Josh Hartuv
Licensed Israel Tour Guide

Queen Esther of the Ottoman Empire

Roxelana was the Queen of the Ottoman Empire whose story is remarkably similar to Esther's
Roxelana was the Queen of the Ottoman Empire whose story is remarkably similar to Esther's
This Friday marks International Women’s Day! With the Jewish holiday of Purim fast approaching, Jews around the world are getting excited about the only holiday in the calendar that celebrates a woman as the central character. The story of Esther is fascinating from a feminist perspective, because there so few cases in ancient times (and even modern times!) that a woman wielded great political power and influence. Esther is one of the few examples in Tanakh as well as ancient history where there is record of her own voice as an opinionated political figure, and is not just spoken about in the third person or as a background character.
“Ahaseurus and Haman at the Feast of Esther” by Rembrandt shows Esther’s co-equal status at the table with ancient Persia’s highest ranks.

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.
Empress of the East tells the life story of how Roxelana began as a concubine, then favourite wife, and somehow managed to become be the most important advisor in the male dominated world of the Ottoman Empire.

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

The Ottoman Empire began to rise in 1299 CE and fell after WWI. Its period of peak dominance and influence was in the 15th and 16th centuries, specifically under Suleiman the Magnificent who ruled from 1520-1566.
Until Suleiman, the custom was for young women from foreign or newly conquered lands to be selected for their health and beauty to become concubines held in a harem with the goal of producing a male heir for the Sultan. If a son were born, the concubine and son would be given a new home with all the bells and whistles of servants and helpers to ensure the success of their son. Each mother was only permitted the one son, never again being allowed access to the sultan once becoming pregnant. Between all the concubines, the first of these sons would eventually become emperor, with the other sons either being granted other lands to govern if they were lucky, or being killed by a competing brother if they weren’t. But within this incredibly stressful and tense environment, one of these women broke free and essentially co-ruled with her husband over the Ottoman Empire at its peak!
Roxelana’s hometown of Rohatyn, Ruthenia was a Christian Orthodox town on the western side of modern Ukraine

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.

Life as Queen of the Empire
16th Century oil painting of Hurrem Sultan (Roxelana)

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)
Montefiore highlights how Roxelana was able to use her literacy and emotions to manipulate Suleiman and all those around her to further her influence and increase her fame in the world.

A Legacy Tarnished by Murders

Up until this point Roxelana seems like the perfect paradigm of noble feminist leadership, however there is a dark side to her leadership. There are two murders that took place during her realm that seriously benefited her that cannot be overlooked. The first murder was Pargali Ibrahim Pasha. He was the grand vizier and Suleiman’s friend of many years who was assassinated officially by order of Suleiman in 1536, thus eliminating the only other advisor that may have rivaled Roxelana. Had Roxelana been male, this sort of political assassination would have been fairly standard ‘business’ practice for a political leader trying to rise through the ranks – this murder only seems jarring because she is a woman.
The second murder appears just as ruthless, if not more. It occurred after the sudden death in 1543 of Mehmed, Roxelana and Suleiman’s oldest son and heir to the throne. Mihrimah, the daughter who was their next oldest child, had married Rustem, who by 1544 became the Grand Vizier. Gulbahar son of Mustafa, the next oldest male heir to the throne, was not one of Roxelana’s children, and was mysteriously murdered in 1553. This made way for Selim II (Roxelana’s next male heir) to rule after Suleiman’s death in 1566.

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

The arches of the Palace of the Lady Tunshuq built in 1388 became part of the Haseki Sultan Imaret – the soup kitchen and administrative building that helped the poor of 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)
Though Ottoman culture prized the invisibility of women, keeping them at home and out of history books, the story of Roxelana has prevailed. The once hidden from view harem that Hurrem mastered had changed forever moving into the centre of the government palaces and making the concept of Haseki Sultan the norm.
Josh Hartuv is a tour guide in Israel. To learn more or to book a tour, visit www.hartuvtours.com or on facebook @hartuvtours.
About the Author
Josh Hartuv is a licensed tour guide in Israel living in Tel Aviv. He made aliyah from Canada in 2011 to Kibbutz Saad with Garin Tzabar. He writes about the less frequented but super interesting sites in Israel. Visit www.hartuvtours.com for more info or for a tour!
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