Hurrem Sultan, the Cheerful Rose of Suleiman I and a Powerful Woman of the Ottoman Empire
Hürrem Sultan appeared in Topkapi Palace as a slave, but in a very short time she became one the most influential women of the Ottoman Empire. The name Hürrem was given her by the Sultan Suleiman I, and means “the cheerful one”- but in the eyes of many of her rivals she was the most dangerous weapon in Constantinople’s armory.
Suleiman Meets Hürrem
From 1520-1566, the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Suleiman I, who many claim was the greatest Sultan in history. He was also known as Suleiman the Magnificent or Kanuni – The Lawgiver. During his time in power, he made an impact on the history of many countries in Europe and the Middle East.
Portrait of Suleiman I, the tenth and longest reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. (1530) By Titian . ( Public Domain )
Suleiman’s life took a radical change in 1520. In September of that year, his father Selim I passed away accidentally, and with his death, Suleiman’s carefree life in the Manisa province came to an end. He was called to the capital city to rule the empire. At the same time, he met the woman who would forever change his life.
History has remembered her as Roxolena or Roksolana, Roxalene, Roxolane, and Rossa. However, the name she was called for most of her life is Hürrem. She received this name due to her cheerful personality.
Hürrem was born as Alexandra Lisowska in the town of Rohatyń, 68 km (42.3 miles) southeast of Lwów in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland (today in Western Ukraine). In the 1520s Crimean Tatars captured her during one of their raids in this region. They took her as a slave to a major center of the slave trade in the Crimean city of Kaffa. Then she was transported to Constantinople and selected for the harem.
Hürrem’s influence on Suleiman was almost immediate - it only took a few months from the day that she met Sultan Suleiman to the moment when she became the most important consort in the harem.
Due to her beauty and intelligence she quickly came to the attention of the Sultan. At the same moment she attracted the jealousy of her rivals in the harem, including Mahidevran Sultan, mother of the heir apparent Mustafa. Historians note that these rivalries led to a few attempts to take Hürrem’s life. The most famous is Mahidevran's attack on Hürrem, which was followed by Suleiman banishing his former favorite, and her son, to the provincial capital of Manisa.
Roxelane und der Sultan ( Roxolena and the Sultan). (1780) by Anton Hickel. ( Public Domain )
The Ruthenian Witch
The bond between Hürrem and Suleiman was more than unexpected for the society of the time. Their close relationship became the first time in the history of the dynasty when the sultan focused on only one woman. Hürrem’s influence over the Sultan soon became legendary. She gave him six children: Sehzade Mehmed, Mihrimah Sultan, Sehzade Abdullah, Selim II, Sehzade Beyazit and Sehzade Cihangir.
This strengthened her position in the palace so much that she initiated a new order in the harem. Since her arrival to Topkapi Palace, she was sure to take as many lessons as she could. From her studies she learned the Ottoman language, mathematics, astronomy, geography, diplomacy, literature, and history. Apart from this, she was very interested in alchemy. During the excavations in the Edirne Palace some of her tools for preparation of perfumes were discovered.
- Long-Lost Tomb Belonging to Suleiman the Magnificent Believed to be Found
- Theodora: From humble beginnings to powerful empress who changed history
- Secrets of the Hagia Sophia - Healing Powers, Mysterious Mosaics and Holy Relics
Due to her excellent education, she also became Suleiman’s adviser on matters of the state. Hürrem had an influence upon foreign affairs and international politics. For example, she took care of maintaining the peaceful relations between the Ottoman Empire and Polish state with a Polish-Ottoman alliance. According to Crimean historians, she also intervened to control Crimean Tatar slave-raiding.
Letter from Hürrem to Sigismond Auguste complimenting him upon his acsending to the Polish throne (1549). ( Public Domain )
In spite of her various positive aspects, for other advisers of Suleiman the position of Hürrem was too high for a woman. They started to believe that she must be a witch who put a spell on the Sultan and began to spread rumors about her. When Suleiman discovered these stories, he punished everyone who repeated the negative tales about his love.