Roxelana, called Hürrem Sultan, was the concubine and later the legal wife of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Her exceptional story is fascinating in its own right, but it also tells us a lot about the Ottoman Empire.
She was probably born in Ruthenia, between present day Poland and Ukraine where she was captured by Tartar slave raiders. Then taken to the Crimea and onto Istanbul, where she was taken into the Harem.
She quickly became the Sultan's favourite, breaking a number of precedents including having more than one son, she had six children, and moving the harem to the Topkapi palace. She also stayed there instead of moving to the provinces with her sons. She clearly wielded significant influence and corresponded with rulers and their wives across the world. She used her wealth to establish charitable foundations across the empire. She died in 1558 and her mausoleum is situated next to the tomb of Suleiman. One of her sons, Selim, because Sultan in 1556.
History has not been kind to Roxelana, in part due to the limited sources. We rely heavily on the reports of western diplomats who relied on court gossip for their information. She has been portrayed as a schemer and implicated in the execution of Suleiman's first son and others.
A more sympathetic history has recently been written by Professor Leslie Peirce, 'Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire'. This tells her story, but also puts it in the context of the Empire of the period.
The author discusses her book and the Ottoman Empire of the period, in a edition of the Ottoman History podcast. This is well worth a listen, even if you don't read the book.
The story of Roxelana has been popularised in the Turkish TV series 'Magnificent Century'. This incredibly popular series in Turkey as well as the Balkans and the Middle East, now runs to 4 seasons and 136 episodes. It has attracted more than 200 million viewers in 50 countries. In the UK you can watch the first 48 episodes on Netflix.
I have watched them all, which might explain my poor painting productivity this year! The production values are very poor and the battle scenes woeful. It is more a soap opera than historical drama, but it does suck you in and, as best we can judge, keeps pretty close to the history. Sadly for my painting schedule, I will be back for more!