Slavic girls are famously popular among Turkish men, but only one of them ever managed to influence the workings of the mighty Ottoman Empire.
That was the legendary Roksolana, the 16th-century Ukrainian slave girl who became the only legal wife of the Ottoman Emperor Suleyman the Magnificent, influencing his policies and becoming his closest advisor and confidant. It’s one of the most fascinating, and unlikely, stories in Ukrainian history. Born 70 kilometers south of Lviv in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, the girl who would become known in Istanbul as both Roksolana and Khourrem was really named Anastasia Lisovska.
Her father was a priest in the town of Rohatyn, at that point a major Galician city. When the girl was fifteen, the region was invaded by a party of Crimean Tatars, who captured her and sent her to Istanbul, where she was put up for sale at the slave market. Considered ‘exotic goods’ because of her red hair and green eyes, Roksolana was purchased for the emperor’s harem. The slave-traders were amazed by her good spirits. Unlike most people sold into slavery, the girl was full of laughter and high spirits, leading them to rename her Khourrem, or ‘The Laughing One’. The name stuck, and it was what her royal husband would call her until she died.
No real sources exist to explain how Roksolana distinguished herself from the harem to catch the Sultan’s eye, but there is a legend about it. When the new batch of slaves, many of whom were more beautiful than Roksolana, were presented to the Sultan, the Ukrainian girl startled him by pushing the dancer who was amusing him out of the way and bursting defiantly into a Slavic song. The court eunuchs didn’t know what to do, and waited for a signal from the Sultan that they should take the audacious slave away and strangle her. But the Sultan was impressed. He gave Roksolana his handkerchief, a sign that he wanted her in his bedroom that night. Thus the relationship began. Observers who took note of this unusual coupling began to refer to the girl as ‘Roksolana’, a name which was a corruption of the words ‘rossa’ and ‘ruziac’, meaning ‘Slavic’. The Sultan was also attracted by the girl’s reserved character and by the fact that she asked for permission to visit his library – the story has it that when he returned from a military campaign once, he found Roksolana speaking a couple of new languages. Historians say she actually spoke Turkish, Arabic, and Persian in addition to Ukrainian, but linguistics weren’t her only strong point. She also became a good dancer, a fine judge of art and literature, and a shrewd politician. She understood that the first rule of her new home was the fittest survives, and she lived up to it. After Roksolana adopted Islam, Suleyman married her in 1530. That raised a few eyebrows, as it was the first time in history a Sultan had married a harem slave. From then on she accompanied the all-powerful autocrat during affairs of state, and she earned the respect of both foreign rulers and conservative Islamic figures.
When the royal treasury was empty after the Empire had to suppress a number of Persian rebellions, and her husband was away on a campaign, Roksolana knew what to do. She ordered the opening of wine stores in Istanbul’s European residential areas and at the seaport, which raised revenue from among non-Muslim foreigners. She also enlargened Istanbul’s port facilities, thus broadening the market. In short, she made important decisions in her husband’s absence. She used some of the revenue she earned to build new mosques, palaces, hospitals and schools. Roksolana gave birth to three sons as well as a daughter, but the true heir to the Ottoman throne was Mustafa, the eldest son of Suleyman’s other wife, Gulfem. The primacy of her rival’s son was a real threat to her and her kids, given the viciousness that characterised court intrigues. So Roksolana took steps to consolidate her power. Her first victim was Suleyman’s Grand Vizier Ibrahim, whom she had assassinated in 1536 for scheming to usurp the Sultan’s power. Yet Mustafa still remained. The sly Ukrainian girl convinced Suleyman that Mustafa was plotting against his father to seize power, with the result that the emperor had the boy and his brother strangled with silk lace. Gulfem went mad in the aftermath and soon died. It might not have been the most pleasant or least stressful way to live for 30 years, but Roksolana did well at it, fighting tooth and nail for power on behalf of herself and her son - who did, in fact, succeed Suleyman as emperor. Not that she saw that happen. Roksolana died in 1558, eight years before her husband did, ending the story of the humble Galician teenager who ascended to the pinnacle of power in a mighty empire.