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”.
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“.
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.
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.
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 English: Colin Falconer, Aileen Crawley (1981-83), Louis Gardel (2003). In Ukrainian: Pavlo 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.