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Portrait by Titian titled La Sultana Rossa, c. 1550
|Haseki Sultan of the Ottoman Empire
|Tenure||1533/1534 – 15 April 1558|
Rohatyn, Kingdom of Poland
|Died||15 April 1558 (aged 52–56)
Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, Ottoman Empire
Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul
|Spouse||Süleyman the Magnificent|
|Religion||Islam, previously Orthodox Christian|
Hurrem Sultan (Turkish pronunciation: [hyɾˈɾæm suɫˈtan], Ottoman Turkish: خرم سلطان, Ḫurrem Sulṭān, Turkish: Hürrem Sultan; c. 1502 – 15 April 1558), often called Roxelana, was the chief consort and legal wife of the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. She had six children with Süleyman: Şehzade Mehmed, Mihrimah Sultan, Şehzade Abdullah, Sultan Selim II, Şehzade Bayezid, and Şehzade Cihangir. She became one of the most powerful and influential women in Ottoman history and a prominent and controversial figure during the era known as the Sultanate of Women. She was the first ever "Haseki Sultan" (favorite of the Sultan) when her husband, Süleyman I, reigned as the Ottoman sultan. She achieved power and influenced the politics of the Ottoman Empire through her husband and played an active role in the state affairs of the Empire.
Hurrem's birth name is unknown. Leslie P. Peirce has written that it may have been either Anastasia, or Aleksandra Lisowska. Among the Ottomans, she was known mainly as Haseki Hurrem Sultan or Hurrem Haseki Sultan. Hurrem or Khorram (Persian: خرم) means "the cheerful one" in Persian.
Sources indicate that Hurrem Sultan was originally from Ruthenia now Ukraine , which was then part of the Kingdom of Poland. She was born in the town of Rohatyn 68 km south-east of Lwów, a major city of the Ruthenian Voivodeship in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. According to late 16th-century and early 17th-century sources, such as the Polish poet Samuel Twardowski (died 1661), who researched the subject in Turkey, Hurrem was seemingly born to a father who was an Orthodox priest surnamed Lisowski.
In the 1520s, Crimean Tatars kidnapped her during one of their Crimean–Nogai raids into East Slavic lands. The Tatars may have first taken her to the Crimean city of Kaffa, a major centre of the Ottoman slave trade, before she was taken to Istanbul. In Istanbul, Valide Sultan Hasfa Sultan selected Hurrem as a gift for her son, Sultan Süleyman; Hurrem was to become the Haseki Sultan or "favorite concubine" of the Ottoman imperial harem. Michalo Lituanus wrote in the 16th century that "the most beloved wife of the present Turkish emperor – mother of his primogenital [son] who will govern after him, was kidnapped from our land".[i]
Shaykh Qutb al-Din al-Nahrawali, a Meccan religious figure, who visited Istanbul in late 1557, noted in his memoirs that Hurrem Sultan was allegedly of Russian nationality. She had been a servant in the household of Hançerli Fatma Sultan, daughter of Şehzade Mahmud, son of Sultan Bayezid II. She was presented to Suleiman when he was still a prince.
Relationship with Süleyman
Roxelana, called Hurrem Sultan, probably entered the harem around fifteen years of age. The precise year that she entered the harem is unknown, but scholars believe that she became Suleiman's concubine around the time he became sultan in 1520.
Hurrem's unprecedented rise from harem slave to Süleyman's legal wife and "queen of the Ottoman Empire" attracted jealousy and disfavor not only from her rivals in the harem, but also from the general populace. She soon became Süleyman's most prominent consort beside Mahidevran Sultan (also known as Gülbahar). While the exact dates for the births of her children are disputed, there is academic consensus that the births of her five children —Şehzade Mehmed, Mihrimah Sultan, Şehzade Abdullah, Sultan Selim II and Şehzade Bayezid — occurred quickly over the next four to five years.:130 Süleyman and Hurrem's last child, Şehzade Cihangir was born with a hunchback, but by that time Hurrem had borne enough healthy sons to secure the future of the Ottoman dynasty.:131
Her joyful spirit and playful temperament earned her a new name, Hurrem, from Persian Khorram, "the cheerful one". In the Istanbul harem, Hurrem became a rival to Mahidevran and her influence over the Sultan soon became legendary. Hurrem was allowed to give birth to more than one son which was a stark violation of the old imperial harem principle, "one concubine mother — one son," which was designed to prevent both the mother's influence over the sultan and the feuds of the blood brothers for the throne. She was to bear the majority of Süleyman's children. Hurrem gave birth to her first son Mehmed in 1521 (he died in 1543) and then to four more sons, destroying Mahidevran's status as the mother of the sultan's only son. Süleyman's mother, Hafsa, partially suppressed the rivalry between the two women. As a result of the bitter rivalry a fight between the two women broke out, with Mahidevran beating Hurrem, which angered Süleyman.
In 1533 or 1534 (the exact date is unknown), Süleyman married Hurrem in a magnificent formal ceremony, making him the first Ottoman Sultan to wed since Orhan Ghazi (reign 1326–1362), and violating a 200-year-old custom of the Ottoman imperial house according to which sultans were not to marry their concubines. Never before was a former slave elevated to the status of the sultan's lawful spouse, much to the astonishment of observers in the palace and in the city. Hurrem also received the title Haseki Sultan and became the first consort to hold this title. This title, used for a century, reflected the great power of imperial consorts (most of them were former slaves) in the Ottoman court, elevating their status higher than Ottoman princesses, and making them the equals of empresses consort in Europe. In this case, Süleyman not only broke the old custom, but created new tradition for the future Ottoman Sultans to marry with a formal ceremony and make their consorts have significant influence on the court, especially in matter of succession. Hurrem's salary was 2,000 aspers a day, making her one of the highest paid hasekis. Their marriage had subsequent consequences including creating a general belief that by this marriage the Sultan had limited his autonomy and was dominated and controlled by his wife. Furthermore, a mother's role in educating and guiding her sons throughout their life became more prominent.
Later, Hurrem became the first woman to remain in the Sultan's court for the duration of her life. In the Ottoman imperial family tradition, a sultan's consort was to remain in the harem only until her son came of age (around 16 or 17), after which he would be sent away from the capital to govern a faraway province, and his mother would follow him. This tradition was called Sanjak Beyliği. The consorts were never to return to Istanbul unless their sons succeeded to the throne. In defiance of this age-old custom, Hurrem stayed behind in the harem with her hunchback son Cihangir, even after her three other sons went to govern the empire's remote provinces.
Moreover, in addition to remaining in Istanbul, she also moved out of the harem located in the Old Palace (Eski Saray) and permanently moved into the Topkapı Palace after a fire destroyed the old harem. Some sources say she moved to Topkapı, not because of the fire, but as a result of her marriage to Süleyman. Either way, this was another significant break from established customs, as Fatih Sultan Mehmed had specifically issued a decree to the effect that no women would be allowed to reside in the same building where government affairs were conducted.:131 After Hüurem resided at Topkapı it became known as the New Palace (saray-ı jedid).
Under his pen name, Muhibbi, Sultan Süleyman composed this poem for Hurrem Sultan:
"Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.
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."
Hurrem became Süleyman's partner not only in the Sultan's household, but also in state affairs. Thanks to her intelligence, she acted as Süleyman's chief adviser on matters of state, and seems to have had an influence upon foreign policy and international politics. She frequently accompanied him as a political adviser. Hurrem's influence on Süleyman was so significant that rumors circulated around the Ottoman court that the sultan had been bewitched.
Her influence with Süleyman made her one of the most powerful women in Ottoman history and in the world at that time. Even as a consort, her power was comparable with the most powerful woman of the Imperial Harem, who by tradition was the Sultan's mother or valide sultan. For this reason, she has become a controversial figure in Ottoman history — subject to allegations of plotting against and manipulating her political rivals.
Hurrem's influence in state affairs not only made her one of the most influential women, but also a controversial figure in Ottoman history, especially in her rivalry with Mahidevran Sultan and her son şehzade Mustafa, Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha, and Kara Ahmed Pasha.
Hurrem and Mahidevran had borne Süleyman six şehzades (Ottoman princes), four of whom survived past the 1550s: Mustafa, Selim, Bayezid, and Cihangir. Of these, Mahidevran's son Mustafa was the eldest and preceded Hurrem's children in the order of succession. Traditionally, when a new sultan rose to power, all of his brothers were killed in order to ensure the stability of the empire. This practice is called kardeş katliamı.
Mustafa was supported by Ibrahim Pasha, who became Süleyman's Grand Vizier in 1523. Hurrem has usually been held at least partly responsible for the intrigues in nominating a successor.:132 Although she was Süleyman's wife, she exercised no official public role. This did not, however, prevent Hurrem from wielding powerful political influence. Since the empire lacked, until the reign of Ahmed I (1603–1617), any formal means of nominating a successor, successions usually involved the death of competing princes in order to avert civil unrest and rebellions. In attempting to avoid the execution of her sons, Hurrem used her influence to eliminate those who supported Mustafa's accession to the throne.
A skilled commander of Süleyman's army, Ibrahim eventually fell from grace after an imprudence committed during a campaign against the Persian Safavid empire during the Ottoman–Safavid War (1532–55), when he awarded himself a title including the word "Sultan". Another conflict occurred when Ibrahim and his former mentor, İskender Çelebi, repeatedly clashed over military leadership and positions during the Safavid war. These incidents launched a series of events which culminated in his execution in 1536 by Süleyman's order. It is believed that Hurrem's influence contributed to Süleyman's decision. After three other grand viziers in eight years, Süleyman selected Hurrem's son-in-law, Damat Rüstem Pasha, husband of Mihrimah, to become the grand vizier. Scholars have wondered if Hurrem's alliance with Mihrimah Sultan and Rüstem Pasha helped secure the throne for one of Hurrem's sons.:132
Many years later, towards the end of Süleyman's long reign, the rivalry between his sons became evident. Mustafa was later accused of causing unrest. During the campaign against Safavid Persia in 1553, because of fear of rebellion, Süleyman ordered the execution of Mustafa. According to a source he was executed that very year on charges of planning to dethrone his father; his guilt for the treason of which he was accused remains neither proven nor disproven. After the death of Mustafa, Mahidevran lost her status in the palace (as the mother of the heir apparent) and moved to Bursa. She did not spend her last years in poverty, as her stepson, Selim II, the new sultan after 1566, put her on a lavish salary. Her rehabilitation had been possible after the death of Hurrem in 1558. Cihangir, Hurrem's youngest child, allegedly died of grief a few months after the news of his half-brother's murder.
Although the stories about Hurrem's role in executions of Ibrahim, Mustafa, and Kara Ahmed are very popular, actually none of them are based on first-hand sources. All other depictions of Hurrem, starting with comments by sixteenth and seventeenth-century Ottoman historians as well as by European diplomats, observers, and travellers, are highly derivative and speculative in nature. Because none of these people – neither Ottomans nor foreign visitors – were permitted into the inner circle of the imperial harem, which was surrounded by multiple walls, they largely relied on the testimony of the servants or courtiers or on the popular gossip circulating around Istanbul. Even the reports of the Venetian ambassadors (baili) at Süleyman's court, the most extensive and objective first-hand Western source on Hurrem to date, were often filled with the authors’ own interpretations of the harem rumours. Most other sixteenth-century Western sources on Hurrem, which are considered highly authoritative today — such as Turcicae epistolae (English: The Turkish Letters) of Ogier de Busbecq, the Emissary of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I at the Porte between 1554 and 1562; the account of the murder of Şehzade Mustafa by Nicholas de Moffan; the historical chronicles on Turkey by Paolo Giovio; and the travel narrative by Luidgi Bassano — derived from hearsay.
Hurrem acted as Süleyman's advisor on matters of state, and seems to have had an influence upon foreign policy and on international politics. Two of her letters to King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland (reigned 1548–1572) have survived, and during her lifetime the Ottoman Empire generally had peaceful relations with the Polish state within a Polish–Ottoman alliance.
In her first short letter to Sigismund II, Hurrem expresses her highest joy and congratulations to the new king on the occasion of his ascension to the Polish throne after the death of his father Sigismund I in 1548. She also pleads with the King to trust her envoy Hassan Ağa who took another message from her by word of mouth. In her second letter to Sigismund August, written in response to his letter, Hurrem expresses in superlative terms her joy at hearing that the king is in good health and that he sends assurances of his sincere friendliness and attachment towards Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. She also quotes the sultan as saying, "with the old king we were like brothers, and if it pleases the All-Merciful God, with this king we will be as father and son." With this letter, Hurrem sent Sigismund II the gift of two pairs of linen shirts and pants, some belts, six handkerchiefs, and a hand-towel, with a promise to send a special linen robe in the future.
There are reasons to believe that these two letters were more than just diplomatic gestures, and that Süleyman's references to brotherly or fatherly feelings were not a mere tribute to political expediency. The letters also suggest Hurrem's strong desire to establish personal contact with the king. In his 1551 letter to Sigismund II concerning the embassy of Piotr Opalinski, Süleyman wrote that the Ambassador had seen "Your sister and my wife." Whether this phrase refers to a warm friendship between the Polish King and Ottoman Haseki, or whether it suggests a closer relation, the degree of their intimacy definitely points to a special link between the two states at the time.
Aside from her political concerns, Hurrem engaged in several major works of public buildings, from Mecca to Jerusalem, perhaps modelling her charitable foundations in part after the caliph Harun al-Rashid's consort Zubaida. Among her first foundations were a mosque, two Koranic schools (madrassa), a fountain, and a women's hospital near the women's slave market (Avret Pazary) in Istanbul (Haseki Sultan Complex). It was the first complex constructed in Istanbul by Mimar Sinan in his new position as the chief imperial architect. The fact that it was the third largest building in the capital, after the complexes of Mehmed II (Fatih) and Süleyman (Süleymaniye mosque), testifies to Hurrem's great status. She also built mosque complexes in Adrianopole and Ankara.
She commissioned a bath, the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, to serve the community of worshippers in the nearby Hagia Sophia. In Jerusalem she established in 1552 the Haseki Sultan Imaret, a public soup kitchen to feed the poor and the needy. This soup kitchen was said to have fed at least 500 people twice a day. She also built Imaret Haseki Hurrem, public soup kitchen in Mecca.
Esther Handali acted as her secretary and intermediary on several occasions.
Hürrem died on 15 April 1558 and was buried in a domed mausoleum (türbe) decorated in exquisite Iznik tiles depicting the garden of paradise, perhaps in homage to her smiling and joyful nature. Her mausoleum is adjacent to Süleyman's, a separate and more sombre domed structure, at the courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque.
Hurrem Haseki Sultan, or Roxelana, is well-known both in modern Turkey and in the West, and is the subject of many artistic works. In 1561, three years after Hurrem's death, the French author Gabriel Bounin wrote a tragedy titled La Soltane. This tragedy marks the first time the Ottomans were introduced on stage in France. She has inspired paintings, musical works (including Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 63), an opera by Denys Sichynsky, a ballet, plays, and several novels written mainly in Russian and Ukrainian, but also in English, French, and German.
In early modern Spain, she appears or is alluded to in works by Quevedo and other writers as well as in a number of plays by Lope de Vega. In a play entitled The Holy League, Titian appears on stage at the Venetian Senate, and stating that he has just come from visiting the Sultan, displays his painting of Sultana Rossa or Roxelana.
In the 2003 TV miniseries, Hürrem Sultan, she was played by Turkish actress and singer Gülben Ergen. In the 2011–2014 TV series Muhteşem Yüzyıl, Hurrem Sultan is portrayed by Turkish-German actress Meryem Uzerli from season one to season three and at the series' last season she is portrayed by Turkish actress Vahide Perçin.
In 2019, mention of the Russian origin of Roxelana was removed from the visitor panel near her tomb at the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul at the request of the Ukrainian Embassy in Turkey.
With Süleyman, she had five sons and one daughter.
- Mehmed (c. 1521 – 6 November 1543): Hurrem's first son. Born in 1521 at Istanbul. Mehmed became the ruler of Manisa from 1541 until his death.
- Mihrimah (21 March 1522 – 25 January 1578): Hurrem's only daughter. She was married to Rüstem, later Ottoman Grand Vizier, on 26 November 1539.
- Abdullah (1522 – 1526)
- Selim (28 May 1524 – 12/15 December 1574): He was governor of Manisa after Mehmed's death and later governor of Konya. He ascended to the throne on 7 September 1566 as Selim II.
- Bayezid (1525 – 25 September 1561): He was governor of Kütahya and later Amasya.
- Cihangir (9 December 1531 – 27 November 1553)
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