Sunday, December 4, 2011

Was this history's worst woman?

When  people think of bad, bad women they perhaps think of Isabella the First - the woman who commissioned Torquemada - or Bloody Queen Mary, the scourge of Protestant England. Few people have heard of Hürrem Haseki Sultan, or Roxelana, as she is better known in Europe. Yet she made Anne Boleyn, one of her contemporaries, look like a milquetoast. Anne, after all, fell out of favour with her king and ended up with her head on the block.

Roxelana married the Sultan of the Ottomans, had him throw out his entire harem, and kept him in her thrall the rest of her life.

By fair means or foul. 

Roxelana was born in the Ukraine and at some time in her teens found herself a concubine in the harem of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Possessor of Men's Necks. Her portraits suggest classical features and blazing red hair. Her history reveals a woman of ruthless ambition with the strategic intelligence of a chessmaster.

What was a harem like? Victorian paintings depict dream-like canvases of half naked young women soaping each other in what look like Asiatic day spas. In reality the old harem of Suleiman's time was a grim and twilight maze of dark panelled rooms where the sun seldom penetrated. It was a snake pit; imagine, if you will, a cross between a Miss World contest and a reality show, where the winner becomes an Empress and the other three finalists are drowned in a sack. Oh, and all the runners-up never ever get to leave the house. 

 Which leads us to the story of Suleiman the Magnificent and Roxelana. Her influence over him from moment she replaced his long term favourite, Gulbehar, was pervasive. Yet she would have known that his throne would pass to the oldest male heir, and the Osmanli Code of Laws allowed the Sultan elect to execute all his brothers to secure it. In other words she knew that she, and all her children, were just a heartbeat away from catastrophe.

Then three things happened that historians cannot rationally explain. First, the harem conveniently burned down, which meant that Roxelana and her entire entourage had to move into Suleiman's palace, until a new harem could be built. But it never was, and Roxelana stayed right where she was.

The second occurrence was no coincidence; it was, quite simply, astonishing. The Sultan married her. A Sultan had not taken a queen since the Ottomans lived as nomads on the plains. Then, to compound the amazement of all Stamboul, he resigned his entire harem. 

 To this point it reads like a Hollywood screenplay; a powerful and potent man giving up everything for the woman he loves. Pretty Woman with sherbets and turbans. But Roxelana had another agenda entirely, and it had nothing to do with love. Historians can only speculate why and how she did what she did next. But as a novelist, it's not that hard to imagine.

It resulted in one of her sons, Selim the Sot, a drunkard and a lecher and the least able man in Suleiman's entire circle, inheriting the Sultanate. It happened because, like a great Shakespearian tragedy, all the other candidates had been murdered.

But Roxelana herself never reached absolute power, though her scheming was to affect the Ottoman empire for centuries to come. She died before Selim's moment of glory. Suleiman himself mourned her until his own death eight years later.

Money, power, conquests; it seems none of it guarantees happiness in the end. What happened after Suleiman married Roxelana is one of the most tragic stories of any prince, from east or west. They now share a tomb  in the garden of the Suleimaniye mosque in Istanbul. A grapevine of blood-red amaranthus flowers straggles over the the tomb. The flower is known locally as 'love lies bleeding.'

Go there on a quiet summer's day and I swear you'll hear him whisper the words of one of his poems:
"What men call empire is worldwide strife and ceaseless war. In all the world the only joy lies in a hermit's rest."

photograph: Giovanni dall'Orto
There has been much written about the Tudors and their scheming. But Roxelana made the Boleyn sisters look like the Sisters of Charity. Henry and Suleiman were contemporaries but Henry VIII was lucky. He only had six wives to contend with. Suleiman had three hundred - and picked out the worst of the lot.

HAREM is available on

To read more, see my guest post today at Haley Whitehall's blog at:



  1. How did you come to know about her? I'm curious because I'm from Ukraine and I know about her. Have you read Pavlo Zagrebelniy's novel or watched a famous TV series of 1997?

  2. I finished Harem a month ago, and I STILL find myself thinking about Hurrem and HATING her! She was so, so evil! Oh, man, and how she rendered the Sultan spineless...

    You did a great job of writing a book that made me have intense, long-standing emotions! Well done!

    1. there is a series about her called harim sultan or magnificent century :)

    2. there is a series about her called harim sultan or magnificent century :)

    3. Hey, if you can find this TV Series with english subtitles, The Magneficent Century, buy it watch it, its pretty long, but you would definitely appreciate Hurrem's cunning in those series. For her, life was all about the survival of the fittest, and she was pretty fit to not just survive but to rule as well... Don't hate her, because she might have done some terrible things, but she did great things in a world of men :)

  3. Oh my gosh, loved this post and I simply must read Harem, especially after reading Mydndi comment. I have read many books on the Tudors and it was interesting to read this in comparison. It boils down to your poor men just don't always mack the right choices! :)

  4. Ah yes, beware the intelligent and ambitious woman. She'll whip your butt and make you like it.
    Loved this.

  5. Fascinating, Colin! I hadn't heard of her. I too am curious to read Harem now.

  6. Hi Colin, I've finished reading Harem and Seraglio and I adored both books. Couldn't stop reading them.

    This post on Roxelana is perfect for History and Women. I would love it if you would repost it there and I can add my reviews to it. Please let me know.

  7. Finished reading Harem a few months ago. This woman makes me cringe till today. Shall keep the book away from my wife!

  8. Wow! Well, after reading that, I'm hooked. I've added Harem to my list of books I want for Christmas. If the book is half as interesting as the history behind it, I'm sure I'm going to have a tough time putting it down.

    (Myndi's comment helped too. I love to hear from people who've already read a book.)

  9. Colin, this book is one of my favorites of yours. I've never thought of Hurrem as being a bad person, but every bit a woman of her times. Remember, she was forced into harem life and made the best life a slave could for herself. She was clever to win and keep Suleiman's heart, and secure her children's interests. While she is guilty of many sins, I've always admired Hurrem's strength.

    1. I too admired her strength and cunning. While she did do many cruel things to many people, she was just trying to survive being enslaved.

    2. yeah so go kill and burn innocent people's faces, cut off their heads just coz you want to survive enslavement and call that strong?! True she was cunning and clever, but she was a greedy power hungry evil witch/bitch, and people who admire her are sick.

    3. You mausnt think that. Hurrem did many sins and several murders but she did it out of love for suleyman, a need for survival, and a strong cunning mind. You must have a level of respect for this amazing woman.

    4. Thank you for this blog post on Hurrem. It is well composed. To the author and readers - there is a a portion that is inaccurate from the MANY sources and research I've conducted about Hurrem. I've never heard of Hurrem throwing out his harem women. A sultan years after sulleyman did - in a night of craziness- he drowned them in sacs in the Bosphorus. This was not sulleyman.

      Hurrem herself was captured from modern day Ukraine & was sold as a slave. She was attacked MANY MANY times by other women / help. She was beaten , burned etc. (sources from Readings of leslie pierce- researcher of women of Ottoman Empire
      She was very smart & used her skills to navigate the harem hierarchy & to protect her children.
      I don't know who we are to judge someone's actions 450 -500 yrs later bc none of us were captured and sold as a Slave.
      One thing is evident. Her love for Sulleyman was her driving force to survive and thrive. What human doesn't want to succeed? She definitely changed the politics of the harem & her actions (whether out of revenge / protection or for securing her own safety) were monumental in terms of history. She used the Limited & protected means of communication outside of
      The harem in clever ways. She marked
      A Change and set a "bar" for her "daughter in law" and those afterwards all the way to Kosem Sultan (Sultan Ahmed's favorite -- Sulleyman's son sultan Selim had a son Sultan mehmed who had several sons - sultan Ahmed was the eldest at the time so he became Sultan & did not commit fraticide).
      Whether a person views Hurrem as cruel or sneaky is not the point. It is what she accomplished in an environment that was truly set against everything she ended up accomplishing!

    5. Well said. I agree completely. Madevaroh, I felt was much more evil than Hureem..that is when she wasn't crying. I couldn't stand her. I have read many, many books about the Sultan and Hurrem. Nothing I read agrees with Colin.

  10. I've got to read that book--I've always been interested in all things Tudor, so your review has piqued my interest. Thanks!

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  23. Your" book" is an aberration. It's an insult to historians, who collected piece by piece the story of Suleiman and Roxelana. you should not be allowed even to write scandal articles on toilet paper
    yours faithfully
    ps we want our money back

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  25. The book is great I love it, there's only one thing bothering me. The age of Sehzade Mehmet isn't correct in the book. Other than that I loved it.

  26. Actually, Roxelana was known for her countless charities. She created numerous mosques, one of the first women's hospitals (located next to a women's slave market for easy access for those less fortunate) and a soup kitchen.

  27. Let me tell you this, as the saying goes, there are only 2 kinds of woman, goddess and door mat, and she was a goddess. The reasons, she was smart, funny, and had true love, unlike others. So you go figure! I have a question, how many people in the world do you think even know what true love is and know how to love, only %2. Is like a language you need to learn it, but she knew it naturally.

  28. According to you who are the evil people or worst woman in this world of all time? Please send me the whole list from past few years to till now.

  29. I personaly hate that book - I have to admit, ottoman history is my soft spot and it's not about Roxelana or any from her more powerful and fabulous (sic!) sucessors. It's because of the Falconer's ignorance when it comes to history. Story of a mischievious sultana who destroyed the empire on her own may sound fine, but it's simply not true. Sorry, but those are the facts...

  30. I see her as a women who wanted to survive. Am sure no one is innocent of their doing back in the Harem were authority was left to the enuch. I feel she was mistreated and from that and the law of memhmet the conquerer making it ok to kill all brother who are a threat to the throne. I honestly would've hoped to be half as smart as she was. She wanted her children to survive and to make sure no one got in her way !!!!!

  31. Hmmm, not even Turks paint such a demonic picture of this woman. The writer should educate himself about how hard was (and still is, particularly in Muslim world) to be a woman, not to mention starting out as a slave ( hello?!). This woman was an incredible social reformer (public schools, public baths, political influence...). It is hard to imagine how she did all this in those times - practically without being able to leave the house. Whatever, her skills were: survival, wisdom, patience, love for her family.... I want them all. Sure can be used anywhere, any time.

  32. Wow, just, wow. Sure, blame the woman for doing what she had to survive. Cast aspersions on her character based of thousands of years old rumors? Vilify her for inspiring Suleiman to be monogamous? Accuse her of grasping for power? Textbook misogyny. Roxelena may have done some distasteful things in her life, but she was a product of her time, and no worse than any other women in the Sultan's harem.

    Additionally, your parallels between Roxelana and the Boleyn sisters is ridiculous. While these women may have been contemporaries, they were in very different situations. The Boleyn sisters weren't slaves, and had the option of leaving Henry's court should they choose to. Roxelana didn't have that option. She was a foreigner in a strange country making the best of her situation.

    Also, vilification of Anne Boleyn? Really? Sure. Blame the woman who wanted to marry someone who would be loyal to her, not the man who cheated on her and beheaded her.

    Additionally, Roxelana is really the worst woman in history that you can come up with? Take a look at Elizabeth Bathory, who literally murdered hundreds of young peasant women to obtain eternal youth.