A Ukranian slave-girl, who by purposeful intriguing succeeded in becoming not only the wife of, but also a most influential adviser to Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, one of the most celebrated rulers of the Ottoman Empire. Roxelana is also known as Khurrem ("The laughing One", Hürrem in modern spelling) or Rossa (referring to her Ukranian-Russian origin).
Not much of a choice
The fate of Roxelana is clearly fascinating in its own right. But it also throws light on how pitifully few choices a young girl in the 16th century had for shaping her future. What would have become of her, had she not been captured by Turkish forces, but would have remained peacefully at home with her father (a Russian-Ruthenian Orthodox priest)? Being a daughter of a mere priest would probably have meant being married off to a lower-class landowner. This in turn would have implied slaving as a not-so-glorious houswife in his not-so-distinguished household. Hence, for a 16th century girl, finding the right slave-owner was not only important, it represented about all of the choices open to her.
Roxelana was born around 1510, probably in the Ukrainian village Rohatyn, as Aleksandra Lisowska. In the 1520’s she was captured by Turkish forces and taken as a slave to Constantinople. According to some accounts she was sold at the Constantinople slave market to the Sultan’s harem. This would have been rather unlikely. In all probability her Turkish captors had orders to deliver all nice-looking European maidens directly to the Sultan’s harem.
The harem of Sultan Suleyman The Magnificent housed four chief concubines – bearers of the Sultans heirs – and about 300 rank-and-file concubines, almost all of them Christian captives like Roxelana. However, according to Ottoman tradition up to that time, the Sultan was not to be officially married to any of those 300-odd women.
Magnificent young Sultan
At the time of Roxelanas arrival at the harem, Sultan Suleyman was a dashing young man in his late 20’s, about to bring the Ottoman Empire to the peak of its power and prestige. He conquered Belgrade in 1521, Rhodes in 1522, beat the Hungarians in 1526 and laid siege to Vienna in 1529. Suleyman also conquered the coast of the Arabian peninsula, Mesopotamia, North Africa and parts of Persia. He was a beloved and able administrator and legislator, rendering him the endearing epithet The Lawgiver, in addition to the more imperial-sounding The Magnificent. Suleyman the Magnificent took great interest in architecture, building a large number of monumental structures, among them the huge Suleyman Mosque (or Suleymaniye Mosque (1557), still the largest mosque in Istanbul). He also rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, a city that had become part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516 and was so to remain until the end of World War I.
The Laughing One
Roxelana entered the lowest ranks of the harem of this most successful and magnificent young ruler of a vast Empire. Before long her unique abilities elevated her to the highest level of the harem. Was sex the secret of her success? It is not likely to have been the main factor. With 300 beauties at his disposal, Suleyman’s sexual appetites were in all probability taken well care of, even without Roxelana. She became famous for her intelligence, high sprits and storytelling abilities, gaining her the nickname “Khourrem” (= The Laughing One), and making her one of Suleyman’s favorites even at official state occasions.
Systematic buildup of power
Roxelana reinforced her position step by step. As a first move, she turned against Suleyman’s head concubine Gulfem, whose son Mustafa was intended to become the heir to the throne of the Ottoman Empire. In 1534 she persuaded the Sultan to banish both to a faraway province.
Suleyman’s Grand Vizier Ibrahim was unfortunately opposed to the relationship with Roxelana. Unfortunate for Ibrahim, because Roxelana soon convinced Suleyman that Ibrahim was a scheming traitor. Ibrahim was assassinated in 1536.
With all competitors out of her way, Roxelana Khurrem became an able adviser to Suleyman in matters of state. She was active in international politics and also took great active interest in the architectural works in the Ottoman Empire.
Imperial marriage -- an unprecedented step
Roxelana was to bear Süleyman five children. To secure the succession to the throne for her children she convinced Suleyman to officially marry her. This was a radical break with Ottoman tradition – no Sultan before him had ever been married – and created stir both within the Empire and abroad.
In spite of this, the throne was not yet secured for Roxelana’s sons. Suleyman’s firstborn son Mustafa (by the earlier head concubine Gulfem) had been banished, but he had succeeded in building up provincial support for his cause. He was challenging Roxelana’s eldest sons Selim and Beyazid and their right to the throne. Such action was soon perceived as a threat to Suleyman himself, who had Mustafa captured and executed in 1553.
Roxelana died on April 18, 1558, eight years before her husband. She is buried in a mausoleum in the Suleyman Mosque in Istanbul (Constantinople), together with her husband.
After her death, her sons Selim and Beyazid quarreled about the succession, which lead to Beyazid’s death in 1561. In 1566 Selim, son of Roxelana, succeeded his father Suleyman the Magnificent as Sultan Selim II of the Ottoman Empire.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, 1994, 1995 Columbia University Press.