Sunday, February 14, 2016

Hürrem: the Woman who Stole the Heart of Süleyman the Magnificent

Rosa, Consort of Suleiman, Emperor of the Turks, ca. 1600-70, French School
(The Royal Collection
Today is Valentines Day, a day we tend to associate with love and lovers. From Marc Antony and Cleopatra to Romeo and Juliet, to Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales, there have been some great couples throughout history with stories that are the very definition of romance. There is another great love story about a great romance that took place in 16th century Istanbul that is not so well known in mainstream Western society - that of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent, and his favorite concubine, Roxelana. Their story is striking not only for the unprecedented context but also for its extraordinary contribution to Ottoman arts. Named Hürrem (meaning cheerful, smiling, blooming) upon her arrival in the Sultan's palace, Roxelana, the daughter of a Ruthenian Catholic priest, is thought to have been enslaved during a Tatar raid in western Ukraine.

 Portrait of Hurrem Sultan titled Rossa Solymanni Vxor, c. 18th century
(Topkapi Palace Museum) 
The harem of the Ottoman Sultan, filled with the most beautiful women across the land, has always been a source of exotic fantasies. Although it did house the women the Sultan took as concubines, the harem was much more than just a house for hundreds of beautiful women, trained and groomed to perfection, lounging about in hammams and on Turkish carpets awaiting for their turn to assure one man's pleasure. The harem was the Sultan's household, which also encompased the households of his mother, his favorites and concubines. The girls that came to the palace were bought at slave markets, given to the Sultan as gifts by high ranking officials or sold by their own families. Although these practices seem barbaric and impossible to understand for us, the Sultan's harem was a place for a young girl to receive a thorough education in housekeeping, gardening and languages and live in comfort and luxury. Some of the odalisques were even married off to Sultan's favorites or high ranking government officials, whereby she would be the head of her own household. There was a very strict hierarchy that everyone in the harem adhered to. Except for very rare cases, the girls deemed beautiful and/or smart enough by the Valide Sultan (the queen mother) would get further training in the arts, literature, music, dancing and of course the erotic arts.  Contrary to the Western tradition of forming alliances thorough marriage, the Ottoman Sultans made sure to use slaves for sexual reproduction assuring there would not be any other family to gain prominence or aspire for power in the empire. The Ottoman empire was a true meritocracy from the harem to its governing body. What was extraordinary about Hurrem's relationship with Suleyman was that he married her... against a 200 year tradition that inhibited Ottoman Sultans from offically marrying their concubines, even if they had borne a male heir.

Titian, La Sultana Rossa, c. 1550
The existing portraits of Hürrem, are mostly figments of the artists'  imagination since no one other than the Sultan and the eunuchs were allowed to see harem women. However she was noted for not being especially pretty. The 16th century accounts of Hürrem all attest to her intelligence and talent for strategizing. The old palace where Hürrem first resided in was in Beyazit, 2 kilometers away from Topkapi. After becoming a favorite, she managed to move into the Topkapi palace, gaining easier access to Suleyman and stay with him to the end of her life instead of moving out to the city her son would be sent, to acquire experience and rule till his father's demise. She used her influence to send off the heir apparent, Mustafa with his mother, Mahidevran, to Manisa in 1533. The first favorite who bore the Sultan a son would be the second most powerful woman in the harem, after the Valide Sultan. With Mustafa and Mahidevran out of the way, Hürrem began to rule the Harem in 1534 after her mother-in-law passed away.

Haseki Hurrem Sultan (La Rossa), c. 1540-1550
Woodcut published by Matteo Pagani
(©Trustees of the British Museum
Suleyman the Magnificent, c. 1540-50
Woodcut published by Matteo Pagani
©Trustees of the British Museum

I had written in a previous post about a series of Ottoman Sultans portraits, based on a series made by Nakkas Nigari, that existed in a Venetian collection in the 16th century. These woodcuts published by Matteo Pagani may have similar origins but their influence in later representation of the Sultan and the Sultana can be seen from the 18th century Portrait of Hurrem Sultan in the Topkapi Palace collection.  

Suleyman is noted as a 'creative conquerer' who could wield a pen as well as a sword.1 The age of Süleyman which lasted for 46 years from 1520 - 1566 is known as the Ottoman Golden Age where the arts flourished under his patronage and some of the greatest Ottoman artists lived. The great architect Sinan, the poet, thinker and writer, Fuzuli, the polymath artist, mathematician, painter and cartographer, Matrakci Nasuh, and the innovative illuminator Karamemi all lived and worked for the Ottoman Sultan at this time. The Sultan who is referred to as Suleyman the Lawgiver due to having reorganized all the archaic laws of the empire, was also a poet who wrote under the pseudonym of Muhibbi.

Illuminated pages from the Muhibbi Divani, illuminated by Karamemi  (Istanbul University Central Library, Rare Manuscripts Department)

Süleyman spent almost a third of this 46 year rule away on campaign. His ardor for Hürrem seems to have been constant which is proven by the love poems he sent to her when he was away. Muhibbi Divani was a book of Suleyman's poems which were written in Talik inscription by the calligrapher Mehmed el-Serif and illuminated with a different design on each page by Karamemi. The entire book is available digitally online to page through on a Istanbul University webpage (link). One of the poems that he wrote to his sweetheart, Hürrem is as follows:
Thorne of my lovely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan
The most beautiful among the beautiful...
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf...
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 Badakhshanmy Baghdad, my 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
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy. 
 Despite being the beloved and dear wife of one of the most successful Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, Hürrem has always been remembered as the scheming, evil female who turned the tide of history by instigating the execution of Suleyman's first-born Mustafa, his closest aid and grand vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha and placing her son-in-law Rustem Pasha and her other supporters in high places within the government. It is a well-known fact that she had great influence and advised Suleyman in matters of the state. Although she was not revered as she should be, she was the inspiration for many European artists including Haydn who titled the second movement in his Symphony no. 63 Roxelane. Being an intelligent, powerful woman, Hürrem also knew the power of royal patronage in promoting a positive public image, which is why she commissioned from the architect Sinan religious complexes, waterways, hamams and soup kitchens throughout the empire including Istanbul and Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, none of her good works were enough to cleanse Hürrem's reputation who is to this day still remembered as a nefarious temptress, but Süleyman's poems reveal how special she was to one of the most powerful emperors in history.

1 Halman, Talat Sait. Süleyman the Magnificent Poet: The Sultan's Selected Poems, Beyoglu, Istanbul, Türkiye: Dost, 1987

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