Asian History · biography · european history · history · ottoman history

The Rise of Roxelana

Roxelana’s notoriety has lasted long after the end of her life. Despite her status as a female slave in a patriarchal society, she would go on to make her mark in politics, break traditions, and create an example for royal women in the future of the Ottoman Empire. She also founded many charitable foundations throughout Istanbul and beyond. Roxelana would gain the title Haseki Sultan of and become the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. To many, Roxelana may be an unknown figure in history, but she has always been a person of interest to me. I had watched the first season of the Turkish drama, Magnificent Century, and was inspired to learn more. I have been very excited to create this post and hope to bring more awareness to Roxelana’s impact in Ottoman history and women’s history.

16th century portrait of Roxelana titled Rosa Solymanni Vxor

Roxelana was likely born in Ruthenia. This would have been in modern day Ukraine. During the 16th century, this area was ruled by the King of Poland. After Roxelana’s notoriety grew, many different parts of Europe tried to claim her for their own (France, Italy, etc), but Ruthenia is the best estimation of her origins based on the evidence historians have. Roxelana was born around 1505. As a young girl she was captured by Tartar raiders who then sold her to the Istanbul slave market. Slavery was a huge part of the Ottoman economy. Their captives would come from many areas throughout the enormous empire and from trading partners. These areas included Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. As Leslie Peirce points out in her biography on Roxelana, so many of the Slavic-speaking people were taken that the origin of the word “slave” comes from Slav.

After her capture, Roxelana was likely taken to Caffa to be sold on the slave trade. It was there that she may have been purchased by imperial agents for palace service or at least shipped to the market in Istanbul. It can be inferred that Roxelana held a lot of inner strength as a young girl. She had just been torn from her family and her homeland. She successfully made the dangerous journey across the Black Sea to Istanbul as slaves were never treated well by their owners. She would have to have been strong willed and brave to make it through with her will to survive still intact.

Eventually, Roxelana was sold to the imperial palace and into Sultan Suleiman’s harem. In the Ottoman Empire, slaves made up much of the palace staff and held a great deal of power. The palace slaves, both male and female, were actually better educated than many citizens. They all had to learn the language, proper etiquette, religion (all were converted to Islam), and political skills. The reason the slaves were more educated was to gain their loyalty to the empire. The harem concubines were especially well-trained as they held an important duty to the empire.  There was also opportunity for advancement and wealth. Many government officials had once been slaves and the entire imperial harem was made of captured slaves from outside the empire. The eunuchs who served as guards in the harem and many of the military janissaries were also slaves. Yet, based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, slaves were usually freed after a seven-year term of service.

It is said that Roxelana may have been a gift to the young Sultan Suleiman and may have had a wealthy patron before this presentation. This was to her advantage if she was to succeed. She would have received superior training. To be a successful concubine, she would have had to have not only a healthy body, but a healthy mind. She would need to know the customs (ex: how to dress, when to bow, etc). Political survival was key in this world, where everyone was a rival. A concubine had an important role to play in Ottoman culture and intelligence was key.

The Ottoman Empire had a very different set up compared to European courts in regards to marriage and lineage. In Ottoman society, mothers of potential heirs were extremely important. It was their job to dedicate their lives to make sure their son was prepared to take on the sultanate. By 1400, the Ottoman sultans discarded the practice of marrying foreign princesses and instead relied on slave concubines. A foreign princess’s loyalty would be split between her own son and her native country. She could not be completely dedicated to her son. A concubine had no loyalties and her son would be all she had. Once the concubine had a son, she knew that her future would be secure. As a mother, she could not be sold and would automatically be freed once her master had passed. She would also gain a higher salary and a higher status in the harem. Yet, once she was a mother of a prince, she was not eligible to continue relations with the Sultan. Her life would be dedicated to that of her son and his preparation to become the best sultan. There was no order to which son would take over after his father, as it did not follow the primogeniture system. All brothers were essentially rivals and, once the father passed, it would go to the survivor of the bloody fights that followed.  Suleiman’s own father, Selim I, overthrew his father then had all his brothers and nephews put to death so he could win the throne.

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Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent

Before Roxelana came on the scene, Suleiman already had four children. Each prince began to build their own harems before they came to the throne as the creation of heirs was high importance in a war-torn era. Their names were Mahmud, Mustafa, Murad and a daughter (whose name is not confirmed). They each had different mothers which illustrates the Ottoman system. The most remembered is Roxelana’s rival, Mahidevran. She was the mother of Mustafa. Each mother had passed the first phase of their life as a concubine and now moved into the important role of motherhood. Their attention was wholly devoted to their son and mentoring him to become the best candidate for the throne. Daughters were cherished but did not take the mother out of the running from producing a son. In 1521, the first three children died which left Mustafa as the eldest son of the Sultan and Mahidevran in the highest position (until Roxelana came onto the scene).

Hierarchy was important in the harem. The harem was in the Old Palace in Istanbul, which was the domain of women, and contained the Sultan’s honored mother, all the concubines, and his children. Princesses who were unmarried and widows would also come to stay in the harem. The harem was also staffed by many servants and the eunuch corps who protected the occupants (men, besides the Sultan, were not allowed in the Old Palace, so eunuchs had to be the guardians). The New Palace was the place for men, the Sultan and government officials. The mother of the reigning Sultan held the highest position in the harem and oversaw the day to day operations, solved disputes and received one of the highest salaries on the palace payroll. Hafsa was beloved by her son Suleiman and he would often go to her for advice. She had begun as a Christian slave convert who gave birth to the winning son of the Sultan Selim. As a mother, she would begin to create and run the domestic household of her son as he moved through governorship around the empire and eventually the palace. She would have been the elder figure throughout her son’s government career. She was his mentor and she fought fiercely for him to get where he was. Therefore, she has the most honored position and her position was the goal for many young concubines. After Hafsa, came the mothers of the sultan’s sons in the ranking system.

What did Roxelana do to change the traditions of the palace and cause such a stir? She knew to secure power she had to keep the Sultan’s attention long enough to become the mother of an heir, but, in the end, she reached for an even higher goal. In 1521, Roxelana gave birth to her first child and son, Mehmed, which should have secured her final position. Now she was supposed to be like Mahidevran and devote her life to that one child. Her salary was increased and she gained status in the harem. She could afford everything that was necessary for a fine woman of noble status.

Yet, to everyone’s shock, Roxelana was called back to the Sultan’s bedchamber and would go on to have four more children. Suleiman became entirely devoted to her. He had no need to visit his concubines any longer. This was a serious and very unpopular break with tradition. Monogamy was not the way that the dynasties work. Now, Roxelana, would not be devoted to mentoring one son , but instead had three sons to divide her attention between. This would cause the eventual conflict between the princes to be unequal. Would Mustafa have the advantage now because his mother was solely his? The public did not like the over affection they were witnessing from their Sultan. To the public, it was a distraction from his duty. It was the Sultan’s job to create a diverse gene pool and monogamy was not a part of that agenda.

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Roxelana, portrayed by Meryem Uzerli in the Turkish drama Magnificent Century

Rumors began to flow that Roxelana had bewitched the sultan and caused him to stray from his duty. She would also gain the animosity of the Janissaries (military troops) who were extremely loyal to Suleiman’s first son, Mustafa. They saw her and her sons as a threat to the reign of their favorite. The populace was also bitter that the Sultan paid no attention to his eldest son’s mother, Mahidevran. Throughout history, rumors of witchcraft would haunt many strong women who took power into their own hands.

Eventually, Suleiman married Roxelana. This was the first time in 200 years that an event like this had taken place as the marriage tradition had been abandoned in the 14th century. As the bride of a Sultan, Roxelana was released from slavery and had become the most powerful woman in the harem (by this time, Suleiman’s mother had passed). She is also the first concubine to live in the capital her entire reign. Most concubines, when their son came of age, would follow their son to his assigned governorship. Mahidevran moved to Munsia with her son and then later to Amasya. Despite their apparent rivalry, Mahidevran and Roxelana really illustrate the conventional way the dynasty was supposed to go and the difference that Roxelana made. Roxelana was a witch, but Mahidevran was seen as a model mother.

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Mahidevran (Nur Fettahoglu) middle and Roxelana (Meryem Uzerli) right in the Turkish drama Magnificent Century

Roxelana showed her strength and cleverness as she worked her way up the ladder. She had grown in the Sultan’s affections and became the Sultan’s wife. She gained her freedom (freedom that other concubines, such as Mahidevran, would not have until the sultan died) and gained the title Haseki Sultan. With this move in status, Roxelana also increased her political power and expanded her monetary resources. She used to these funds to expand her charitable foundations.

Previously, the Old Palace was an entirely female domain and the New Palace the domain of men, but Roxelana quickly made a change in this and shifted the gender dynamics. She created her own female wing in the New Palace where she would preside as head and over time this area began to grow. This move gave women a chance to be in the heart of the Ottoman government. It was easier to place themselves into politics and gave royal Ottoman women a voice.

With the move to the new palace and her position as essentially Empress, Roxelana would now have her own agendas to keep up with. She would have had her own personal eunuch steward who would be her access to the outside world and fulfill all her transactions (despite her new status, royal Ottoman women were kept in relative seclusion). This was a huge change, having the new “empress” in the center of politics, but Suleiman did nothing to dissuade this. This is what would make the traditionalists most angry. After Suleiman, much weaker sultans would emerge which lead to the domination of women. It would be from these rooms that future queen mothers would be regents for their sons and would make decisions on state affairs with the advisers. By moving the harem closer to the government, it put women in the heart of the action and allowed their roles to change.

Roxelana now had money to spend and invest. It was common for wealthy Ottoman women to have business ventures and interests. A woman had the right in Ottoman society to control her own finances independently and to invest them how she wished. She would handle her business through agents, but it was possible. Shortly after her marriage, Roxelana would begin her first philanthropic foundation. It was common for concubine mothers to complete charities and building projects in the region where her son was governor and where she would have power herself as head of her sons household. Roxelana took it a step higher.

She was the first to build a foundation in Istanbul, the Ottoman capital. As she married the Sultan, she never left with a son to another territory. This was her territory and she was going to make her mark. It was an important Muslim tradition to give donations to the public welfare and was seen as something that would give them favor in God’s eyes. Not only would Roxelana be creating her own venture, but would also show the world how pious she was which would increase her popularity. Roxelana did not have a coronation to justify her queenship, so this was another way to consolidate and show off that power to the world. She was the first woman to have a foundation/mosque named after her, Haskei, in Istanbul, the capital. Today, the district where this was built is still referred to as Haseki.

The district she chose for her foundation and mosque was home to the weekly women’s market where the local women would come to sell their wares. As a woman herself, it seems like Roxelana may have selected this district purposely. Her mosque and foundation could immediately help the women who were the population of this district. Males would be the only ones to benefit from the higher education institutions that were established, but it seems Roxelana pushed for co-education of males and females in the primary schools that she created. The women would also be able to access the water at the fountains and the soup kitchens. It would also be a safe place for these women to come pray in private.

Mosque in Haseki Complex, Istanbul

Roxelana hired architects and provided jobs to a wide variety of laborers and skilled craftsmen. The five main buildings were constructed over the course of a decade.  This included a mosque, two schools, a women’s hospital and a fountain. This mosque was a huge boost to the community in this district and caused greater urban development. New shops would open around the foundation and more people would move in. Roxelana created a few rental units at the complex to facilitate this as well. She would hire over 130 staff positions, which included many female positions as well. One of the female positions Roxelana specifically requested was a female scribe. It seemed like an unusual request for the time, but perhaps this secretary took in the requests and complaints from female clientele. It seems overall Roxelana did have a goal to look out for the women living in the area.

Roxelana personally managed the development of this foundation and once this was completed she appointed herself as supervisor for life. Her successors (future queen mothers) would build off this example in their own lives. Her own daughter would go on to create many famous foundations. They would continue to focus on benefiting women. It was the women of the Ottoman families who took it upon themselves to help the public welfare. The Haseki foundation really increased Roxelana’s status and increased the gap between her and her rival Mahidevran.

Roxelana would also go on to create major charitable institutions in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. These were all important cities in the Islamic religion. She would also support other smaller charities through the empire which included hostels for pilgrims, mosques, and soup kitchens.

Roxelana was also very involved in politics, specifically foreign affairs during her time as consort. She would often serve as Suleiman’s adviser and correspond with many different figures throughout Europe. This was especially key during her husband’s long absence on campaigns. Maybe this was because she originally hailed from that area before she was captured? Did they think this would hold some influence? Or did Roxelana enjoy this work and want to take on the responsibility?

Roxelana used letters to communicate with foreign rulers to help the empire to form new alliances and avoid conflict. This was different from anything done before. Women in society were not involved in politics. Since seclusion was now the way noble women lived, they were no longer used to carry messages or negotiate treaties. Roxelana used her position to create a powerful role for herself and helped the empire continue to prosper. It was a daring move, but it shows the strength and intelligence of her.

The most famous communication she has is with Sigismund Augustus, the new King of Poland. The goal was to keep a friendship and alliance going between the Polish and Ottoman empires. In her letters, she uses an affectionate tone, and congratulates him for taking the throne, expresses how she wishes to be friends, and that she can be trusted. She encouraged him to tell her anything he wanted to be passed on to the Sultan. She put herself in the position of a mediator between the two rulers. Roxelana would also send selective gifts to her communications. Roxelana sent the King of Poland gifts of embroidered clothing items (drawers, shirt, waistband, handkerchiefs). It seems she may have sewed most of these gifts. These are more private clothing items, but she dares to send them because it also represents the closeness of their two nations. It seems a warm friendship developed between the Haseki Sultan and Sigismund of Poland. Roxelana’s daughter, Mihrumah, would continue in her mother’s footsteps and use letters for diplomacy. Roxelana would communicate with many during her time as Haseki Sultan and encouraged friendship between the Ottoman Empire and other nations.

A portrait of Sigismund II Augustus, in a black hat with a white feather, a white ruff on his neck, and an ornate gold chain around his neck.
King Sigismund Augustus of Poland

Yet, there is still some questionable controversy surrounding Roxelana and her influence upon Suleiman. It is important to note that there are no first-hand accounts to support these theories and this was probably used to vilify her as many women suffered through history. She is thought to have had influence on the executions of both Suleiman’s Grand Vizier and friend, Ibrahim, and his first-born son, Mustafa son of Mahidevran.

Ibrahim also began as a captured slave as a young man who was brought into the service of the Suleiman. They would become extremely close friends during their lives and Suleiman put so much trust in him that he raised a capture European slave to the role of Grand Vizier, the highest adviser position. Ibrahim’s quick rise to such a high position was given due to his status as male favorite and many did not believe that he worked long enough to deserve that high rank. It hurt others who had worked hard to be considered for the position, just to have that taken away from them. Ibrahim was a very ambitious. He was a slave who had now been given the opportunity to have great influence on the entire empire. He would take on many of the roles of the Kingdom himself and was given great freedom by the Sultan to do whatever he wanted. He viewed himself as the power behind the Ottoman Empire. He had the Sultan’s ear always and they were always together. It was hard for others to break through that bond. He was the public face of the sultanate. He commanded the armies, he was the line for diplomacy and foreign relations, and he cultivated the Sultan’s public image. Ibrahim was another controversial figure in Suleiman’s reign.

He was also a great supporter of Mustafa, Roxelana’s rival to her son’s position. It seemed Ibrahim held a sympathy for Mahidevran and Mustafa due to having spent time with them prior to Suleiman becoming Sultan. Mustafa was also taking on a greater role in his governorship and was making a name for himself. Mustafa was extremely popular with the military.

Ibrahim’s career had been climbing and climbing, so it was quite sudden and unexpected when his fall came. No one was expecting it to happen. Under Suleiman’s orders, Ibrahim, his long-time friend, was strangled by executioners after being invited to a dinner party. He was executed on March 15, which was ironic as it is also the anniversary of Julius Ceasar’s murder as well. Theories exist that Roxelana was involved in this and was the one who convinced Suleiman to get rid of his Grand Vizier. She had just married her Sultan and had to protect her children by eliminating all those who supported their rival, Mustafa. Eventually, afterwards, their son-in-law was promoted to Grand Vizier. Yet, there is no evidence that Roxelana had anything to do with this and the contemporary public did not hold her responsible. There are other reasons why Ibrahim may have been eliminated. Many points that he was becoming too prideful and began to forget that he was doing this all for the Sultan and not for himself. He also made many errors in his last few years, including the execution of the royal treasurer Iskendar. Suleiman had instructed Ibrahim to take this treasurer’s counsel, but instead disaster happened. It seems that Ibrahim had gotten too big for his own good, and that caused his downfall.

Roxelana is also thought to have been involved in the execution of Suleiman ’s son, Mustafa. On October 6, 1553, Mustafa was ordered to his father’s army and to meet him in his tent. Despite warnings from his mother, Mahidevran, Mustafa rode to the camp. By his father’s command, Mustafa was attacked and after a gruesome scene, he was executed. Many were outraged at this horrendous deed and the fact that, like Ibrahims, it was very sudden and unexpected. Maybe this was why Roxelana was brought into the blame? As a mother of rival children, she would have the most to gain with the elimination of Suleiman’s older son. With Suleiman’s health in decline, it was time to take action to protect her sons for their future. She was already blamed for the banishment of Mahidevran from the Old Palace in Istanbul years before, so why would she not be involved in this?

Suleiman had many favorites, but he still was intelligent and had his own opinions on certain matters. It has been concluded by historians that the decision to execute his son was his own. Suleiman could see when his son was becoming too powerful that his own reign was at risk. Suleiman’s own father had overthrown his grandfather, so it was not out of the realm of thinking that his own son could overtake himself. Mustafa had always had great support from the military who were quickly rallying to his side and Mustafa’s popularity increased every year. Suleiman could not afford his army deserting him when they were in the middle of a new campaign against Iran. There were even rumors of a coup being thrown about and many were already beginning to call him Sultan. Mustafa denied all claims of a coup, but Suleiman could not take the risk. It was his success that killed him in the end. Mahidevran had now lost her entire life’s purpose in one stroke after almost 40 years of vying for her son’s success. She was left destitute and broke. It was not until Suleiman’s son, Selim II, took the throne that he would return her status and wealth to her.

Over time, out of their five children, only three would survive them. Mehmed would die from smallpox and the youngest, Chihangir, would also die of health issues. Chihangir, known to be talkative, friendly, and humorous, was born with many health defects which developed a humped back. He was his father’s favorite and would follow him around as they moved from different campaigns. This left Bayezid and Selim as the two sons who would vie for the throne. Their daughter, Mihrimah, had been married off to the future grand vizier and was active in charities, building projects and diplomacy, just like her mother. The remaining son’s may have caused strife between the two parents as they grew older and it grew closer to thinking about the succession.

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Mihrimah , daughter of Roxelana and Suleiman

It was said that Suleiman favored Selim while Roxelana favored Bayezid. No concubine mother previously had to make this choice as they system was set up so they would be devoted to teaching and cultivating one son. Now, Roxelana had two (previously four) that she had to be impartial towards, which would be impossible. It is said that Roxelana favored Bayezid, though he was younger, because of Selim’s destructive habits (excessive drinking and was easy to influence). He was not interested in ruling as much as a life of pleasure. Bayezid was the underdog who did not receive the same training as his elder brothers Mehmed and Selim who were able to take on governorship’s while he remained in the capital with his brother Chihangir, was this why she may have favored him? There was no textbook on how to manage multiple sons. It came out later that she had ordered her daughter to give Bayezid as much financial assistance as she could when the time came.

Roxelana died in 1558 which seems to have been from an illness. She was survived by the Sultan and her two sons and her daughter. She died in the walls of the Old Palace, where it had all begun. Her devoted Suleiman had an elegant tomb built to hold her where he would eventually join eight years later. In the end, after Suleiman died, it was a bloody struggle between her remaining sons which ended in the execution of Bayezid and the triumph of Selim II.

Roxelana showed throughout her life that she was strong, intelligent, and was going to embrace every opportunity she could. She was thrust into an unfamiliar world as a captured slave when she was a young woman, only to be forced to become part of the Sultan’s harem. She used this to her advantage and created a great partnership with the Sultan. She gained more power than any woman before her as she married and solidified her position of Haseki Sultan. She broke many traditions and created a large family. She increased the role of noble women in the Empire and encouraged them to stop taking a back-seat role. She pushed for the move of women into the New Palace so they could be a part of the political action. These women would go on to take advantage of the weak rulers (beginning with Selim II) and follow in Roxelana’s example. After Selim II died, Nurbanu, queen mother of their son, would become regent for many years. She was in charge. Women would continue to take more powerful roles in the future and begin to build more great structures and facilities for the people. Despite Roxelana’s controversy and the bad press she received, she took most of the fate she was given and came out on top in the end.

1997 Ukrainian postage stamp as a tribute to Roxelana

I hope you enjoy this blog post. It has taken me a while to write it, but I find Roxelana to be a fascinating figure! There is so much more to say about her, but I pulled out the highlights. I will be going on a hiatus in May, due to many other commitments. I aim to have a new post in June!

Further Reading:

Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire by Leslie P. Peirce

Harem: The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier

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