When people think of bad, bad women they perhaps think of Isabella the First – the woman who commissioned Torquemada – or Bloody Queen Mary, the scourge of Protestant England.
Few people have heard of Hürrem Haseki Sultan, or Roxelana, as she is better known in Europe.
Yet she made Anne Boleyn, one of her contemporaries, look like an underachiever.
Anne, after all, fell out of favour with her king and ended up with her head on the block.
Roxelana married the Sultan of the Ottomans, had him throw out his entire harem, and kept him in her thrall the rest of her life.
Roxelana was born in the Ukraine and at some time in her teens found herself a concubine in the harem of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Possessor of Men’s Necks. Her portraits suggest classical features and blazing red hair. Her history reveals a woman of ruthless ambition with the strategic intelligence of a chessmaster.
What was a harem like?
Victorian paintings depict dream-like canvases of half naked young women soaping each other in what look like Asiatic day spas. In reality the old harem of Suleiman’s time was a grim and twilight maze of dark paneled rooms where the sun seldom penetrated.
It was a snake pit.
Imagine, if you will, a cross between a Miss World contest and a reality show, where the winner becomes an Empress and the other three finalists are drowned in a sack. Oh, and all the other runners-up never ever get to leave the house.
And so to the story of Suleiman the Magnificent and Roxelana.
Her influence over him from moment she replaced his long term favourite, Gulbehar, was pervasive. But she knew his throne would pass to the oldest male heir, and the Osmanli Code of Laws allowed the Sultan elect to execute all his brothers to secure it. In other words all her children were just a heartbeat away from catastrophe.
Then three things happened that historians cannot rationally explain.
First, the harem conveniently burned down, which meant that Roxelana and her entire entourage had to move into Suleiman’s palace, until a new harem could be built.
It never was, and Roxelana stayed right where she was.
The second occurrence was no coincidence; it was, quite simply, astonishing.
The Sultan married her.
A Sultan had not taken a queen since the Ottomans lived as nomads on the plains. To compound the amazement of all Stamboul, he resigned his entire harem.
To this point it reads like a Hollywood screenplay; a powerful and potent man giving up everything for the woman he loves. Pretty Woman with turbans. But Roxelana had another agenda entirely, and it had nothing to do with love.
Historians can only speculate why and how she did what she did next.
It resulted in one of her sons, Selim the Sot, a drunkard and a lecher and the least able man in Suleiman’s entire circle, inheriting the Sultanate. It happened because, like a great Shakespearian tragedy, all the other candidates had been murdered.
But Roxelana herself never reached absolute power, though her scheming was to affect the Ottoman empire for centuries to come.
She died before her scheming came to fruition. Blind to what she had done, Suleiman mourned her until his own death eight years later.
Money, power, conquests; it seems none of it guarantees happiness in the end.
What happened after Suleiman married Roxelana is one of the most tragic stories of any prince, from east or west. They now share a tomb in the garden of the Suleimaniye mosque in Istanbul. A grapevine of blood-red amaranthus flowers straggles over the the catafalque.
The flower is known locally as ‘love lies bleeding.’
“What men call empire is worldwide strife and ceaseless war. In all the world the only joy lies in a hermit’s rest.”
Much has been much written about the Tudors and their scheming. But Roxelana made the Boleyn sisters look like the Sisters of Charity. Henry and Suleiman were contemporaries but Henry VIII was lucky.
He only had six wives to contend with. Suleiman had three hundred – and picked out the worst of the lot.
“A page-turner . . . This peek behind the walls of the seraglio will seduce lovers of large-scale historical fiction.” – Booklist
He had everything a man might dream of; wealth, power and the choice of hundreds of the most beautiful women in his Empire.
He gave them all up for just one.
This is the astonishing true story of Suleiman, the one they called the Magnificent, and the woman he loved.
From medieval Venice to the slave markets of Algiers, from the mountains of Persia to the forbidden seraglio of the Ottoman’s greatest sultan, this is a tale of passion and intrigue in a world where nothing is really as it seems.
“If you haven’t read one of Colin Falconer’s novels, then I promise you are in for a real roller-coaster ride of never ending intrigue with both these novels.
“Set in the 16th century, Harem, and its sequel Seraglio, weave a spectacular, haunting tale of malice, obsession, and zeal set in the magnificent Harem of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, Lord of Lords of this World, Possessor of Men’s Necks, Allah’s Deputy, and absolute ruler of the mighty Ottoman Empire.” – HISTORY AND WOMEN