Around 2,000 years later in the Ottoman Empire (based in modern day Turkey), there was another Queen, known as Roxelana, whose story has many parallels to Esther’s. Both were young girls from a minority religion brought to live in the king’s harem who worked their way up to the top to be essentially queens. They learned the ways of influencing policy, were accused of being too controlling over the rightful king, but were assertive and successful nonetheless. They were not matriarchal figures who sat on the sidelines as their more famous and powerful husbands made the important decisions for their country.
Side-by-Side Comparison of Esther and Roxelana
|Queen Esther||Roxelana – Haseki Sultan|
|Jewish girl descended from an exiled family from Jerusalem – brought to the king’s harem.||Younger than fifteen years-old Orthodox Christian girl brought to the Sultan’s harem from modern Ukraine.|
|Instantly earned favour with the eunuchs and eventually becomes referred to as queen.||Used political tactics in the harem to become the favoured concubine and eventually the Sultan’s wife – the first wife of a king in Ottoman history!|
|Adopts a new name, and though remains Jewish, is content to continue life as a Persian monarch.||Adopts a new name, converts to Islam, and learns a new language – completely immersing herself in Ottoman customs and lifestyle.|
|Uses clever ways with words and sensuality to convince the king and Haman, the top advisor, to attend a banquet and ultimately to do her bidding.||Letters show how she extended her status from lover and partner of the king and mother to the heir to gain influence far beyond the realm of a standard queen.|
|King signs an alliance with the Jews of Persia due to Esther’s intervention.||Personally oversees peace treaties with the Polish people and other Slavic nations.|
|Created the holiday of Purim, where sharing food and giving gifts to the poor are part of the celebration.||Built soup kitchens and institutions of welfare all over the empire wherever the Sultan had building projects.|
|Successfully sentences Haman and his family to death.||Directed the Sultan to assassinate political enemies who threatened her power.|
The New York Times’ 2017 review of Leslie Peirce’s Empress of the East explains: “Glass ceilings in the 16th century Ottoman Empire were made of cut stone, secured by iron locks, ringed with imposing walls and guarded by armies of eunuchs.” The fact that historical figures like Roxelana and biblical ones like Esther were able to accomplish all that they did seems incredible even when comparing them to today’s reality in Israel and abroad when so few political leaders are women. Jews around the world every year read about Esther’s incredible rise to political stardom, and though Roxelana’s impact in the Jewish world is not felt today, she did manage to leave her mark in Jerusalem. Here is her story:
The Megillah of Roxelana
Suleiman met a woman from Rohatyn, Ruthenia (modern day Ukraine) whose father was a Christian Orthodox priest. After the Ottomans conquered the region, Roxelana, also known as Hurrem, was given to Suleiman as a concubine. Hurrem in Persian means “the cheerful one” and Roxelana is a nickname for someone from Ruthenia. Her original name is unknown for certain, but some think it was Anastasia or Aleksandra. By the age of 15 she had converted to Islam and risen through the ranks of the harem to become Suleiman’s legal wife, a first for an Ottoman ruler to marry a concubine and also the first formal wedding of an emperor since 1326. Suleiman loved her so much that he invented a new title for her – Haseki Sultan – directly translated to mean “Exclusively of the Dominion” but practically meant ‘Imperial Consort to the King’. Side note: only Westerners associate the word Sultan with male king – the Ottomans used it to refer to anyone that held authority including women.
Roxelana Haseki Sultan continued to break with the norms of a concubine. She insisted on educating their six children. She wielded great power over Suleiman, moving her home into the administrative centre of the Empire – the Topkapi Palace – despite a prohibition on women entering a building of governance. She influenced the foreign policy and international politics, famously forging an alliance with the Polish Kingdom, amongst other diplomatic achievements, helping to lead to the greatest years of the Ottoman Empire.
“Her letters to Suleiman on campaign catch something of her playful yet indomitable spirit: ‘My sultan, there’s no limit to the burning anguish of separation. Nowspare this miserable one and don’t withhold your noble letters. When your letters are read, your servant and son Mir Mehmed and your slave and daughter Mihrimah weep and wail from missing you. Their weeping has driven me mad.'” – (Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore – Loc. 5412, Chapter 31)
A Legacy Tarnished by Murders
It is said that Selim II was a weak ruler who looked to the harem, and not the Grand Vizier, for much of his council. This is a legacy attributed to his mother Roxelana who was the first to utilize the power from the harem – paving the way for future concubines to assert their own influence.
Roxelana’s Footprint in Jerusalem
In Israel, the greatest mark she left is found in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem – Haseki Sultan Imaret. This was a massive soup kitchen built in 1552 that fed hundreds of people twice daily. It consists of a mosque, a 55 room pilgrim hospice and a travellers’ khan (inn). There was a required list of employees: clerks, bakers, inspectors, cleaners, repairmen, garbage collectors, and more. By building the Imaret, Hurrem fulfilled the charity requirements for Muslims of Zaqat – a tax for wealthy people – and Sadaqah – voluntary donations. But it had another value for Roxelana – it maintained social and political order in important places far from the capital of Istanbul. She granted administration positions to locals who were loyal to the Empire ensuring the continued popularity of the royal family and satisfaction of local leaders so they would remain under their control. Long after Hurrem’s time, the imaret became a symbol for corruption – becoming a place where the most prominent and wealthy would be the only beneficiaries of the government’s charitable institutions.
“Roxelana liked to endow charitable foundations close to her husband’s projects, she commandeered a Mamluk palace to establish her al-Imara al-Amira al-Khasaki al-Sultan, a foundation known as the Flourishing Edifice that included a mosque, bakery, fifty-five room hostel, and soup kitchen for the poor. Thus they made the Temple Mount and Jerusalem their own.” (Ibid, Montefiore)