Born Aleksandra Ruslana Lisowska around 1502, little Nastia as she was known would never have dreamed she would rise to become a queen. She was born in the town of Rohatyn in Polish Ruthenia, which is now in Western Ukraine. Legend has it her father was an Orthodox priest. Some time in the 1520’s, Nastia’s world turned upside down when she was captured by the Crimean Tartars at the tender age of 12. Raids by the Tartars into this region were not uncommon, and Nastia was soon taken to the slave markets of Kaffa. From there she went on to Istanbul, where she was selected for the sultan’s harem. The sultan of the Ottoman Empire at this time was Süleyman the Magnificent. He had just recently ascended the throne as the tenth Ottoman Sultan at a relatively young twenty-six. He was described by Venetian envoy Bartolomeo Contari as “tall and slender but tough, with a thin and bony face. Facial hair is evident but only barely. The sultan appears friendly and in good humor. Rumor has it that Suleiman is aptly named, enjoys reading, is knowledgeable and shows good judgment.”
Young Nastia was sent to the Old Palace to be trained in palace etiquette. There she was given the name Hürrem, which means “the smiling one” in Persian for her cheerful disposition. From the moment Süleyman laid eyes on her, he was smitten. Hürrem became his most prominent consort next to his two previous favorites, Gülfen and Mahidevran. Mahidevran especially did not take to kindly to this, and Hürrem had rivals. Mahidevran was the second ranking concubine in the hareem, and mother of the heir designate. I’m sure she thought she could get rid of this young upstart in no time. Mahidevran picked a fight with Hürrem and beat her badly, probably thinking that was that. She did not count on Süleyman’s devotion. Mahidevran and her son Mustafa were banished to the provincial capital of Manisa. It was ostensibly to train the heir designate, but in reality it was to rid Hürrem of a rival. Soon Hürrem was the favorite. Nine months later, Hürrem and Süleyman’s first son, Mehmed, which gave her the title of Haseki, or mother of a prince.
Hürrem devoted herself to Süleyman and her new country. She asked for instruction in the Islamic religion and eventually converted. On her conversion day, he freed her and Hürrem was no longer a slave. French historian Fontenelle tells this story, and if it is true this woman was brilliant. Shortly after her conversion ceremony, Hürrem told Süleyman sadly that she was unable to have sexual relations with a man she was not married to according to her new religion. He didn’t want her to sin, did he? Süleyman certainly did not want to lead his beloved into sin and tried to abstain. He lasted three days. After that, he married Hürrem in a sumptuous formal ceremony that shocked the empire. There was a 200 year old custom of the Ottoman imperial house that sultans did not marry their concubines. They weren’t done busting traditions. Usually to keep a woman from gaining too much power over the sultan and prevent feuds between blood brothers, a concubine was allowed to have only one son. Hürrem and Süleyman had six children. Traditionally, a concubine went with her son when he was old enough to a province. Hürrem stayed with Süleyman for the duration of her life, moving into his quarters in the Topkapi as the first woman to do so. She was given the unprecedented title of Haseki Sultan, which put her on the same level as empresses consort in Europe.
Her new position gave her more access to greater education opportunities, and she began learning Ottoman language, mathematics, astronomy, geography, diplomacy, literature, and history. She also had a great interest in alchemy and chemistry. In fact, in the excavation of Edirne Palace, her laboratory and tools for perfume making was discovered. This coupled with her great influence over Süleyman, sent rumors flying that she was a witch. Anyone caught repeating these slanders were punished harshly. However, this was a court of intrigues. Hürrem wanted her children on the throne not Mustafa the son of her old rival. After Süleyman had been on the throne 46 years, there were rumblings that Mustafa was going to take power. Rumor had it Hürrem encouraged Süleyman to take Mustafa out. Whether or not she did, Mustafa was executed and it was Hürrem’s son who eventually took the throne. However, she did not flinch when her younger son Beyazid stirred up a riot against his father and was eventually executed. The Ottoman Empire was a tough room.
There is evidence Hürrem used her great influence with her husband in state matters. In a previous post, we discussed how her relationship with the wife of Sigismund I of Poland may have saved her old homeland from invasion (Please see this post for more information: http://www.historynaked.com/bona-sforza/ ) It is also believed she may have influenced Süleyman to exert greater control on Crimean Tartar slave raiding. Known in Europe as Roxelana, or the The Ruthenian One, ambassadors knew she had her husband’s ear. Like her husband, Hürrem was a prolific builder and commissioned two Koranic schools, fountains, several mosques, a soup kitchen and a women’s hospital. Her bath, the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamam, is still in use today.
Hürrem passed from an unknown illness on April 15, 1558. Süleyman was devastated and she was buried in a domed mausoleum adjacent to his own. In honor of her cheerful nature, her mausoleum depicts the garden of paradise. After her death, Süleyman wrote poetry bemoaning his loss and loneliness.
My resident of solitude, my everything, my beloved, my shining moon
My friend, my privacy, my everything, my shah of beautifuls, my sultan
My life, my existence, my lifetime, my wine of youngness, my heaven
My spring, my joy, my day, my beloved, my laughing rose.
My plant, my sugar, my treasure, my delicate in world
My saint, my Joseph, my everything, my Khan of my heart´s Egypt.
My Istanbul, My Karaman, my land of Rum
My Bedehşan, my Kıpchak, my Bagdad, my Horosan
My long-haired, my bow like eyebrow, my eye full of discord, my patient
My blood is on your hands if I die, mercy o my non-Muslim
I am a flatterer near your door, I always praise you
Heart is full of sorrow, eye is full of tears, I am Muhibbi and I am happy.
Süleyman followed her less than ten years later and was succeeded by their third son, Selim II, as his two older brothers predeceased him.