Roxelana, also known as Ḫurrem Sulṭān, was born, according to some sources, as Aleksandra Lisovka in Rohatyn, Poland (in what is now the Ukraine) in the early 1510s. As a young girl, she was captured by Crimean Tartar raiders and was taken to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), where she was sold into slavery.
After a forced conversion to Islam, she served in Süleyman the Magnificent’s harem. At this time, she was given the Turkish name Hürrem, meaning “joyful one”, though she was also known as Roxelana, an allusion to her Rusyn roots.
She gave birth to Mehmed in 1521 and soon became the royal favourite and chief consort. Whereas previous concubines only had one son and were sent away when he reached maturity, Roxelana had 4 more sons and remained at court. Also unprecedented was her marriage to Süleyman, which freed her from slavery.
Roxelana was Süleyman’s chief diplomatic contact with Europe, corresponding with the king of Poland, and with the wife and sister of Tahmasp I, shah of Persia (and father of previous Queen of the Day Pari Khan Khanum). The Ottoman Empire’s strong relationship with Poland at this time indicates Roxelana’s successful political role.
Roxelana also commissioned many architectural projects, including the Haseki mosque complex and the Haseki Hürrem Hammān Islamic baths in Constantinople, the Great Waqf of Jerusalem (a soup kitchen for the poor), and madrasas (schools).
Despite her achievements, the Ottoman people generally disliked Roxelana because she broke cultural conventions. She moved the harem from its isolation to the sultan’s palace and, when her son Selim II succeeded Süleyman, the harem’s proximity to the sultan meant an increased influence, overshadowing the traditional role of the grand vizier.
Roxelana died in April 1558 in Constantinople, but her legacy continues, as witnessed in the 2007 opening of a mosque in her honour in Mariupol, Ukraine.
Leslie Pierce, Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire (New York: Basic Books, 2017)
“Roxelana Sultana”, Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, 2021. https://www.wisemuslimwomen.org/muslim-woman/roxelana-sultana-7/.