HURREM SULTAN – Entering “The Gate of Good Fortune” (circa 1502 – April 15, 1558)

Titian Painting of Hurrem, 1550

This is the culturally complex story of a 13 year old Russian girl―seized by Crimean Tartars, sold at a Black Sea slave market, shipped to Istanbul, and trained as a concubine.  As Islamic law forbade Muslims from enslaving other Muslims, the Ottoman Empire imported thousands of Christians to be trained as concubines, elite foot soldiers (Janissaries), and laborers. After seizure, this young Russian girl captured the heart of the sultan, passed through forbidden gates to become queen, birthed six royal children, and gained worldly prominence for her foreign negotiations and philanthropy.

The girl’s birth name and parentage are unknown and her identity was quickly erased in the accelerated acculturation of Istanbul’s Old Palace. Despite her brutal abduction, she apparently possessed a joyful nature and the Turks named her “Hurrem,” meaning “cheerful one.”

Once within the confined walls of the Old Palace, Hurrem was immersed in a woven tapestry of nationalities, languages, and religions. Power resided with the royal mother who delegated through a hierarchy of administrators, eunuchs, and servants to provide for the needs of as many as 300 concubines and their children. Hurrem received intense schooling in the Turkish language, Islam doctrine, and palace protocol. As a potential sultan favorite or “haseki,” Hurrem bathed in the rituals of beautification―cultivating the mystery of the feminine as a treasured asset.

16th-century Latin oil painting

At the New or Topkapi Palace, where only men resided and the Empire conducted business, Sultan Suleyman ascended the throne in 1520. During an evening’s pleasure, he reclined in the atmosphere of soft music and alluring young dancers. With a small graceful body, threads of red hair catching the light, and bright inquisitive eyes, Hurrem captivated Suleyman’s attention. She was about 17, he was 26, and within five months she was pregnant.

Suleyman already had four children by four different slave women, although only one son, Mustafa, survived to adulthood. The Ottoman laws of ascendancy limited one male child per concubine. After Hurrem’s son was born in 1521, all expected the Sultan to move to a new haseki.

But when Suleyman returned victorious from his first military campaign, he asked for Hurrem. Thereafter, Hurrem and Suleyman contravened many conventions: falling into a 37 year love affair and parenting six children. A girl named Mihrumah and five boys: Mehmed, Selim, Bayezid, Cihangin (born with a deformed shoulder), and Abdullah (who died as a toddler). Hurrem birthed six children within 10 years and Suleyman became monogamous―a stunning sultan deviation. In 1534, Suleyman married Hurrem, elevating her to queen, although the Ottomans had no such official classification.

Sultan Suleyman 16th century

In spite of these tradition irregularities, or perhaps precisely because of them, Suleyman’s 46 year reign is considered to be one of the greatest (out of 600 years of Ottoman rule) for its formidable military, vast territorial expansion, law-enactment, and explosion of arts. Hurrem conducted herself as a pillar of the regime’s preeminence, although some whispered and/or inscribed that she had practiced witchcraft on Suleyman to ensnare him.

After they married, Hurrem defied tradition once again. She relocated her entourage of servant girls and trusted eunuchs from the Old Palace (relegated there for the past 15 years) into the expanded seraglio of the Topkapi Palace with sweeping views of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara―the first woman to inhabit this sanctified Gate of Good Fortune. Up to this time, women had been forbidden to dwell in the space where the male divan dispersed justice. For Suleyman it was a win-win. He had Hurrem near at hand and during his campaigns she became his eyes and ears within the Palace.

Out of their 37 years together, Suleyman spent a total of 10 away at war. During campaigns, the couple exchanged passionate poetic letters and she kept him apprised of the state of affairs within the capital. But without him near, she feared the threat of the brutal Ottoman tradition of throne inheritance: 1) the most capable heir takes the throne as Allah ordains, 2) he executes all other heirs and offspring, and 3) exiles their mothers. Suleyman’s oldest son Mustafa, by another woman, already ruled his own province and enjoyed popularity among the Janissaries. Hurrem knew if Suleyman died in battle she would lose all.

In 1536, much relieved to see Suleyman return triumphant after two arduous warring years, Hurrem pampered him indulgently and he lavished her with opulent jewelry. Gaining a reprieve, the couple heeded the Islamic call to charity and poured themselves into building projects. Suleyman oversaw the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Hurrem―the first royal mother to build in Istanbul―chose a site where women held a weekly market. Her Haseki Sultan foundation, contained a mosque, madrasa, primary school, soup kitchen, and hospital. Over a decade in the making, it supported hundreds of jobs, new shops, and although females could not attend the schools, their market flourished.

Having established her benevolence in Istanbul, Hurrem journeyed to visit her sons Mehmed and Selim in their historical Anatolian cities of Manisa and Konya. Traveling hundreds of miles through the countryside with a resplendent entourage, peasants caught a passing glimpse of the queen―veiled in Islamic and Empire devotion.

Returning home, she was assaulted with news that Mehmed had died suddenly from a plague ravishing Manisa. Both parents fell into despair over the loss of their eldest and most promising. Young Cihangir died shortly thereafter, adding to their grief. The Empire now had three remaining heir contenders: 1) Mustafa―son of another woman; 2) Selim―son of Hurrem; and 3) Bayezid―son of Hurrem.

In 1553, a dramatic and decisive event developed. The grand vizier Rustem (married to Suleyman and Hurrem’s daughter), commanded an army dispatched to meet up with Mustafa. Disturbed by what he saw, Rustem sent expedited word to Suleyman in the capital that the Janissaries were inciting Mustafa to dethrone his father and threatening to kill Rustem. Immediately, Suleyman headed out with a large army. Somewhere near Konya, he summoned Mustafa to join him. Proceeding with trust, Mustafa entered his father’s tent alone and was strangled. Mustafa’s only son was also hunted down and executed.

Suleyman procession through Istanbul, Pieter Coecke van Aeist, 1533 (detail engraving)

To appease the soldiers and win back their loyalty Suleyman increased salaries, granted promotions, and sent Rustem into semi-exile. The terrible decision to execute Mustafa weighed heavily on Suleyman. Yet, he believed Mustafa’s popularity among the young posed a clear threat to an aging sultan and the Empire’s stability. Suleyman ruled creditably for another 13 years and in that time seemed to overcome any disapproval associated with his actions. Hurrem supported Suleyman’s decision as it not only protected him, but her, and her sons as well. Ottoman historians of the era rarely accused Hurrem of instigating Mustafa’s demise, but later European historians theorized that she and Rustem had conspired to inflame Suleyman against Mustafa.

Even with Mustafa out of the way, the succession issue unsettled Hurrem. Her son Bayezid made a tactical error giving rise to an ever-increasing rift between him and his father, forcing Hurrem into the role of peacemaker. She could not reconcile herself to the cruel Ottoman practice requiring one of her sons to die for the other to ascend. She saw that Selim was overweight, lazy, and drank too much, although he did not defy his father; whereas Bayezid was slight of build, devoted to literary arts, and on the defensive after learning his father had executed Mustafa.

In his sixties, Suleyman’s lust for battle appeared to wane. In 1555 he signed a peace treaty with the Safavids and in 1562 entered into an accord with the European Hapsburgs. To reinforce alliances, Suleyman sought Hurrem’s help. Now recognized as an influential woman throughout the Empire, Europe, and Iran, Hurrem’s prolific letter writing and conscious gift-giving brought about an impactful innovation in female diplomacy. Emulated by her daughter and royal mothers thereafter, it ushered in the Ottoman’s “reign of women”, as it came to be known.

Engraving of Hurrem by Johann Theodor de Bry, 1596

Her legacy also lived on through her expanded philanthropy. She either built, or sponsored, charitable foundations in Mecca, Medina, and numerous other cities targeting the pious traveler and the indigent. Her last building project in Jerusalem included a mosque, lodgings, and a kitchen distributing food to the needy. Apparently even today, a kitchen in that same building provides food to the poor.

Attempting to keep pace with her numerous demands, Hurrem’s health began to falter and she relied increasing on her daughter, Mihrumah’s assistance. As her condition turned dire (although the cause is unknown), she begged Suleyman to remain constantly by her side.

Hurrem died on April 15, 1558, weary with knowing that one of her sons would have to die so the other could succeed his father. Her coffin was carried to the mosque on the shoulders of the viziers, drawing thousands of onlookers along the way. Suleyman was inconsolable.

After her death and true to her fears, Bayezid rallied his own army, lost a battle in Konya, and fled to Iran. Suleyman sent support and orders to Selim to have his brother Bayezid, along with his sons, executed for treason.

In 1566, Suleyman died while on campaign in Hungary. Uncontested, Selim took the throne, dying after just eight years. The one princess, Mihrumah, witnessed the deaths of all her brothers, her husband and parents, and nevertheless engaged in outreach diplomacy, as modeled by her mother, until her death in 1578.

There are few contemporaneous accounts of Hurrem’s life and later renderings often substituted the simplistic historical trope of a cunning woman for a more evolved portrayal. Yet, whatever the truth, it seems fair to say that her excellence in the face of overwhelming cultural challenges far outweighed whatever missteps she may have taken.


Published Books:
Atil, Esin, The Age of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, National Gallery of Art, 1987
Levin, Carole, Barrett-Graves, Debra, etal., Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World, P. 129, Hurrem Sultan (Roxelana) (1520s-1558) Turkey Political Adviser, Diplomat, and Imperial Benefactress, Greenwood Press, 2000.
Peirce, Leslie, Empress of the East, How a Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire, Basic Books, Hachette Book Group, 2017.
Yermolenko, Galina, Roxolana: The Greatest Expresse of the East, The Muslim World 95 (2005):231-48.
Online Sources:
Hurrem Sultan – Suleiman’s True Love, History of Royal Women, 2017. (last visited 05/26/20).
Janissaries, Wikipedia, (last visited 05/26/20).

3 thoughts on “HURREM SULTAN – Entering “The Gate of Good Fortune” (circa 1502 – April 15, 1558)”

  1. jesse greene says:

    thank you so much. i am inspired about rising above the odds and her opportunism. seeing possibilities and moving in them.

  2. Sky Power says:

    Fascinating story that you researched – and you are such a thoughtful, skilled writer. I love your creative endeavors. Thank you.

  3. Maureen says:

    Very informative I remembered a little about Hurrem from reading books on Suleiman the Magnificent but I didn’t know much her central role in the sovereign’s community affairs, building of cultural monuments and her influence in political affairs. I’m now inspired to research more about her impact on royal dynasties that followed. Well written I thoroughly enjoyed it

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