Although Hurrem Sultan, or Roxelana, may be a more well known historical figure, I decided to write about her basically because I hadn’t heard of her in any (of several) history classes. Her influence on the Ottoman Empire at its height is difficult to exaggerate, as one women transformed her position from slave to ruler, leading the way for generations of women to come.
When introduced to the story of Hurrem Sultan, the headline (as seen above) repeated is “Abducted Slave rises to Queen.” However, her start as a young girl abducted from present day Ukraine, sold into slavery and eventually to the Ottoman imperial harem is essentially the story of all women in the harem, and therefore all the mothers of every sultan and their potential successors. Where Hurrem broke with expectation and tradition was in the creation of her role, first as a mother, then wife, then Ottoman empress, thereby becoming the most prominent female figure in Ottoman history. All the information I can fit into this came from The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, and Empress of the East, both by Dr. Leslie P. Peirce, and the documentary series The Ascent of Women, written and presented by Dr. Amanda Foreman.
In a very basic summary, Hurrem can be seen as a list of “firsts” for her time. A list that would start with becoming a mother to more than one of the Sultan’s sons. Women in the harem would only have one son with the sultan, then dedicating their life to raising their son as successor. For that reason, education was at the centre of training in the harem. Hurrem’s sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1556) was infatuated with her, sparking rumours of witchcraft and love charms as he broke the tradition of multiple concubines, and had four children with Hurrem between 1521 and 1524. While the name used by western historians, Roxelana, comes from contemporary advisors to European powers, meaning “of Ruthenia,” her name commonly used in Turkey, “Hurrem Sultan,” came from Suleiman, and means “laughing one,” or “joyful.” Their relationship wouldn’t end in the harem however. Peirce writes that in 1534, Hurrem became “the first slave concubine in Ottoman history to be freed and made a legal wife” of the Sultan. This also made Suleiman the first sultan in at least 100 years to be married to a successor’s mother.
Traditionally, mothers would follow their sons once they came of age and were sent to political posts outside the capital, in order to further serve and advise their rise to sultan. As the mother of three other children and wife of the sultan, once her first born son was sent to a posting, Hurrem became the first mother from the harem to stay in the capital. Despite this, she remained dedicated to her son’s political career, likely orchestrating the assassinations of Suleiman’s first-born son and prominent figures who opposed her, then filling their positions with her own confidants.
Her life in the capital went beyond motherhood, as her letters with Suleiman show her importance to the stability of his reign. She informed him of political affairs when he was away, warning of disease, unrest and conspiracy. Although iconography such as statues or portraits were forbidden, and royal women were absent from the public entirely, Hurrem made her presence and power known by establishing her own charitable foundation. While charitable works were expected of the Ottoman royalty, Roxelana was the first women to establish a charitable foundation in Istanbul. The nature and ambition of this charity was evident. Founded in the area of Istanbul known as Avrat Pazar, or “women’s market,” the assets of the foundation (the first of many she built throughout the empire) provided a space frequented by women with a mosque, a soup kitchen, a fountain, and two schools.
Hurrem’s rise to power changed the role of women in the empire well after her own death in 1558. Her daughter, Mihrimah, took over her position as advisor to the sultan, and the influence of queen mothers would not be overlooked in an era of Ottoman history known as the “Sultanate of Women,” lasting until 1656.
Written by Oksana Worona (she/her) from Ontario, Canada. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.