Hurrem Sultan “Roxelana” (c.1500 – 1558) – First of the Sultanate of Women – Haseki Sultan/Favorite Lady – Historical Femme Fatale

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Hurrem Sultan

Known by her Slavic people as Roxelana, Alesksandra Lisowska, became the ruler of the most powerful and successful ruler of his age, by great talent in using her great beauty. Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire, known as “Suleiman the Magnificent” in the west and “Suleiman the Lawgiver” in the east, came to throne in 1520 at the age of 26 and ruled until 1566 with great success in peace and war. While Suleiman won his great victories, capturing Rhodes from the Knights of St. John in 1521, taking Hungary in 1526, and besieging Vienna with an army of 200,000 men in 1529, another war was waged in his harem. The Ottoman sultans had the tradition of never marrying: their children were the offspring of harem concubine slaves. The reason why was that the Ottomans did not practice primogeniture for many hundreds of years- meaning that the eldest son (whom assumed to be the wisest son) would ascend the throne. Ottoman Princes (Sehzades) fought for the throne, ensuring that the most clever, loved, supported, and strongest prince became the next Sultan. He then executed all his brothers and their male children to eliminate any instability that could arise from civil war. Typically a concubine was only allowed to have one son, and when that son came of age, the child and his mother would be sent to a province to govern. This was to ensure that each mother protected her son fiercely and that each prince had a fair and equal chance of succession.

So instead, of having official wives, the Ottoman ruler kept up to 300 girls in his harem, most of whom had been captured as spoils of war, or bought in the slave market. When they expected a visit from their master, they dressed in their finest robes and stood in line to receive him. He placed his handkerchief upon the shoulder of the one who pleased him most, a retired with her. The next morning she would be presented with cloth of gold, to make a dress, jewels, and her allowance would be increased. She would then be moved to more lavish apartments to reside among the Sultan’s favorites. A harem girl who did not catch the Sultan’s eye by the age of 25 was freed and released to marry elsewhere. Sometimes these marriages were arranged by the Sultan’s mother with other important men of the kingdom, and a nice dowry was provided for the bride. (Keep in mind that in Islam the bride is given the dowry, not the husband.)

Catching the Sultan’s eye was the road to fortune, but those who had his favor worked hard to keep it. In the early days of Suleiman’s reign the favorite concubine was a Circassian concubine slave known as “The Rose of Spring” (Mahidevran). By her, Suleiman fathered Mustafa, his only son at the time, and heir apparent, who was a very talented youth. Mahidevran defended her position when a young Ruthenian (Russian) captive, Aleksandra, renamed Hurrem (One Who Brings Laughter/Joy) by the Sultan, was favored by the Sultan. Aleksandra came to the palace as a slave, she was captured by Tartar raiders who killed her entire family and kidnapped her. She was sold into slavery to the Crimea palace, and then given to the Sultan as a gift upon his ascension to the throne by the Crimean Tatar ruler. Aleksandra was recognized for her beauty, gaiety, and cleverness and was favored by the Sultan at once. Mahidevran ordered that the girl never let the Sultan see her face again. Harem favorites often enforced such orders by bribing the Eunuchs and/or the use of poison: their servants were ready to kill in order to defend the position of their mistress. But Hurrem refused to obey. After her face was marked in a fight with Mahidevran, she managed to be seen by Suleiman, who inquired into the cause of her disfigurement. Hurrem’s triumph, and the disgrace of her rival followed.

Hurrem was different from all the other harem concubines. For some reason she captivated the Sultan and made him fall in love with her. The Sultan spent a lot of time with her and Hurem gave him not one son, but five who survived to adulthood. She also gave him a daughter. It was obvious that when it came to Hurrem, the Sultan abandoned the thousand years of Ottoman tradition when it came to his harem. Also, she was never sent from the Palace with her eldest son. Although when her sons got older, they eventually set out to govern their province, Hurrem remained by the Sultans side. Giving her and her sons an advantage over others.

Now the acknowledged favorite, she wanted more. In 1533, Mehmed, her son by Sultan Suleiman, died. She and the emperor both felt great grief, and Suleiman gave her rich presents to console her. She used them to build a mosque; but when she asked if she was acquiring credit in heaven, the ministers told her that all good deeds done by a slave are credited in heaven to her master. Suleiman freed her, on hearing this, and she also eventually converted to Islam; then she refused to sleep with him, since Islamic law said only a wife or slave could morally sleep with a man. The Emperor found himself forced to marry her, in 1544, even though the act was contrary to the policy of his dynasty.

Hurrem worked to improve her position. Suleiman’s faithful and talented servant was his principal minister, his brother-in-law the Grand Vizier Ibrahim, a Greek convert. He was not only a servant, but also a close friend and confidant to his master. With the aid of Suleiman’s gifts an favors, he began to rival the Sultan in magnificence. Hurrem hinted that the servant might desire to become the master, planting the seed of doubt into the Sultan’s mind and heart. She continued to repeat her warnings until Suleiman finally believed them. In 1536, Ibrahim Pasha was found strangled in his bed. The Sultan had him drugged and arranged his death so that he would never know what was happening to him.

Hurrem’s next objective, having chosen a protege to replace Ibrahim as Vizier (and marrying her daughter to him to ensure his loyalty), was to have one of her sons declared as heir to the throne. This could not be easily done as the Ottomans did not practice primogeniture, in which the eldest son becomes the next ruler. The Ottoman Sultan’s could name any son heir, giving them the opportunity to chose the most able of their sons to succeed them. In addition to hating Mustafa, the son of her rival Mahidevran, she needed to get rid of him completely to make her sons secure. It was also common practice that the new Sultan’s murdered their brothers (fratricide) as they were potential rivals to the throne, and potential leaders of rebellions. She got Mustafa, who was beloved by the troops and the people, exiled to be governor of Diyarbekir, and began to whisper into the Sultan’s ear that Mustafa was so popular because he was building a party to rebel against his father.

Once Suleiman suspected this, Mustafa’s fate was sealed. Suleiman assembled an army, which he pretended was for Mustafa to command against the Persians. He summoned Mustafa, who came with Cihangir, the youngest of Hurrem’s sons, who was his closest friend, and who feared for Mustafa’s safety. Only Mustafa was admitted into the royal presence, he was disarmed first, while his brother waited anxiously outside. When Mustafa was brought before his father the Sultan, four slaves strangled him as his father watched. When the body was displayed publicly as a warning to traitors, Cihangir killed himself, saying to his father as he stabbed himself, “Monster, neither you nor my guilty mother deserves children like us.”

Controversy and stories surround Hurrem Sultan as some believe that she was a manipulator that poisoned a Sultan against his son, Shezade Mustafa, whom was a very loved and respected prince of the realm by the people and the Army. But, the truth is, no one knows any details about the Sultan and his concubines. The harem was very private and mysterious place. Only speculation can remain in the thoughts and imaginations of historians. We only know that the harem was great political machine of the Ottoman Empire. That from it came the next Sultan (one from many Sehzades by different mothers), and the marriages that formed the alliances among the gentry (the Ottoman Princesses of the Blood)… We do know that each concubine that gave birth to a son, knew that her son would have to fight to the death and become the next Sultan or be executed. After all, each concubine was only fighting for the survival of her son, so can any of them really be blamed for intrigue and manipulation when it seems like it was necessary for survival? We also know that Hurrem must have been distraught too, even after all her sons rivals were gone, as she must have understood that her own sons would have to fight for the throne too. All the bad rumors that surround her can not be proved. It is not a historic fact that Hurrem was able to convince a great and powerful sultan like Suleiman the Lawgiver to turn on and execute his Grand Vizier or his own son. But History tends to always try and blame a woman…

Despite all the negative ideas that surround her, Hurrem is considered by many historians to be the first great woman in the renown Sultanate of Women. Even though she herself never lived to see her son Sultan, nor did she rule as regent like some other Valide Sultans (akin to Queen Mother), she became someone to look up to and strive to be like by her successors. Hurrem Sultan was known for her great charity works in the Empire. She build mosques, Madrassa (Quranic schools), Women’s hospitals, Baths, and Soup Kitchens. Her soup kitchen, Haseki Sultan Imaret, was said to feed over 500 people twice a day.

Sultan Suleiman had three known wives (possibly four), but only one official wife, Hurrem.

Suleiman had three known consorts:

Gulfem Hatun, daughter of an Albanian Bey;

Mahidevran Hatun, Circassian Concubine Slave

Haseki Hurrem Sultan, daughter of Ruthenian (what is now parts of Ukraine, Russian, and Poland) Orthodox priest, Havrylo Lisovsky and his wife Leksandra Lisovsky.

Sultan Suleiman had ten known children:

Sehzade Murad – son with Gülfem

Sehzade Mustafa – son with Mahidevran

Sehzade Ahmed – son with Mahidevran

Raziye Sultan – daughter with Mahidevran

Sehzade Mehmed – son with Hürrem

Mihrimah Sultan – daughter with Hürrem

Sehzade Abdullah – son with Hürrem

Sultan Selim II – son with Hürrem

Sehzade Bayezid – son with Hürrem

Sehzade Cihangir – son with Hürrem

There is a Turkish TV Show called Magnificent Century abut Suleiman the Magnificent and Hurrem Sultan… They aired the first Season on Netflix in the US, but have not added anymore seasons. It has 4 seasons. They also aired it in a lot of countries around the world.

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