Hurrem Sultan (1500–1558), the slave concubine who became a queen of the Ottoman Empire…
Also known as Roxelana, Sultan Hürrem has remained a contested and controversial figure in early modern Turkisk history. Her ruthless pragmatism, political genius and unparalleled patronage of charitable foundations in the Islamic spiritual centres of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem all helped to solidify her political and pious persona in the annals and imaginations of Ottoman history forever after.
Hürrem was captured as a slave during a Tartar raid in Ruthenia; however, sources indicate her homeland to be present-day Ukraine, which was then part of the Kingdom of Poland. Hürrem was presented to the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman I “the Magnificent” (1520–1566), known to the Ottomans as “the Law Giver”, as a gift from his mother.
Hürrem’s charm and beauty facilitated her rise within the ranks of the harem, and soon she became Süleyman’s favorite concubine and later his beloved queen. Hürrem’s hastened and unprecedented transition from a harem slave to the queen of the Ottoman Empire provoked a contentious and vindictive response from both the governing classes and the general populace. Hürrem exerted immense influence over Süleyman and accompanied him as his political adviser to such an extent that members of the court claimed that he was bewitched by his queen.
Hürrem’s unique place in the Ottoman court was further conveyed through Süleyman’s contravention of dynastic traditions. Süleyman freed a slave concubine to make her his legal wife, allowed Hürrem to bear more than one son, and gave her access to imperial affairs that allowed her to replace the heir apparent with her own firstborn son. Finally, Süleyman gave away all of his concubines in marriage to remain faithful to Hürrem. During their forty-year monogamous romance, Hürrem bore Süleyman five children and reigned supreme in the imperial court as well as in his heart. Hürrem’s private letters to Süleyman and Süleyman’s amorous poetry for Hürrem indicate their desperate and passionate longing for each other during Süleyman’s long military campaigns. However, Hürrem’s yearning for Süleyman never distracted her from her political duties.
Diplomatic letters written to the kings of Poland document her important role in maintaining peaceful and cordial relations with her native land. Promoting her sons as legitimate heirs to the throne was Hürrem’s primary concern; however, she was aware of her unsavoury reputation in the court and empire and wanted to rectify this image to ensure an enduring legacy. Hürrem publicized her munificence through numerous commissions, including sacred and secular monuments. Her major commissions, particularly in the holy centres of the Islamic lands, were part of a larger building scheme. In Jerusalem, for example, she established a multi-purpose charity, which included a mosque, a hostel for religious pilgrims, an inn and stable for other travellers, public toilets, and a large soup kitchen. Hürrem had hoped to correct and construct her public persona through her patronage as a benevolent queen whose objectives included the welfare of her Ottoman subjects, international travellers and pilgrims.
Hürrem died on 18 April 1558 from malaria and colic, bearing the title haseki sultan (“mother of princes”). She is buried in a domed mausoleum adjacent to Süleyman’s at the Suleymaniye Mosque.
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