Hürrem Sultan, a.k.a. Roxelana (1505–1558)
Empress of the Ottoman Empire
Titian, La Sultana Rossa c. 1500. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Through her coquetry and mastery of palace intrigue, Roxelana (meaning “the maiden from Ruthenia,” a region in what is today Belarus and Ukraine) rose from sex slavery as a concubine in Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s harem, eventually becoming his first (or most preferred) wife. In the harem, Roxelana learned Turkish, the principles of Islam, and the art of seduction, and she earned a new name, Hürrem—“the joyful one.” Roxelana so enchanted the sultan that he broke with tradition and had multiple children with her. A few years later, he married her—an act that granted Roxelana her freedom.
At the side of one of the most powerful rulers in Ottoman history, Roxelana wielded extraordinary influence over the empire through her philanthropy and prominent public building projects. Her Haseki complex in Constantinople featured a mosque, school, hospital, and soup kitchen. When a fire partially destroyed Suleiman’s harem, Roxelana used the opportunity to move in with her husband at the Topkapi Palace—an unprecedented move among sultanic wives that ushered in an era called “the Reign of Women.” Instead of rebuilding the harem, she encouraged Suleiman to construct a mosque.
The Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent still stands as a landmark in Istanbul today. In The Women Who Built the Ottoman World (2017), Muzaffer Özgüles suggests that Roxelana “reshaped the patronage of all Ottoman women builders who came after her.”