Why you should care

Because she burst through the Ottoman Empire’s glass ceiling … in the 16th century.

The Whisperers: An OZY series exploring the powers behind the powerful.The Whisperers: An OZY series exploring the powers behind the powerful.

The letter reads as genuinely as any piece of correspondence a longing lover might send to their beloved: “Like a nightingale whose sighs and cries for help do not cease, I am in such a state due to being away from you. I would pray to Allah to not inflict this pain even upon your enemies.”

Depending on whom you ask, the words are those of a wife possessing exceptional charm and a deep sense of devotion, or those of a cunning manipulator influencing one of history’s pre-eminent Ottoman sultans.

Either way, one thing is clear: Roxelana, better known as Hurrem Sultan, used a potent combination of intelligence and grace to transform herself from Suleiman the Magnificent’s favorite concubine into a key political operator in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire. Upending hundreds of years of tradition, Roxelana acquired the kind of outsize influence no woman before her had ever enjoyed in the empire, leaving a lasting imprint on both Ottoman history and European imagination, according to DeSales University English professor Galina Yermolenko. “It really is a unique love story,” she says.

What made Roxelana’s meteoric rise even more impressive were her humble beginnings. Kidnapped by Tatar traders from an area controlled by the kingdom of Poland (now in modern-day western Ukraine), the Slavic teenager was enslaved and transported to Istanbul sometime between 1517 and 1520. There she was trained in how to be a concubine, a task she undertook with a keen sense of survival, says Leslie Peirce, a history professor at New York University and author of Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire.

Haseki hürrem sultan (roxelana)

Rules be damned: Roxelana rocked the Sultan’s court.

Source Creative Commons

Introduced to Suleiman around 1520, either just before or during the first year of his reign, Roxelana wasted little time winning his heart. Within a few short years of giving birth to a son, Mehmed, Roxelana bore Suleiman another four, plus a daughter — thus ending the Muslim empire’s one-son-per-concubine tradition — while also marrying the sultan. These were just two among many Ottoman conventions that Roxelana would gradually undo as she rose to prominence within the closed imperial court. “A lot of rules got broken,” says Peirce.

Commanding Suleiman’s affection allowed the convivial Roxelana (her Ottoman name meant “joyful one”) to burrow deep into the heart of power. When the sultan was away conducting military campaigns abroad, she served as his eyes and ears at home, keeping up regular correspondence and even offering political counsel in the process. She oversaw massive construction projects in the capital — the activities of concubine mothers were usually reserved to the provinces — and dabbled in diplomatic relations on the sultan’s behalf. “He pretty much trusted her with everything,” says Yermolenko. Foreign diplomats and other political observers were reportedly well aware of Roxelana’s stature: Her name was given to her by contemporary Ottoman-watchers as a nod to her Slavic background, since her birth name was unknown.

Why Suleiman chose to elevate his favorite concubine to such prominence is still unclear. Love, of course, is a powerful argument. But Peirce also points to the emergence of other powerful women in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, such as Isabella I of Castile and Anne Boleyn, and speculates whether the sultan sought a European-style queen to rule alongside him. Either way, Peirce says, by establishing the foundation for what would eventually become the imperial harem, Roxelana brought “women right into the heart of government.”

Yet for centuries, before more detailed evidence became available, Western chroniclers portrayed Roxelana as a conniving, power-hungry social climber. Many believed her influence was downright devious. Ordinary Ottomans were already resentful of her place in their ruler’s court, but her image worsened after speculation that she had convinced Suleiman to order the 1553 execution of Prince Mustafa, his 38-year-old firstborn son by another woman. In power for decades, the aging Suleiman feared a potential threat to his throne from his popular and strong-willed son, while Roxelana shared an interest in propelling her own sons — who lacked the same level of public popularity — into power. The event also influenced her image abroad as a cold and calculating schemer, as well as a cautionary tale to European princes, Yermolenko adds, who may have been keen on including women in their own courts.

But not so fast, many contemporary historians say: The Ottoman world’s most successful sultan wasn’t easily fooled, and Mustafa’s execution may well have been Suleiman’s sober-minded choice. More accurate, they believe, would be to portray the power couple as mutually reinforcing — and, yes, in love. “Just about everything about her [Roxelana] has been so embellished,” Yermolenko says, “that at this point, it is very hard to separate fact from fiction.”

Roxelana died in 1558, a few years before one of her children with Suleimain, Selim II, succeeded his father to the throne. Claiming her spot in history alongside other powerful women who began as mistresses, such as King Louis XV’s Madame de Pompadour, the Ottoman “empress” may not have been universally loved. But in true revolutionary spirit, she would change the Turkish empire for generations to come — regardless of what anyone thought.

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