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The Most Powerful Woman of the Ottoman Empire

Ravi Rajan is a software program director who writes on varied subjects from history, archaeology to leadership and writing techniques

The Most Powerful Woman of the Ottoman Empire

The Most Powerful Woman of the Ottoman Empire

Roxelana- Sultan Suleiman's true love

The most beautiful among the beautiful…

My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world…

My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia

My Badakhshan, my Baghdad, and Khorasan

My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief…

I’ll sing your praises always

Perhaps the above poetic verses, penned by none other than the Suleiman the Magnificent, one of the most powerful sultans of the Ottoman empire sums up the importance of Roxelana in his life and her stupendous influence over the empire’s 25 million people.

Roxelana or more commonly known as Hurrem Sultan, meaning “The Laughing One” was also the rarest of rare women to have reached this exalted position from being a slave girl.

She was a young girl who was captured by slave traders and became a concubine in Suleiman’s harem. However, she overcame great odds and became Suleiman’s most favorite and influential wife. She also bore him five sons – one of whom would become the next Sultan – and a daughter.

That said, she also remains one of the most controversial figures of the Ottoman Empire. Many claim that she was a ruthless and wicked woman who will eliminate anybody who stood in her way. But on the other side, Roxelana was also a great builder and philanthropist and as queen, she gave generous endowments to the poor.

She built mosques, religious schools, bathhouses, and resting places for pilgrims traveling to Mecca. She was the only royal woman to get her name inscribed on structures while her husband was alive.

Roxelana died in 1558, leaving behind an everlasting legacy that very few women in the history of the world have managed to surpass or even emulate so far.

Roxelana was Sultan Suleiman's true love

Roxelana was Sultan Suleiman's true love

The Story of Roxelana

Roxelana was most probably born in Ruthenia which is in modern-day Ukraine.

As a young girl, she was captured by Tartar raiders who then sold her to the Istanbul slave market. Eventually, Roxelana was purchased by Suleiman’s grand vizier and best friend, Ibrahim Pasha who gave her as a gift to the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Writers of that era claim that she stood way different from the other slaves, by her way of talking, poise, and of course her breath-taking beauty and flaming red hair. She was said to be strong-willed and brave and had a quick decisive mind to make the best out of any situation.

Roxelena knew right from the offset that, if she has to succeed and rise above the thousands of concubines vying for the sultan’s attention. She needs to have a healthy mind also in addition to a healthy body. She would need not only to know the customs (for example, how to dress, when to bow, etc.) but also to use her intelligence wisely to survive in a cutthroat world where everybody was a rival.

And before Roxelana came on the scene, Suleiman already had four children. Each prince had a different mother and the sultan’s most favorite concubine was Mahidevran, whose son Mustafa was the eldest son of the Sultan thus giving her the highest position in the sultan’s harem. She was Roxelana’s s bitter most rival.

Roxelana became. Suleiman's favorite queen

Roxelana became. Suleiman's favorite queen

Roxelana Became Powerful

Roxelena knew that to secure power, she had to keep the Sultan’s attention long enough to become the mother of an heir. In 1521, Roxelana gave birth to her first child and son, Mehmed, which secured her position. But she was not content with that. She continued to intellectually impress the sultan and started advising him on crucial matters of state.

This further elevated her position and the sultan soon fell in love with her. Suleiman became entirely devoted to her as she went on to have four more children with him. Eventually, Suleiman married Roxelana. This was the first time that a slave girl had risen to be the empress of the sprawling Ottoman Empire.

Roxelena used her cleverness and astute mind to climb up the ladder. She gained her freedom and was endowed with the title of Hurrem Sultan. With this, Roxelana also increased her political power and expanded her monetary resources. She used these funds to expand her charitable foundations.

She became a builder queen and provided jobs to a wide variety of laborers and skilled craftsmen for her magnificent projects. She also created several charitable institutions in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem that provided philanthropic services to the local public by creating hostels for pilgrims, mosques, and soup kitchens, etc.

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She was also Suleiman’s political adviser and would correspond independently with many different figures throughout Europe. This was especially key during her husband’s long absences on various war fronts.

This was a daring move as no women have ever got involved in matters of state in the Ottoman context so far. But Roxelene proved herself to be not only an able administrator but also a tough negotiator of treaties which was grudgingly accepted by her male rivals.

Roxelana died in 1558 which seems to have been from an illness. Her devoted Suleiman created an elegant tomb for her where he would eventually join eight years later.

Roxelana became the most powerful queen of the Ottoman Empire

Roxelana became the most powerful queen of the Ottoman Empire

Was She a Cunning Manipulator?

Perhaps we can never answer this question with certainty. Some call her a wife possessing exceptional charm and a deep sense of devotion while others call her a cunning manipulator influencing one of history’s most famous sultans.

It is said that Roxelana, who wanted her children to sit on the throne after Suleiman, encouraged the Sultan to kill his own son Şehzade Mustafa. Some historians also blame her and her son-in-law Rüstem Pasha for encouraging Suleiman to kill his grand vizier, Pargalı İbrahim Pasha.

Either way, one thing is clear; she was a glorious aberration in a male-dominated world in which she was thrust into as a captured slave. And using her wit, intelligence, and decisiveness she transformed herself into a key operator in the 16th century Ottoman empire, something that no woman had done till that time.

She broke many traditions and encouraged women to take a front seat in all affairs of the state and by doing that she left a lasting imprint on both Ottoman history and European imagination for centuries to come. History will forever remember her as a shining beacon of women empowerment.

As Diane Mariechild has rightly said.

“A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture, and transform.”



Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 22, 2021:

Thanks, Chitrangada for your comments.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on May 22, 2021:

That's an interesting read, Raviji!

Roxelana emerged like a powerful woman, and her acts have created history!

Thank you for sharing this well researched information!

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 22, 2021:

Ravi, thank you.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 22, 2021:

Yes, Miebakagh.Going from a slave to be the empress of an empire is not easy and she has a lot of grit and chutzpah to accomplish it despite having odds stacked against her.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 22, 2021:

She must be a unique character indeed, among the freeborn and nobles.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 22, 2021:

The incredible story of Roxelana, a Ukrainian slave girl who overcame great odds and became the most powerful empress of the Ottoman Empire. Roxelana left a lasting imprint on both Ottoman history and European imagination for centuries to come.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 22, 2021:

Thanks Flourish for your comments

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 22, 2021:

As someone who was captured, enslaved, traded, gifted and sold like chattel I guess it's not surprising that she inflicted harm upon others. Donating to the poor and being a female doesn't negate her bad acts. This is some bad stuff getting her husband to kill his son and others. And double shame on him for doing it.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 21, 2021:

Thanks Gyanendra

gyanendra mocktan from Kathmandu,Nepal on May 21, 2021:

Fabulous History you have taught me more about Ottoman Empire and importanltly Rexelana.

Thank you.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 21, 2021:

Thanks Miebakagh for your comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 21, 2021:

Thanks, John for your comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 21, 2021:

Very interesting historical read. Thanks.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on May 21, 2021:

Roxelana was obviously a very exceptional woman. Thank you for sharing this piece of history I had no knowledge of. Excellent article, Ravi.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 21, 2021:

Thanks Sankhajit

Sankhajit Bhattacharjee from MILWAUKEE on May 21, 2021:

l enjoyed a lesson from history.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 21, 2021:

Thanks Bill for your kind comments

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 21, 2021:

Wonderful history lesson! Thank you, sir!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 21, 2021:

Thanks Liz for your comments

Liz Westwood from UK on May 21, 2021:

This is an interesting and well-researched article. I noticed the influence of the Ottoman empire when I visited Cyprus.

Misbah Sheikh on May 21, 2021:

My pleasure, Ravi. Believe me it's worth watching.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 21, 2021:

Thanks, Misbah for your kind comments. I am surely going to check the Netflix series. Thanks for the tip about submitting to Owlcation.

Misbah Sheikh on May 21, 2021:

Thanks a lot for sharing this history of Roxelana aka Huram Sultan. The most powerful woman in the history of Turkish empire. Despite, she had done a lot of social work and was helpful to many but she did injustice with shehzade mustafa the first son of mahedauran sultan and sultan Suleiman. He was a kind soul.

We have a turkish serial drama on the history of Reign of sultan Suleiman named as Magnificent century. I think it's available on Netflix as well.

It was also dubbed by PTV Pakistan in Urdu/Hindi language named as mera sultan. It's worth watching. Consists of 450+ episodes. You can find on YouTube. Have you seen it.

Do submit this article on Owlcation. They will accept it without any problem. When I submitted one of my articles on ottoman empire the editors send me an email saying that the history is interesting and they accepted it without any delay. Thanks for sharing

Stay safe and healthy

Blessings and Peace

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