Roxelana (c. 1504–1558)

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Roxelana (c. 1504–1558)

Captured slave who became wife and consort of the sultan Suleiman, reinstated marriage among the Ottoman rulers, influenced her husband's foreign and domestic policies, consolidated her power by wiping out rivals, and initiated a period of Ottoman history known as the "reign of women." Name variations: Hurrem or Khurrem (Joyful or The Laughing One); Hurrem Sultana; Roxalana, Roxalena, Rossa, Roksoliana. Pronunciation: ROCKS-uh-LAN-ah. Born (probably) Aleksandra Lisowska around 1504 in the town of Rogatin, near Lvov; died on April 15, 1558, in Constantinople; daughter (probably) of a Ruthenian priest; mother unknown; married Suleiman or Suleyman the Magnificent, Ottoman sultan (r. 1520–1566), in 1530; children—five: sons Mehmed; Selim II, Ottoman sultan (r. 1566–1574); Beyazit or Beyazid or Bayezid (d. 1561), Jehangir; and daughter Mihrimah (1522–1575).

Remained Suleiman's domestic and foreign advisor and closest confidante, while eliminating his eldest son, Mustafa, as heir to the throne, and paving the way for the ultimate succession of her own son, Selim.

Toward the middle of the 16th century, European trade representatives witnessed signs of an extraordinary event in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent had ruled there since 1520, the leader of troops that dominated Turkey, the Balkans, and parts of Hungary and the Middle East, and occasionally posed a threat to Europe by laying siege as they once did to the city of Vienna. But Suleiman's empire was also a powerful trading partner with the West, and held riches beyond anything imaginable in Europe. In his land, the wealthy and powerful wore expensive silks, bathed in warm, scented baths, ate food seasoned with exotic spices, and read manuscripts inherited from the collapsed Roman Empire. In 1530, England's Sir George Young, reporting back to his government by diplomatic pouch, made close observations of daily life, and also wrote about a period in which the city's houses were festooned with garlands, streets were illuminated, and a succession of tournaments, feasts, and processions featured "wild beasts, and giraffes with necks so long they as it were touched the sky," all events marking the marriage of the sultan to his longtime consort, Roxelana, the mother of several of his children, and the woman to whom he had been faithful for many years.

The lavish celebration of royal marriages was common to Europe as well as to the East, but the remarkable political implication underlying this event was the fact that in the past two centuries no powerful Turkish sultan had married, preferring to produce heirs through temporary liaisons with slaves and concubines. The marriage of Suleiman to Roxelana was a radical break with this tradition, signifying the powerful influence of an extraordinary woman.

The origins of Roxelana are obscure. According to Polish tradition, she was Aleksandra Lisowska, the daughter of a Ruthenian priest, born in 1504, in the town of Rogatin, near Lvov, in the western Ukraine, which was then part of Poland; her name may derive from a term meaning "Ruthenian maiden." During this period, Tartar tribes from the East made frequent raids into the Ukraine to obtain booty and slaves. One such captive was a girl of fair complexion with reddish-blonde hair, making her a valuable prize and a worthy gift for the sultan.

Despite the trauma of abduction to a foreign land far from all she knew and loved, Roxelana became known in the harem for her merry ways. She was sometimes punished for refusing to follow the harem rules, but when she was beaten she never cried; because of her happy nature, she was called Hurrem, meaning "joyful."

The harem in which Roxelana was installed was a social institution with a long history in the Middle East, where polygamy had been a traditional practice long before the region became Muslim. The nomadic, pre-Islamic, Turkic tribes frequently engaged in warfare, and Turkic women often fought side-by-side with the men and otherwise enjoyed considerable equality; Turkic culture prized girls, and mediatory prayers often requested the birth of a female. Change in customs regarding women was probably due more to Persian influence than to conversion to Islam. Persia had been influential in the region since Greek and Roman times, and its patriarchal social system was considered superior to Turkic nomadism. As Turkish rulers came to dominate the former Byzantine Empire, one of the Persian customs they adopted was the rigid segregation of women, a social convention that actually overcame religious teaching to bring the harems into existence. Islam, meanwhile, actually improved women's status, as it guaranteed them greater property rights than those enjoyed by their European counterparts; and it limited to four the number of wives a man could marry. The Koran itself did not sanction harems or the veiling of women.

The word harem referred both to a portion of a house set aside for women and children, and to a man's wife or wives. Large houses and palaces were divided into the harem and the selamlik (men's section). The seclusion of women became connected with economic standing, as only the wealthy could afford to segregate women. Poor peasant women lived in cramped one-room houses, working alongside their men to sustain daily life. While poor women were veiled in public, their freedom of movement was relatively unrestricted. All women, rich or poor, gained little protection from the institution of marriage. A husband had the right to divorce his wife whenever he wished, merely by informing her orally or in writing, "I divorce thee." Divorce, however, was extremely uncommon. Sexual purity, an important factor in marriage, was also a driving force behind the creation of harems. Since the honor of husbands and family rested on the purity of women, strict measures were taken to ensure limited contact with the opposite sex. When women left the harem, they were veiled, taking their seclusion with them.

The harem was guarded by eunuchs who protected the women and acted as go-betweens with the outside world. Eunuchs were male slaves who had been captured while young and castrated in order to serve in this unique function. (Castration was also practiced in Europe; for centuries, thousands of young boys were castrated in order to retain lovely soprano voices into adulthood and to perform in choirs and operas.) In royal palaces, a harem might consist of hundreds or even thousands of women, children, and eunuchs. Ornate furniture, luxurious baths, expensive clothing, rich food, and female servants were provided for the inhabitants. Normal activities consisted of supervising the housework, looking after the children or embroidering. Although women could visit some female neighbors or go to Turkish baths, they rarely left the harem.

By the 14th century, a number of factors had led to the decline of marriage among Ottoman rulers. One factor may have been the fear that if a sultan were defeated in war, his wife would be carried off as a trophy. Another factor was economic: since the groom traditionally gave his new wife a dowry which was then her property, one or more wives for an Ottoman sultan could cause a draining of the coffers. It must also be noted that as the Ottomans enjoyed greater and greater military success, it became increasingly customary for beautiful captives to be added to the harem without the status of a wife. Whatever the reasons, by the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, all women in the royal harem were concubines rather than wives.

It is not known when Roxelana came to Suleiman's harem. She may have been presented to him as a gift when he became sultan in September 1520. As a slave, she would have entered the complicated hierarchy of the harem with lowly status. A woman's fortunes were tied to those of her son, and therefore the highest-ranking female in the kingdom was the sultan's mother, known as haseki sultan (princess favorite); beneath her was the bas haseki sultan (chief), mother of the sultan's eldest son. Next were the women promoted to ikbal or hasodalik (fortunate) once they had been invited to share the sultan's bed. Beneath them were the gözde (in favor), or women who might eventually share the sultan's bed. The gedikliler (privileged ones) and the sagirdeler (novices) formed the two lowest ranks, to which Roxelana initially belonged.

Roxelana was slight and limber, but apart from her reddish hair was no particular beauty; her joyous, fearless nature was what made her stand out. She liked to adorn herself with bright ornaments and wear unusual costumes, and on his visits to the harem, Suleiman began to talk with her because of his interest in the lands to the North. On the day he left his scarf on her shoulder as a sign that he wished to sleep with her, she was immediately raised to a gözde.

[S]uch love does [Suleiman] bear her … that they say she has bewitched him.

—Luigi Bassano

In 1521, when Roxelana gave birth to Suleiman's son, named Mehmed, she became the third most powerful woman in the harem. Rivalry was inevitable in such a system, and Gülabahar Sultana, the mother of Mustafa, the sultan's eldest son, began to display her anger at the favors shown Roxelana. But when Gülabahar attacked and insulted Roxelana, tearing her hair, scratching her face, and saying, "Traitor, sold meat, you want to compete with me?," she miscalculated the resourcefulness of her opponent. When Suleiman next summoned Roxelana, she refused to come, sending the excuse that since she was "sold meat," with a scratched face and torn-out hair, she was unworthy to be in the sultan's presence. It was an act that could have cost her her life.

Impressed by Roxelana's fearlessness and more intrigued than ever, Suleiman sent for Gülabahar and asked if the story were true. Gülabahar replied not only that it was, but that Roxelana had gotten what she deserved. Shortly thereafter, Suleiman made his son Mustafa governor of Mansia, a province far from the seat of power; this change required Gülabahar to accompany him.

Before long, Suleiman began marrying off many of his concubines and slaves and became faithful to Roxelana. Between 1521 and 1524, she gave birth to three more sons and continued to consolidate her power. She also understood Suleiman better than did anyone else, and became much more than just a bedroom companion. The sultan was a poet, and Roxelana also had poetry in her blood. Because her written Turkish was poor, she worked to master the language, and many letters and poems to the sultan followed. She had spies who kept her informed of what was happening throughout the empire, and as her hold over the sultan increased, so did her conviction that slavery and concubinage were not for her. She was determined to become his legal wife, and this she achieved, according to the report of the festivities in 1530.

In 1534, with the death of Suleiman's mother Hafsa Hatun , Roxelana's duties increased as she became the sultan's political confidante. When he was away at war, which was often, her letters to him were filled with important information about events in the palace and capital. She was one of the few people he trusted completely, and he knew that her spies would inform her of any plots against him. Jealously guarding her proximity to her husband, she identified new rivals, in particular the sultan's inseparable friend and companion Ibrahim. Married to the sultan's sister Hatice Sultana, he held considerable power as grand vizier, until Roxelana began to undermine his position. During a military campaign Ibrahim played into her hands when he signed a document using the title of sultan. Striking swiftly, Roxelana exposed this arrogance, and Suleiman ordered the execution of his friend on March 15, 1536.

When a fire partially destroyed the harem in the sultan's old palace, Roxelana took the opportunity to make another break with tradition by moving into the sultan's residence in the grand seraglio, Topkapi; until that time, women and children had lived away from the sultan, in completely separate facilities. In new quarters located directly behind the throne room, she was closer than ever to the seat of the sultan's power. When Suleiman wanted to build his wife a new palace and return to the traditional lifestyle, Roxelana distracted him by encouraging the construction of the Süleymaniye. With the mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent, the harem gradually became part of the grand seraglio, and Roxelana never lived separately from her husband again.

Extending her influence beyond internal politics to foreign affairs, Roxelana served as Suleiman's chief diplomatic contact with Europe and assumed a powerful role as the sultan's voice in diplomatic relations. Her correspondence with Sigismund I, king of Poland, helped to maintain peace with Poland, and in 1548, she began an ongoing exchange of letters with the new king, Sigismund II, writing that she would be glad to petition Suleiman on his behalf and convey any messages to the sultan. After Suleiman's troops conquered Baghdad, she wrote to Sutanim , the sister of the Safavid monarch Sha Tahmasp, that the conquest had been aimed not at "destroying the lands of the Muslims" but at "repairing the houses of religion and adorning the lands of God's law."

In the Ottoman Empire, polygamy meant that there was often more than one rival for succession to the throne. This competition often was resolved through assassination; at the time of his

own succession, Suleiman had been the only male who lived to follow the rule of his father. Inevitably, Roxelana became engrossed in the issue of succession, since Suleiman's firstborn, Mustafa, blocked the path to the throne for her own sons. Because Mustafa was handsome and popular with both the army and the people, the sultan's consort waited until this popularity played into her hands.

Meanwhile, as her sons reached the age when they were traditionally given provinces to govern, she defied custom yet again, by remaining in Constantinople with her husband instead of accompanying a son to his new post. Since heirs were always a focal point for potential coups, she also began to work on Suleiman's fears of being overthrown. The sultan became increasingly paranoid about the intentions of Mustafa. Informed of a forged letter to the shah of Persia, supposedly written by Mustafa, about a plan to dethrone him, Suleiman had his son killed, and the succession of Roxelana's own son was thus insured.

Roxelana was not popular among the Ottoman people; she had broken too many conventions, and many considered her responsible for Mustafa's death. Some said openly that his assassination was the result of "the plotting of women and the deceit of the dishonest son-in-law." That son-in-law was Rustem, the husband of her daughter Mihrimah , who through Roxelana's intrigues had risen to the powerful position of grand vizier. It was a violation of the tradition against allowing relatives of the sultan to hold important political positions, which Suleiman had allowed because Mihrimah was his great favorite. Thus, in the eyes of many, Roxelana and Rustem became viewed as an evil duo on the political landscape, thwarting the efforts of a good sultan.

Roxelana died in 1558, after a long illness. Suleiman had her buried in his new mosque, and ordered another mosque built in her name, along with a school and a hospital, near the women's market. After her death, two of Roxelana's sons, Selim and Beyazit, fought over the succession. Beyazit had been his mother's favorite, but he intrigued with the shah of Persia, and the sultan had him assassinated. Suleiman survived his wife by only a few years, until 1566, and was succeeded by Selim (II), who proved to be a weak ruler. By then, the real power of the throne was in the hands of Mihrimah and Aysha

Humashah , daughter and granddaughter of Roxelana, continuing what came to be known as "the reign of women." This era, begun when Roxelana moved into the grand seraglio, was to last through the next 150 years of Ottoman history. (See also Reign of Women.)

Many historians who have criticized Roxelana and the "reign of women" praise Suleiman for the triumphs of the Ottoman Empire and blame Roxelana for its failings. In fact, Roxelana was like Suleiman in using her power for both good and evil, and leaving a record of successes as well as failures. Whether viewed as a positive or negative force in history, she unquestionably was not a negligible one.


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Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia

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Roxelana (c. 1504–1558)

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