Ukrainian Slave Wife the Ruler of Islamic Empire: The Story of Roxelana (Roksolana)

The reign of Sultan Suleyman known as “the Magnificent” in Europe and “the Lawgiver” in the Islamic world (1520-66) represented the height of the Ottoman Empire,.. which was successfully influenced by a Ukrainian woman, who raised incredibly from a harem slave to the Sultan’s Chief Wife & Advisor and Mother of the Heir.

Suleiman’s domain let him call himself “Caesar of all the lands of Rome”. But the love of his life was a lightsome avatar of a “Cleopatra”.

The Husband

Suleiman I (6.11.1494 – 5/6.09.1566) was considered one of the pre-eminent rulers of 16th-century Europe, a respected rival to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1519–56), Francis I of France (1515–47), Henry VIII of England (1509–47), and Sigismund II of Poland (1548–72).

Under his leadership, the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith and became a world power. By 1566, all the major Muslim cities, many Balkan provinces (up to today’s Austria), and most of North Africa were under the control of the empire. Ottomans achieved naval dominance in the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf, and the empire continued to expand for a century after Suleiman’s death.

Suleiman personally led Ottoman armies to conquer Belgrade, Rhodes, and most of Hungary, besieged Vienna, and annexed huge territories of North Africa as far west as Morocco and most of the Middle East.

By 1517 the Ottoman Empire, then ruled by Selim I, took Palestine region from the Egyptian Mamelukes. Successor Suleiman was so taken with the city of Jerusalem and its plight (neglected for centuries under Mameluke rule), that he ordered the construction of a magnificent surrounding fortress-wall that still stands around the Jerusalem’s Old City. The rule of Suleiman and the following Ottoman Sultans brought an age of religious peace to Jerusalem. Jews, Christians and Muslims were granted the freedom of religion, and it was possible to find a Synagogue, a Church and a Mosque in the same street.

Suleiman was known as a fair ruler and an opponent of corruption, who empowered officers judging by their merits only. The nickname “Lawgiver” stems from his complete reconstruction of the Ottoman legal system.

He was a great patron of artists and philosophers, and was noted as one of the greatest Islamic poets himself, as well as an accomplished goldsmith. Some of Suleiman’s verses, composed under the nom de plume “Muhibbi”, have become Turkish proverbs, including the well-known “Everyone aims at the same meaning, but many are the versions of the story”.

He undersigned his writings as “Slave of God, powerful with the power of God, deputy of God on earth, obeying the commands of the Qur’an and enforcing them throughout the world, master of all lands, the shadow of God over all nations, Sultan of Sultans in all the lands of Persians and Arabs, the propagator of Sultanic laws, the tenth Sultan of the Ottoman Khans, Sultan, son of Sultan, Suleiman Khan“.

The Wife

Roxelana, Roxolana, Roxelane, Rossa, Ruziac (ca.1500 – 1558), is known also by her Turkish name of Khourrem (Hürrem or Karima), meaning “the cheerful / laughing one”, for her high spirits and storytelling abilities.

Sixteenth century sources are silent as to her maiden name, but later Ukrainian and Polish traditions give it as Aleksandra or Anastasia (diminutive: Nastia) Lisovska.

  • Origin

Traced back to the family of a Ukrainian, or Ruthenian, Orthodox priest, in the town of Rohatyn located 68 km south east of Lviv, the capital city of Galicia which was then part of Poland.

She was captured by Crimean Tatars during one of their frequent raids into Ukraine and taken as a slave to the Crimean city of Kaffa (Kefe in Turkish, Caffa in Italian), a major centre of the slave trade, and resold to Istanbul where she was selected for Süleyman’s Harem.

  • Career & Competition

Suleyman’s harem, like that of most Ottoman rulers, already featured four chief concubines – one which would bear the sultan’s heir – and about 300 other concubines. Like Roxelana, most women in a sultan’s harem were slaves that were given, purchased, or captured in war by the Ottomans. Almost all of them were Christians. Roxelana joined the lower ranks of the harem, but quickly became one of Suleyman’s favourites, and accompanied him on several public occasions.

This special treatment drew the ire of Suleyman’s senior consort, the Sultana Gulfem “Rose of Spring”, whose son, Mustafa, was considered to be the heir to the Ottoman throne. Roxelana used her influence over the Sultan to have Mustafa, accompanied with his mother, sent away as governor to a far province of the Empire in 1534.

Soon after, Roxelana bore Suleyman a son, who she hoped would replace Mustafa as Suleyman’s heir. (Several years later, Mustafa, of dangerously raising military power, was mysteriously strangled).

Next, Roxelana convinced Suleyman that his Grand Vizier, second-in-command with all state affairs and armies, Ibrahim Pasha (himself ex-slave, the Sultan’s friend since boyhood), was a traitor who was scheming to usurp the sultan’s power. Ibrahim, who had openly opposed Suleyman’s liaison with Roxelana, and did in fact wield an unusual amount of control and favor, was assassinated in 1536.

With her main obstacles removed, Roxelana soon climbed to the position of chief consort in the harem, as well as chief minister to the Sultan.

  • Marriage & Family

Then she managed to do what no Ottoman concubine before her had done – she convinced the Sultan to marry her.

Islamic law permitted a sultan to take up to four wives, plus as many concubines as he could afford to keep. Until Suleyman, however, no Ottoman sultan had married even once. Breaking with 300 years of Ottoman tradition, Suleiman married Roxelana in a formal ceremony. The marriage caused a stir throughout both Europe and the Islamic world.

She bore Suleyman four more children, and one of her sons, Selim, inherited the Empire. Suleyman allowed her to remain with him at court for the rest of her life, despite another tradition that when imperial heirs became of age, they would be sent along with the imperial concubine who bore them to govern remote provinces of the Empire, never to return unless their progeny succeeded to the throne.

Selim succeeded Suleyman as Sultan in 1566, after a struggle with his brother, Bayazid.

Roxelana died in 1558, eight years before her husband.

  • Influence & Activities

As Suleyman’s advisor on matters of state, she seems to have had an influence upon foreign affairs and international politics. Two of her letters to the Polish King Sigismund Augustus have been preserved and during her lifetime, the Ottoman Empire generally had peaceful relations with the Polish state. Some historians also believe that she may have intervened with her husband to control Crimean Tatar slave-raiding in her native land.

Aside from her political concerns, Khourrem engaged in several major works of public building, from Mecca to Jerusalem, perhaps modeling her charitable foundations in part after the caliph Harun al-Rashid’s wife Zubaida. Among her first foundations were a mosque, two Koranic schools, a fountain, and a women’s hospital near the “Women’s Slave Market” (Avret Pazary) in Istanbul.

As well, some of her embroidery, or at least embroidery done under her supervision, has survived, examples being given in 1547 to the Shah of Iran and in 1549 to King Sigismund Augustus.

  • Memory

Khourrem is buried in a domed mausoleum decorated in exquisite Iznik tiles depicting the garden of paradise, perhaps in homage to her smiling and joyful nature. Her mausoleum is adjacent to Suleyman’s, a separate and more somber domed structure, at the Süleymaniye Mosque.

Khourem-Roxelana is well-known both in modern Turkey and in the West, being the subject of paintings, musical works including a symphony by Haydn and an opera by Sichynsky, a ballet, plays, and novels, especially in Ukrainian, but also in English, French, and German. Referred below are some interesting historical works.

And one Suleiman’s poem for Khourrem…

“Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan,
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.”

  • Portrait pictures, and the original texts compiled above:

  • More sources:

* Thomas M. Prymak, “Roxolana: Wife of Suleiman the Magnificent,” Nashe zhyttia/Our Life, LII, 10 (New York, 1995), 15-20. A nicely illustrated popular-style article in English with a bibliography.

* Historical novels in EnglishColin Falconer, Aileen Crawley (1981-83), Louis Gardel (2003). In UkrainianPavlo Zahrebelnyi (1980), Osyp Nazaruk (1930), Mykola Lazorsky (1965), - all reprinted recently. In French, there is a fictionalized biography by Willy Sperco (1972), and in German, a novel by Johannes Tralow (1944; reprinted many times).

* Zygmunt Abrahamowicz, “Roksolana,” Polski Slownik Biograficzny, vo. XXXI (Wroclaw-etc., 1988-89), 543-5. A well-informed article in Polish by a distinguished Polish Turkologist.

* Galina Yermolenko, “Roxolana: The Greatest Empresse of the East,” The Muslim World, 95, 2 (2005), 231-48. Also available on-line to subscribers. Makes good use of European, especially Italian, sources and is familiar with the literature in Ukrainian and Polish.

Broader picture

15 Responses to “Ukrainian Slave Wife the Ruler of Islamic Empire: The Story of Roxelana (Roksolana)”

  1. canajun Says:

    Very telling of the women of your country Natalia. Do these traits still live in the blood of your country? Or has it been lost to the ages?

  2. wonderlander Says:

    I would call Roksolana a kind of role model to our women. Her name is reflected in girls’ names and company trademarks. There were also long and popular TV series with a sequel, starring top-ranked local actors.

    Orloff Productions announces a sequel too: about our women inspiring artists, writers and composers of the XX century. )

  3. james shelley Says:

    Full title of Suleiman the Magnificent, Rok’s husband:

    His Imperial Majesty The Sultan Süleyman I,
    Sovereign of the Imperial House of Osman,
    Sultan of Sultans,
    Khan of Khans,
    Commander of the Faithful and Successor of the Prophet of the Lord of the Universe,
    Protector of the Holy Cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem,
    Emperor of The Three Cities of Constantinople, Adrianople and Bursa, and of the Cities of Damascus and Cairo, of all Azerbaijan, of the Magris, of Barka, of Kairuan, of Aleppo, of Arabic Iraq and of Ajim, of Basra, of El Hasa, of Dilen, of Raka, of Mosul, of Parthia, of Diyarbakır, of Cilicia, of the Vilayets of Erzurum, of Sivas, of Adana, of Karaman, Van, of Barbary, of Abyssinia, of Tunisia, of Tripoli, of Damascus, of Cyprus, of Rhodes, of Candia, of the Vilayet of the Morea, of the Marmara Sea, the Black Sea and also its coasts, of Anatolia, of Rumelia, Baghdad, Kurdistan, Greece, Turkistan, Tartary, Circassia, of the two regions of Kabarda, of Georgia, of the plain of Kypshak, of the whole country of the Tartars, of Kefa and of all the neighbouring countries, of Bosnia and its dependencies, of the City and Fort of Belgrade, of the Vilayet (District) of Serbia, with all the castles, forts and cities, of all Albania, of all Iflak and Bogdania, as well as all the dependencies and borders, and many other countries and cities.

    Whew! Talk about a mouthful.

    • Anonymous Says:

      She reminds me Katherina “the poisoner”.
      Only she seems more sophisticated,
      because of course she was younger
      and used another “weapon”…

  4. Ocean Says:

    the story is not about Roxalana but about soltan solayman which gave her this power to cooperat manage the biggest empire in this period.
    which this story show with evidence how islam religion give the woman the right to cooperate with a man to rule the country and other things.

  5. nurkholis Says:

    This is the proof that islam was, is and will always be the relegion of freedom. Roxana never pushed to convert to Islam while she become wife of the superpower leader at the time no country in the west could do harm to ottoman.
    Can Cristian follower do the same thing ???i doubt it but i still hope it can be…

    • wonderlander Says:

      Dear nurkholis,
      you may freely share a link to this article, but I won’t like it to be used in speculations like “which religion is better”. First of all, a person who has undergone what Roxelana has would never desire the same to others. And it’s difficult to call a religion freedom-friendly whereas some of its practitioners still cut off a young wife’s nose or legs if she tries to run away from an abusive new family. Or a monarch locks his daughter in a room without light for the rest of her life for the reason of her love to a foreigner.

      • al Says:

        Dear Wonderlander
        I totally agree with Nurkholis comment made above. I am not sure what are you referring to with your stupid comments. The world has lot of bad and good things and it has nothing to do with religiion you are referring or monarch. I think it is possibile in any culture or any part of the world where daughter, son, man or woman is locked in his or her room for the rest of life wihtout light. It is also possibile in any government prisons. Take a example of Princess Diana and imagine how rulers can be bad and to what extend.

    • Anonymous Says:

      Yes, if she converts to christianity, as hurrem converted to islam ;) Btw, that has nothing to do with religion, she was just smart enough to make him want only her

    • nnss Says:

      how come all concubines were non- muslims? because it is free in islam to enslave people of other religions. if this is a sign of freedom, i guess it would be useless to continue a debate with you.

  6. nurkholis Says:

    i ask permission to copy this beautiful article onto my blog,

  7. HumbleOpinion Says:

    Thank you for posting this story of Roxalena. As for the ”freedom of religion” comment and the delusional analysis of Roxalena’s life, I can think of a more ”beautiful” outcome. She was purchased as a slave. Returning her to her family would have been humane/kind. The reality is, had she not charmed the Sultan, she would be concubine #301 with no prospects of freedom, marriage, having children, under the rule of a eunuch who equally did not enter or reside in the harem with freedom. She bravely endured much prior to her days of power. Making this story into a Christian/Muslim comparison was a huge mistake. One slave out of thousands rises to the top, and this becomes a story of ”freedom?” Wonderlander, great article on a strong, brave woman who overcame huge adversity.

    • Maja Says:

      I totally agree with HumbleOpinion. We cannot make a conclusion over one slave. I have read many articles about the Ottoman Empire and I really believe that ” freedom of religion” was not possible, facing the fact that every slave that have entered the Harem, must be Christian?! Muslim women were not allowed to enter the Harem. My point is that Roxelana and many other women/slaves have suffered a lot. They had nice clothes, jewelry and etc, but in the end of the day , they were only slaves.

  8. Jason Says:

    I don’t know why this woman is held up as a positive example, she had one of her rivals (Gülşah Haseki Sultan) tortured and murdered along with said rival’s daughter so that her son could assume the throne, and that was after she tricked the Sultan (her husband) into killing his first born son (Mustafa) by telling him that he had commited treason. Note to self: don’t marry a Ruthenian woman.

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