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!

There’s not a tremendous amount known about Roxelana’s early history, other than a note from an Eastern European ambassador which read “the most beloved wife of the present Turkish emperor, mother of his primogenital [son] who will govern after it, was kidnapped from our earth.” She was supposedly Russian/Polish/Ukrainian (the country borders kept shifting), born around 1500, and her father was said to have been an Ukrainian Orthodox priest. That may account for her being called Roxelana, which either translates to “the cheerful one” or “the Russian one” or “the Ruthenian one” depending upon which book you’re consulting.

I think it was probably “the Russian one”, because her first years in Suleiman’s harem could not have been cheerful. I mean, harems sucked. I know they sound like fun, because 18th century paintings of harems make them seem luxurious and decadent where servant-slaves do everything for you. They seem like a WoCave or something.


Somebody pass the diet snacks!

But no, they were not. Being in a harem in the 16th century was one of those situations where, if you were not the dog in front, the view stayed the same forever. And the vista was very close quarters with a bunch of women all of whom were desperately competing to attract the sultan’s attention in the hopes of escaping the harem. It was like the worst, scariest version of The Bachelor ever. Elizabeth Abbott points out one of the major downsides to life in the harem:

“One important byproduct of harem life was the concubine’s collective menstrual misery. For one week out of four, their peromones called out and responded to each other’s, establishing a shared cycle. Then the harem groaned with hundreds of women sadder and testier than usual.”

Awesome. The concubines were also only there to be available to the Sultan, who only called on a few women. That left the rest of them with unfulfilled sexual urges, which – fun fact according to Abbott – eunuchs were left trying to satisfy. Supposedly:

“It was not unheard of for eunuchs to attempt to service these women themselves. Though castrated, they still felt sexual urges. With these familiar women, who alone in the world would not mock them, a few eunuchs engaged in sex play as best they could, desperate lovers making desperate love.”

The word desperate comes up a lot in regard to this situation. And, of course, there were also stories about how concubines who displeased the Sultan were tossed into sacks and thrown into the river.

Stories like this make me feel it is very important that we have laws in place. Just laws, in general.

So, how did Roxelana manage to become the wife of the Sultan, after being kidnapped and brought to his harem?

She got into a fight with the most powerful girl there. Reading that, I wondered if this was one of those “go into the jail yard and pick a fight with the biggest guy there” bits of advice. That is not a good idea if you go to jail – do not do that. But if you go to a 16th century harem, maybe, kind of, try it!

The first clear record we have of Roxelana is from 1526, immediately following her fight with Gulbahar, Suleiman’s favorite concubine. Supposedly, Roxelana provoked her into a fight, and Gulbahar . .  beat her up. Pretty viciously. Harem etiquette meant that, since Gulbahar was one of the Sultan’s favorites, Roxelana was not allowed to fight back. When the sultan next visited the harem, he was horrified at what he saw.

He promptly banished Gulbahar, and Roxelana took her place as the favorite shortly thereafter.

Roxelana later had Gulhabar’s son, Mustafa, strangled, after convincing Suleiman he was plotting against him. Those kind of grisly events seem to happen with such regularity up until the 17th century that I’m not at all shocked by this.

I am amazed, however, that she convinced the Sultan to marry her, rather than simply keeping her as his mistress. Would you like to know how she pulled that off? Of course you would .

Roxelana supposedly told Suleiman that she wished to become a Muslim, like him, which made him happy. She studied the religion and told him that she wanted to convert. He was delighted! I guess we all like it when people decide to adopt our point of view. However, immediately after her conversion, she sadly told Suleiman that, as a Muslim, she was not allowed to have sexual relations with anyone but her husband.

Suleiman supposedly debated the matter for three days before agreeing to marry her.

Three days. I know women who have been pushing for three years for the key to a guy’s apartment.

But yes, Suleiman agreed to marry her, which means that he was the first Sultan in about 250 years to have an officially wed wife. It kind of makes you marvel that nobody else thought of that sly ploy, but I guess we can agree that Roxelana was really, really clever.

People in the Ottoman Empire generally decided that she had bewitched him. The marriage translated better overseas. The Doge of Venice was invited to the couple’s wedding and, later, the circumcision of the couple’s sons. Though he declined to attend, he did send ambassadors, for the marriage seemed to indicate that more Western customs would be adopted.

A Spanish envoy wrote around 1530:

A most extraordinary event took place this week in the town, absolutely unprecedented in the reign of the sultans. The Great Lord Suleiman has taken for his empress a woman called Roxelane, of Russian origin, amid much rejoicing…everybody is talking about the marriage, but nobody is sure what it means.

It meant that Roxelana was going to have a ton of power over the politics of the country in the decade to come. After a fire destroyed a large portion of the harem, she moved into the main palace, where women had never before been permitted.

She was still ruthless. In addition to having Mustafa strangled – a really sad spectacle, where Mustafa begged that his father at least do the strangling, and instead was killed by thugs – she convinced Suleiman to kill his own dear friend Pasha, the grand vizier. Once again, she told Suleiman that Pasha was plotting against him, though there are no letters of any kind to indicate that might have been the case.

I am not sure why she wanted Pasha out of the way, beyond the fact that she really didn’t want Suleiman to listen to anyone but her.

And what did she use her influence for?

Good things! She convinced the Sultan to construct a women’s hospital and the first public soup kitchen. Her letters to King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland seem to indicate that she had a major role in maintaining diplomatic ties between the two nations. Samples of her embroidery were sent not only to the King of Poland, but also to the Shah of Iran. She was like Margery Tyrell, pretty much, if you are a Game of Thrones fanatic. 

margery tyrell

“She dresses like a harlot for a reason.”

She also, in the process, convinced the Sultan to control Crimean Tatar slave-raiding, which she probably had a special interest in, given that she had been taken as a slave in one of their attacks.

Interestingly, while she was widely admired in foreign lands (like Poland, and, for that matter, Italy), people in Turkey were always fearful of the power she wielded over the Sultan. Soup kitchens were not enough to make her beloved; it remained generally accepted that she was a witch.

If there is one thing I have learned about history, it is that if you are a woman with common sense, people are going to decide that you are a witch.

Nonetheless, her efforts paid off. Her son, Selim, inherited the throne from Suleiman. She remained by Suleiman’s side (despite the fact that, after the children were grown, most favored concubines were typically sent to live out their years in the country, kind of like good horses) until the end of her life in 1558. She was buried in a beautiful domed mausoleum, the tiles of which depict the garden of paradise. Wikipedia says these pictures were chosen because Roxelana had a “joyful nature” but I really do not think they know what they are talking about.

You know, there’s a good line at the end of Adam’s Diary by Mark Twain, where Adam inscribes Eve’s tombstone, “Wherever she was, there was Eden.” It’s the only sincere part of an otherwise very funny book, and this mausoleum decorating reminds me of that.

Her other son, Bayezid, would attempt to seize power by trying to assassinate his father and would be executed, but she was dead before that happened, so I have to imagine she died fairly happy.

You can only hope that “international dating” works out nearly as well for anyone in a similar arrangement these days. I would also dare to dream that it might be without all the strangling and the odd sex with eunuchs. Well actually, to be fair, I suppose if we were presented with the opportunity, it would be rude to turn down a eunuch.

I wish you major political victories and a grand mausoleum.

Additional Reading:

Eclectic potted histories, “Suleiman The Lawgiver”

A History Of Mistresses, Elizabeth Abbott 

Harem and Seralgio, By Colin Falconer

Rzeczpospolita: Roxelana, the Lisowska Sultana, BenStuff