Wednesday 5 April 2023

Story of A Slave Concubine Roxolana:-Who Became Powerful Queen of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman The Magnificent

 Behind every strong man, there is a strong woman. A girl born and raised in what is now western Ukraine, was, “abducted, and snatched away. Fate dictated that she would become the wife of a Sultan.

At age 17 she was captured and taken to Istanbul. There the girl was bought by the great vizier Ibrahim Pasha and delivered in the Sultan's harem. After some time, Roxelana became a concubine and favorite who ascended the throne of Suleiman I.


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.


Roxelana is what she was called by the Europeans but among the Ottomans she was called Hurrem, which means joyful, mirthful.


Much of Hurrem Sultan’s early life is theoretical or simply unknown. Her name may have been Anastasia or Alexandra Lebowski 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.


She 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.

Roxolana-Hurrem Sultan

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.


Slavic 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.


The young Ruthenian slave acquired two new names once she entered the royal household. One of these names was “Roxelana”, meaning “maid from Ruthenia”.

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.


It was Suleiman’s mother, Hafsa Sultan, who selected  Roxolana 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.


However their first meeting played out, fate decreed that Hurrem would spend a night with Suleiman. The combination of her fine Slavic 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.

Hurrem converted to Islam, and entered the imperial harem as a slave before the year 1520 and Suleiman’s ascension to the throne.

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.


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. 

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

When her husband 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 uncontrolled 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 converted to Islam, and entered the imperial harem as a slave before the year 1520 and Suleiman’s ascension to the throne.


She also used her love to exert influence over matters of state. As the sultan’s advisor and confidante, she was the first to receive the title ‘Haseki Sultan’ – the chief consort. Hurrem also managed to ensure that it was her son, and not one from the other wives or concubines, who inherited the throne.

The powerful Hurrem Sultan took an active role in internal politics and international relations, not just connected to the fate of her children. Often described as manipulative and power-hungry (she was accused of bewitching Suleiman), Hurrem was also involved in several charity initiatives.

Death of Roxelana

Roxelana did not live to see her greatest ambition, the ascension of her son to the throne, become reality. She died on April 15th, 1558 – eight years before her husband’s death, and her son Selim becoming the ruler of the Ottoman Empire. She was buried in a mausoleum in the courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque. 

Süleymaniye Masjid

The century that followed was to become known as the “Sultanate of Women”, one in which royal wives and mother’s wielded power via political influence over their royal men — all due to the legacy of a nameless slave.

The end

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