Shelved Dolls: Roxelana – What Life Was Like In A Harem


A few weeks ago, I was writing a piece for the New York Post on Russian mail order brides. The eligible ladies are not all strictly Russian, they are from Eastern Europe, and I believe you are supposed to call the practice “international dating.” Now that we have those nuances out of the way – let me confess that writing the article made me immensely sad.

This is not the kind of emotion that you are allowed to include in a newspaper report; otherwise every article about a tragedy would just be some journalist going, “Guys, how sad is this?” But, yeah, gosh, it was sad. It seemed dismal for the guy who was describing how he was going on romance tours because he was lonely (even though he thought American women had traded in their morals for Prada bags) and it seemed even more dispiriting for the women who were posing with these men and talking about how the men were kind and gentle and spoke to them slowly so they could understand what the men were saying, and that all relationships need work.

As a man talked about a woman making him an elaborate dinner in her apartment in a bad neighborhood of Odessa on their first date, I think I was supposed to feel happy. But no. I just felt worried about how life was going to work out for everyone.

But you can’t write that, so I kept telling myself, “Look, Jen, this has probably been successful for someone, somewhere. At some point in history some Eastern European woman has been taken to a strange land by a man she barely knows and it has worked out great!”

Roxelana. It worked out great for her! It worked out for someone! In the early 1500s!

Roxelana married Suleiman the Magnificent of Turkey - a really great guy judging from his title alone. Seemingly, they were very happy and her influence on his international political decisions was supposedly profound. When she died, he built a domed mausoleum as her burial spot, adjacent to his resting place. They remind me of Madame Pompadour and King Louis XV, one of my all time favorite couples. I would like to take a second to note that, in addition to my fantasy where Pompadour and I are friends and she sits and talks to me about how to solve all my problems – a fantasy I have A LOT – I have a specific vision where I attend their intimate dinner parties. King Louis helps serve and pours everyone coffee.

Except, unlike Pompadour who pursued Louis, Roxelana was kidnapped to be a concubine in Suleiman’s harem. She had to get into a weirdly orchestrated fistfight with another girl to even become his top mistress, so there’s stuff you’d probably want to review a bit if you were using her ultimate success as your example for “international dating is fun and makes people really happy.”

Let’s talk about all of that!

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    • Dona

      Odessa is not in Russia, it is in Ukraine. And Roxelana was ukrainian too.

      • Jennifer Wright

        Ah! Odessa was my mistake. However, the biographies I’ve read generally say that Roxelana was Russian (although, again, a very limited amount is known about her background, so that’s certainly a bit vague).

      • Girl

        Russians claim everything for themselves, it was your job to do the right research, She is 100% Ukrainian and a huge figure of history for us. Russians don’t even know her, her village was nowhere near the Russian border more like Poland. Shameful journalism if you don’t know don’t write otherwise you’re just perpetuating false information .

      • Jess McCloskey

        The good thing about this comment is that it doesn’t read as bitchy at all.

      • MR

        In modern history Poland was part of the Russian Empire until the end of the First World War. Kinda like Ireland was part of Britain for more than 400 years until 1921. You’re right, but you’re wrong.

      • Broccoli

        Territory of Poland was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria as a result of partitions of Poland in the 18th century. Roxolana lived in the 16th century (and afaik indeed was Ukrainian).

      • MR

        But was the Ukraine part of the Russian Empire during the 16th century? I’m thinking her source might have confused the Ukraine’s distinct ethnicity?

    • Tania

      I love cooking for people, but I would never want to cook for someone who *expected* me to cook for him.

    • MR

      You did very well pulling your emotion out of that Post article. That’s a sign of good and objective journalism.

    • Sarah Anaïs

      Another great Shelved Dolls. I love reading these! Such a great combination of history and great writing.

    • Juguu

      There’s a Turkish TV drama (still showing, third season by now) about her in it, called Harem Al-Sultan (Muhteşem Yüzyıl) with gorgeous costumes, settings, etc… galore.
      Just wish it’s available in English subtitles. Youtube has it in Arabic dubs.

    • valerie t mendez

      one of bertrice small’s earliest books was “the kadin” and it was loosely based on her mother in law. its a great book. love her historical references.