Ottoman Queen Roxelana’s stunning life: From slave market to the throne

History Contributor
Ottoman Queen

An exceptional Ottoman Queen

This is the amazing story of a humble Ukrainian lady becoming an extremely powerful Ottoman queen. Her Ottoman name was Roxelana, and the world knew her by the title of Hurrem Sultana. She earned, by dint of her talent, the position of the chief consort and wife of the longest-ruling and greatest monarch of the Ottoman Empire Suleiman the Magnificent. She lived in the first half of the 16th century. She played a major role in the empire’s diplomatic affairs, sponsored numerous public utility monuments, and took many steps to help the poor.

Life and times of Roxelana 

Roxelana was born in the eastern part of the Kingdom of Poland, now Ukraine, in C 1502. Her maiden name is unknown, but according to many historians, it was either Anastasia or Alexandra. In a huge tragedy of her life, Crimean Tartars slave traders kidnapped her sometime between 1510 and 1520. They probably sold her at a slave market in Kaffa, a Crimean city. From there other slave traders picked the lady who would soon become a powerful Ottoman queen. Slave traders sold her from one master to another, until she finally reached the slave market of Istanbul.

The wife of the Ottoman emperor Selim I, Hafsa Sultan, chose her for one of her favourite sons Prince Suleiman. The exact dates of these events are not clear. But there is enough evidence that shows that Roxalena mesmerized prince Suleiman with her intelligence, beauty, and joyous nature. On her part, Roxelana, instead of being grief-stricken by her misfortune, decided to take life into her own hands. She converted to Islam and applied to the Harem authorities for educational training. According to scholars, this was around 1520, the year Suleiman I became the Ottoman empire.

That Roxelana was about to become a powerful Ottoman queen became clear when the emperor allowed her to have more than one child. One concubine, one son was the age-old tradition of the harem. Roxelana bore the emperor as many as six sons by 1531.

In 1533 or 1534, again the precise date isn’t available, the greatest Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I staged a revolution of sorts by marrying Roxelana formally with huge fanfare. For the first time in the history of the Ottoman empire, the emperor gave a former slave the status of his legal spouse. He named her Hurrem, a derivation from the Farsi word Khorrem, meaning joyful. She also became the first lady with the title of Haseki Sultan. The way before her to become the most powerful Ottoman queen of her time was open before her.

Roxelana as a Queen

In sweeping defiance of tradition, the new Ottoman queen became a prominent partner of the Sultan in his ruling of the state. She became one of the key advisers of Suleiman, particularly regarding foreign policy. Two of her letters, which have survived to this day, written to the King of Poland, Sigismund II Augustus, are stunning examples of her foresight and understanding of foreign affairs in the capacity of an Ottoman Queen. Roxelana made sure that the two kingdoms remained at peace with each other during her lifetime.

Roxelana was an extremely benevolent queen, who ordered numerous charity institutions in various cities from Jerusalem to Istanbul. These included soup-kitchens for the poor, bathhouses for common people, and mosques. However, the Ottoman queen’s most touching contribution to charitable works was the foundation of Istanbul’s first hospital for women, which she got built just beside the women’s slave market!


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)