Haseki Hürrem Sultan: The Woman Who Revolutionised the Ottoman Empire

Emma Holbrook

Slave, concubine, favourite, mother, empress, witch, benefactor, murderer, wife, diplomat...

...there is an abundance of titles that Hürrem Sultan is associated with. However, there is no denying the scandal, impact, and power that she had not just on the Ottoman Empire but the 16th century. Compared to other examples of 16th century scandalous women such as Anne Boleyn, Catherine de Medici and Jeanne d’Albret, none of them relished the same power or control as Hürrem Sultan, who not only challenged Ottoman customs but revolutionized the entire empire. During her marriage to Sultan Süleiman, Hürrem Sultan implemented cultural, political, military, and architectural changes amongst so much more. However, it was her revolutionising of the Imperial harem that birthed the Sultanate of Women, a period where Imperial women wielded more power than ever before. Born circa.1502-1506 as Aleksandra Lisovska, Hürrem Sultan is believed to have been the daughter of an Orthodox Christian priest and originated from Rohatyn, previously part of Poland but now modern-day Ukraine. This theory of her origin was later ‘confirmed’ when King Sigismund I of Poland claimed Hürrem as a native of his kingdom. Prior to 1520-1521, Hürrem was captured as a teenager by Crimean Tatar raiders and suffered a gruelling ten-day journey to be sold at a slave market at Caffa. Here she would be purchased as a new slave in the Sultan’s harem. There were over 200 women in the harem at any given time and their purpose was to first attract the Sultan to become a sexual partner and secondly provide male heirs to further strengthen the Ottoman dynasty. The concept of the harem spiked intrigue across the globe during the 16th century. Upon arriving, Aleksandra was forced to adopt the Turkish name ‘Hürrem’, meaning ‘joyful one’, converted to Islam and finally, learnt the erotic arts—all of which would allow her to succeed in obtaining the attention of Süleyman the Magnificent.
Haseki Hürrem Sultan: The Woman Who Revolutionised the Ottoman Empire
Portrait of Sultan Süleyman by Titian

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Haseki Hürrem Sultan: The Woman Who Revolutionised the Ottoman Empire
The Harem by John Lewis in 1849.

It was Hürrem’s youth, beauty and joyful nature that attracted Sultan Süleyman.

Swiftly following her arrival in Istanbul, Hürrem’s power and status within the harem rose with the arrival of her firstborn son, Mehmed, in 1521. Mehmed’s birth symbolised unprecedented change; despite Ottoman customs, Hürrem remained a sexual partner to the Sultan and now she had supplanted Mahidevran Hatun as the favourite concubine. Hürrem would only continue to defy Ottoman customs as by 1531, she had birthed the Sultan a total of five Şehzades and a daughter, Mihrimah Sultan—something no other Imperial concubine had been permitted to do. Ottoman Imperial custom dictated a concubine would cease intimate relations with the Sultan once she birthed a son henceforth she would dedicate her life to preparing him for future rule. Once he came of age, both he and his mother would be removed from the harem. Although she had born five sons, one of which did not live past infancy, Hürrem remained in the capital and continued her intimate relationship with the Sultan. This infuriated many within the harem. This only deepened when, circa.1526-1533, Sultan Süleyman surprised everyone by legally marrying Hürrem Sultan, freeing her from slavery and creating the Haseki Sultan title, giving her supreme authority over the entire harem and his subjects. Although she would not live long enough to become Valide Sultan, her power was far superior to any Valide Sultan who followed in her footsteps. Hürrem’s intelligence and acute awareness prompted her to implement drastic changes within the harem and the Imperial court; the harem resided at Eski Saray, preventing close access to the Sultan, prompting Hürrem to relocate the harem to the Topkapi Palace, the Sultan’s main residence. This strategic move permitted not only Hürrem but her successors an exorbitant amount of power and influence not only the harem but events within the Imperial Court. Quite soon after her permanent relocation to the Topkapi Palace, Hürrem had secret rooms built, providing unfettered access to the Sultan. Hürrem seized every opportunity she could to demonstrate to the Empire that the Sultan had only eyes for her. Ambassador Navagero commented that there had ‘never been, in the history of the Ottoman house, a lady that held more authority.’ From throwing tantrums over new women in the harem and the Sultan publicly declaring he would remain loyal only to her, Hürrem’s defiance and determination caused scandal throughout the 16th century. Numerous criminal accusations and negative depictions were made to dehumanise and frame her as a power-hungry murderer who was responsible for the Ottoman Empire’s fall. However, the legacy she left behind demonstrated the rise of a teenage slave into the most powerful woman of the Ottoman Empire.
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Haseki Hürrem Sultan: The Woman Who Revolutionised the Ottoman Empire

Emma Holbrook

Emma Holbrook is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Ill-Fated Wives of Henry VIII historical blog where she and her talented team of writers explore the lives of the women associated to one of history's most notorious kings. She recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Publishing and plans to pursue obtaining a history degree in the future. Her favourite female figures in history include Catherine of Aragon, Haseki Hürrem Sultan, Lady Jane Grey and Catherine the Great.
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