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Roxolana from Roksolania, the beloved wife of a mighty Turkish sultan
“I gave my orders —
make a dress for my beloved.
Use the sun to make the top,
Use the moon to make the lining
Use the while clouds
for the trimmings,
Use the blue of the sea
to make the threads.
Use the stars for buttons,
And make the fastenings
out of me.”
From one of Suleyman’s
letters to Roxolana
From the long history of Ukraine the names of only a few women have been firmly secured in the nation’s memory: the Grand Duchess Olga, a distinguished tenth-century ruler of Kyiv; Anna, the daughter of the Grand Duke Yaroslav the Wise who in the eleventh century was married to the King of France Henry I, and similarly to Olga, ruled the country as a regent after her husband’s death; Roxolana, a Ukrainian girl who was captured, sold into slavery and who became an official wife of arguably the greatest of all Ottoman sultans. There are several other, mostly religious mystics of the nineteenth century, but their names are less known.
Some historians express their doubts whether Roxolana was Ukrainian; journalists and novelists write articles and stories about her; swashbuckling TV serials are made which present her either as a heroine or a woman in a seraglio, but for the rank-and-file people she remains a much beloved figure of Ukrainian folklore. Roxolana continues to enjoy a massive popularity — a Cinderella story, real and not invented, is doomed to be popular.
The only son
Suleyman was the only son of Sultan Selim I. Under Selim, the Ottoman Empire grew twice in size, and there was no conceivable reason why it should stop growing under Selim’s son. It would be futile to hope, wrote the sixteenth-century Italian Paolo Giovio, that “the dauntless lion would leave his throne to mansuetto angelo, a timid lamb.” No, Suleyman was not a lamb. When he succeeded his father as sultan in September 1520, Suleyman was twenty-six years old. Suleyman assumed the throne with a position unequaled by any sultan before or after — he established the classical Ottoman state and society and made important new conquests in the East and West. His reign marked the peak of Ottoman grandeur and has always been regarded as the golden age of Ottoman history.
The sultan was said to be of a benevolent disposition, a clever, educated person, a noble and wise ruler. One of the European historians of the Ottoman rulers, writing a couple of centuries later, said of Selim and Suleyman: “Patris fortis filius fortior,” or “A courageous father of an even more courageous son.”
In the sixteenth century, a Venetian chronicler, Marino Sanuto, compiled a many-volumed historical chronicles; in Tome XXXV, we find a report of a Venetian ambassador which says: “His not being prone, in contrast to his father and many other sultans, to pederasty made his majestic dignity and nobility of character shine even brighter.”
Another Venetian ambassador, Navagero, wrote in 1533, “There has never been a woman in the Ottoman palace who had more power than she” — referring to his wife, Roxolana.
The Magnificent sultan
In the European historical tradition, Suleyman is known as The Magnificent. He earned this soubriquet for his military exploits and political success. The Turks often referred to him not only as Muhtesem, The Magnificent, but as Suleyman Kanuni, The Lawgiver, emphasizing his contributions to the legal system and to culture in general. The contemporaries compared him to the Biblical king Solomon because of “his wisdom and splendour of his court.”
Suleyman’s father expanded the territory of his empire mostly by conquests in Asia and in Egypt. By contrast, Suleyman began his reign with campaigns against the Christian powers in central Europe and the Mediterranean. Belgrade fell to him in 1521, opening the way for a large-scale advance north of the Danube. The Island of Rhodes, long under the rule of the Knights of St. John, was conquered in 1522. At Mohacs, in August 1526, Suleyman defeated the combined Hungarian-Croatian-Czech forces and broke the military strength of Hungary. The Hungarian king, Louis II lost his life in the battle (he was said to have drowned in a bog). One of the contemporary Turkish historians wrote that “there has never been a battle like this since ancient times.” After the victory, the Turks piled 2,000 heads of their enemies (among the heads were eight that belonged to bishops) in a heap close to the sultan’s tent as a horrible tribute to the victor. Suleyman drove the Habsburgs from all of Hungary and besieged Vienna in 1529, an effort that failed because of the difficulty of supplying a large force so far from the major centres of Ottoman power. Vienna thus stood as the principal European bulwark against further Muslim advance. Under the existing conditions of supply, transport, and military organization, the Ottomans had reached the limit of their possible expansion in the West.
Suleyman’s campaigns brought Iraq, North Africa with Algiers and Tunis, Arabia with Yemen and holy Mecca and Medina under Ottoman domination. Western Azerbaijan was the practical limit of Ottoman expansion in the East and the Atlantic Ocean in the West. The Ottomans also emerged as a major naval power.
The Slavic influence
One of the unexpected results of the Ottoman expansion was an active penetration of Slavic ethnics into the Ottoman armed forces (Janissaries) and even into the ruling elite. Serbians were particularly numerous and the Serbian language could be heard in the Ottoman court; it was used in official documents alongside with Turkish. The Italian historian Paolo Giovio who compiled a book on Turkish history, wrote: “At the court [of Suleyman The Magnificent] several languages are spoken. Turkish is the language of the ruler; Arabic is the language of the Muslim Law, Koran; Slavic (sclavonica) is mostly used by the Janissaries, and Greek is the language of the populace of the capital and other cities of Greece.”
The Polish traveller Strijkowskij wrote that in 1574, when he was in Istanbul, he heard with his own ears kobzari (bards) singing songs in Serbian in the streets and in the taverns about victories of valiant Muslims over the Christians.
Bassano, an Italian visitor to Suleyman’s court, claimed that “he [the sultan] respected and highly valued his wife [Roxolana] and understood her native language to some extent.” One of the sultan’s viziers was Rustem-pasha, a Serb or a Croat.
Ukraine, except for some areas and not for long, was never conquered by the Ottomans but it became a steady source of supplies of white slaves to the empire. The Crimean Tartars were the main suppliers. Mykhailo Lytvyn, a Ukrainian diplomat in the service of the Lithuanian government, wrote in his memoirs dating to 1548–1551 that the krymchaky (Crimean Tartars) engaged only in two trades — cattle-breeding and capturing Ukrainians to be sold to the Ottomans as slaves. “The ships that often come to their ports from across the sea, bring weapons, clothes and horses which are exchanged for slaves who are loaded into these ships. And all the Ottoman bazaars are full of these slaves who are sold and bought to be used in the households, to be resold, to be given as presents… There was one Jew, amazed at the great numbers of these slaves to be seen at the slave markets, who asked whether there were any people left in the land where these slaves are brought from.”
Girls for the harem
Among all the Ukrainian captives sold at the Ottoman slave markets, the destiny of beautiful girls was probably the least harsh. Most of them were chosen for harems. Girls for the sultan’s harem were handpicked from among the girls captured during military raids and those offered at the slave markets. Before a girl, picked for the sultan’s harem, could be presented to the sultan for assessment, she had to undergo a thorough and comprehensive training. Even then she could never be sure she would be actually allowed to parade before the sultan. Only a few out of each hundred girls was privileged to be given the status of a concubine or a wife in the harem. But once in, she faced a formidable challenge of moving up the harem hierarchy, and her success in getting closer to the top depended not so much on her looks but on her natural gifts, strength of character, stamina — and sheer luck. Under the supervision of the kagia-kadin, the top female attendant in charge of the harem, the women-candidates were trained in sewing, embroidering, dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, manipulating puppets, reciting fairy tales and other similar activities; also, they learned the basics of Islam, literature and philosophy. And of course, they were given lessons in the art of erotic love. Every little detail in the process of learning the required skills was taken care of. There were several stages in mastering these skills the girls had to attain before they could take part in the final selection — from the adjemi-novice “the trainees”, if successful, moved on to jariye, shagird, gedikli and finally to usta. It was from the usta that the sultan’s mother, the valide sultan who was the supreme authority in the elaborately organized harem system with its disciplinary and administrative officers, made a very careful selection of those who would be offered to the sultan as possible candidates for sharing his bed. Once “promoted” to the harem, those with the status of a wife were entitled to separate rooms and servants. The haseki, those lucky ones who gave the sultan sons, were given a privilege of wearing resplendent clothes trimmed with precious furs, of publicly kissing the sultan’s hand, of living in a separate set of rooms. The one who was the first to give birth to a son was promoted to the position of the senior wife and was given the title bash-kadin. The life in the seclusion of the seraglio was far from being a serene and relaxed existence: often it was an arena in which rival factions fought for ascendancy at the court; harem intrigues frequently had wide-ranging repercussions, including, in some cases, the downfall of dynasties. Even in simple every-day matters you had to watch your every step very carefully. If, for example, a harem wife who happened to be walking from one part of the seraglio to another, heard the clatter of the sultan’s silver-studded shoes, she would have to hide away quickly lest she be spotted by the approaching sultan — any unsanctioned meeting with the sultan was considered to be a gross violation of the harem rules and offense to the sultan. Offenses, or violations of the harem hierarchy were punished severely, often by death.
In view of all this it is highly unlikely that the events that led to Roxolana becoming the sultan’s beloved wife, mother of his children, friend and advisor for forty years until she died, developed along the lines suggested by pulp fiction stories and TV soap operas: the 26-year old sultan who has just ascended the throne, meets a 15-year old captive from a distant land, falls in love with her at first sight and elevates her to the position of a chief advisor and of a favourite sexual partner. We know but a few details of Roxolana’s rise to her high position at Suleyman’s court. What we know for sure is that Roxolana was indeed the sultan’s most beloved wife and that she played a significant role in some of the political decisions taken by the sultan. The rest is open to conjecture and embroidery. Novelists and film writers are free to indulge in all sorts of romantic inventions.
“The current wife of the Turkish sultan who loves her dearly is a woman who was captured somewhere in our lands,” wrote the same Mykhailo Lytvyn whom we have mentioned earlier. Ottoman sultans did marry foreigners before but those women were mostly from distinguished families or daughters of foreign rulers. Suleyman did an unprecedented thing — he officially married a captive Slavic girl in full accordance with the Muslim religious law. According to the Polish author Count Stanislaw Rzuewski, Roxolana hailed from the town of Rohatyn in Western Ukraine (now in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast). She was born into the family of a priest and at baptism was given the name of Anastasiya (other sources call her Oleksandra). In the sultan’s harem she was called Hurrem sultan, or “the joyful sultana.” In history she has remained known as Roxolana, that is a girl from Roxolania, the medieval Latin name for Rus-Ukraine (a man from Roxolania was Roxolanus).
Our contemporary, Oleksiy Pyvovarenko, head of the Lviv Club of Socionics (Socionics a relatively young and dynamically developing branch of psychology with roots in Jung’s theory of psychological types, Freud’s theory of conscious and subconscious and Kepinski’s theory of information metabolism — tr.), in his article devoted to the Socionics portrait of the couple Suleyman-Roxolana, says that they were “duals,” that is two persons who ideally matched each other in character. “At last we shall unite in souls, in thoughts, in imagination, in will, in heart, in everything that I have left of mine in you, and have taken of you with me, o my only love!” writes Suleyman in one of his letters to Roxolana. “My lord, Your absence has kindled a fire in me that cannot be put out. Take pity of my suffering soul and write a letter to me as soon as You can so that I could find at least some consolation in it. My lord, I hope that when You read these words, Your wish to write to us will be fortified and You will express all Your longing to see us again. When I read Your letter, Your son Mahmad and Your daughter Migrimag were close by my side and tears were rolling down their to the sultan.
Roxolana had found herself in Suleyman’s harem before he ascended the throne in 1520. One of the legends about her says that the young girl Anastasiya was captured by the Tartars on the day of her wedding. Roxolana evidently did not have an appearance of a typical harem beauty: no dark burning eyes like black olives, no big sensuous lips, no ample, zaftig, curvaceous and voluptuous figure. “Giovane ma non bella” — “young but not beautiful,” a Venetian ambassador was told in 1526, but “graceful and short of stature.” Roxolana’s main asset was her mind which was remarked upon by all the contemporaries who wrote about her. She was able both to entertain the sultan with clever and witty talk and give a good and sound advice. In 1533 when Roxolana was already fifty, the Venetian ambassador Navagero wrote: “His Majesty the Sultan loves Roxolana so much that never has in the Ottoman dynasty been a woman who would enjoy a greater respect. They say that she has a very nice and modest appearance, and that she knows the nature of the great ruler very well.” In 1554, another Italian, Dominico Trevisano wrote from the Ottoman capital: “His Majesty the Sultan loves her [Roxolana] so much that, as they say, he has refused to be with any other woman but her; none of his predecessors had ever done that and such a thing is unheard of among the Turks who have a custom of sleeping with many wives.”
Hurrem sultan was widely believed to be a witch who had put a spell on the sultan with voodoo incantations and potions. In 1554, the Austrian ambassador Busbek wrote that he was informed that there were women in the capital who supplied Hurrem sultan with bones from the skulls of hyenas which were believed to be a very strong aphrodisiac. “But none of them,” he adds, “agreed to sell these bones to me saying they were meant exclusively for Hurrem sultan who, they said, made the sultan continuously attached to her by making love potions and other magic means.” It was a wide-spread popular belief that Suleyman was so obedient to his wife in everything because of the magic spell that she put on him. It was she, people said, who was behind the sultan’s decisions to have Ibrahim, his closest friend and vizier, and Mustafa, his first-born son from one of his wives and heir to the throne, put to death. It was after Mustafa’s death that Selim, Roxolana’s son, became the heir apparent. Unfortunately, Selim did not inherit much either from father or his mother. He was notorious for his excessive drinking and cruelty which, even by the then Muslim standards, was unwarranted and extreme. Later, he was called by historians Selim II the Drunk.
The Ukrainian captives who were sold into Turkish households and, all the more so, who were taken into harems, had to undergo conversion into Islam. Ottoman historians mention that Roxolana showed a great Muslim zeal; she even had a mosque built in Istanbul. Ironically, the money for the mosque were accumulated from the fees that the Christian pilgrims had to pay for visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem. These fees were not imposed either by Roxolana or Suleyman — they had been charged long before Suleyman came to power. Incidentally, Suleyman imposed certain fees on the mosques as well, whenever he needed extra money.
Death and memory
Roxolana died in 1558 and Suleyman in 1566. He had Roxolana’s remains buried in a resplendent tomb in the mosque he built, Suleymaniye, one of the great architectural landmarks of the Ottoman Empire. The later years of Suleyman were troubled by conflict between his sons, the princes Selim and Bayezid over the succession to the throne, which ended with the defeat and execution of Bayezid. Suleyman himself died while besieging the fortress of Szigetvar in Hungary.
The German historian Hammer wrote in his History of the Ottoman Empire, published in 1834: “[In this mosque] there is a tomb of a Rusynka [Slavic woman from Ukraine] who thanks to her charm and talent managed to rise from the base position of a slave to the lofty level of a legal royal wife; later, when her beauty had long faded, she became the sultan’s closest and only friend who controlled him thanks to her wit and will. The responsibility for the killing of two viziers and for the filicide when Suleyman ordered the execution of his son Mustafa is laid at her feet… This Rusynka ruled her husband, the greatest of Ottoman monarchs, in a way similar to that in which he ruled his dominions…”
The beauty of Ukrainian women must have been so magnetic (or maybe the memory of Roxolana’s powerful personality exercised a strong influence on later Ottoman rulers) that in the seventeenth century two more sultans, Suleyman II and Ibrahim I, were married to Ukrainian women. One of them, Hatidje Turhan Sultan, was the mother of the Sultan Mehmed IV; she is particularly remembered for building the Mosque Yeni Jami. But none of them attained the fame of Roxolana. It is difficult today to separate myth and truth, inventions and calumnies, hearsay and reliable historical evidence, and to say whether in captivity she really remained a Ukrainian patriot who did a lot to protect the Ukrainian lands from the Turkish onslaught and help the Christians in the Muslim lands, or whether she was an adventuress who used the situation she found herself in to her advantage and managed through cunning and beguiling to maneuver herself and her son into positions of power, or she just happened to be lucky. Probably there was a bit of everything in her fate. What remains certain is that she was a woman whom one of the great Ottoman rulers under whom the Ottoman Empire stretched from Baghdad to the Gibraltar and from the Nile to the Danube, loved dearly.
By Natalya Kosmolinska
Photos by Oleh Vvedensky