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 women and slaves. The reason why was that the queen of an earlier ruler of their line had been captured by enemies, and the humiliation had been so great that the dynasty resolved to prevent a repetition by having no more queens. So instead the 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 noble woman 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. 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.
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 and make her is empress, 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, was to have one of her sons declared as heir to the throne. This could 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 typically murdered their brothers 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.”
It is said that after Mustafa’s death, Hurrem, who was thorough, had his young son Ibrahim, by an unknown slave, killed as well. She sent an Eunuch to do the job, he separated the boy from his mother and left him dead.
Hurrem continued intriguing. Her older son, Selim, was adopted as his father’s heir, but she preferred her younger son, Bayezid, who was handsome, ambitious, clever, fawning, and deceitful. She sought ways to make him the heir, and no doubt only her own sudden death saved Selim and Suleiman. She died of a violent colic in the arms of her trusting husband.
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, daughter of Mizra Abdullah Haydar Bey and his wife Nazan Hatun;
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