conmen and all manner of other things… so please excuse me sharing one final tidbit. Though much of Suleiman’s letters have been lost to time, one poem he wrote his wife comes down to us. He wrote the ode under his pen name, Muhibbi… and I think it rather telling of their relationship.
“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.”