Legendary Leopolitans No. 9: Ukraine’s greatest heroine Roxelana

  • Legendary Leopolitans  No. 9: Ukraine’s greatest heroine Roxelana
  • Legendary Leopolitans  No. 9: Ukraine’s greatest heroine Roxelana
Issue 32, February 2011.

Who is the most famous Ukrainian woman of all time? In the modern era that honour would be contested by political icon Yulia Tymoshenko, Eurovision star Ruslana and Olympic champion Lilya Podkopayeva, while through the mists of time historical figures like the canonized Princess Olga and fin de siecle authoress Lesya Ukrainka loom particularly large. However, none of these figures can hope to compete with the sensational story of Roxelana, the sixteenth Ukrainian country girl who was cast into the hell of chattel slavery only to rise to a position of unrivalled authority in the world’s most powerful empire.

Feminine charms and Machiavellian cunning
Roxelana’s tale offers a window on an epoch in which much of today’s Ukraine was a turbulent no-man’s-land where rival empires converged. It was sparsely populated by scattered rural communities who lived under constant threat from Crimean Tatar slave raiders. The Ukrainian peasantry was one of the chief victims of this slave trade which rampaged for hundreds of years along Europe’s southern and eastern borderlands, with thousands captured in annual armed incursions known as ‘The Harvesting of the Steppe’. Those taken in raids faced a long trek to the Crimean port of Kaffa (today’s Feodosia) before being shipped to the marketplaces of Constantinople. Contemporary records and anecdotal evidence suggest that the lady who would become known to history as Roxelana was originally the daughter of a Ukrainian Orthodox priest in the town of Rohatyn — located some 70km south of Lviv and at the start of the 16th century a major urban centre of Red Ruthenia. Nothing is known of her early life — but her contemporary nickname ‘Roxelana’ fits with the terminology ‘Roxelany’ which was used at the time to denote the people of today’s West Ukraine. We do know that soon after her arrival in Constantinople she was quickly selected for the Sultan’s harem and soon managed to become the official favourite of legendary Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent. Such favour does not come easily and the speed with which Roxelana rose to the pinnacle of the Sultan’s court suggests an uncanny cocktail of political cunning and raw sex appeal which will be familiar to many Ukrainian men and expats  alike. Eventually Roxelana would be paid the ultimate compliment — the all-powerful Suleiman granted the Ukrainian her freedom and married her, becoming the first Ottoman Sultan in almost 150 years to take an official wife.

Exactly how powerful was she?
Historians cannot determine exactly what role Roxelana played in influencing the policy of her husband, and so it remains impossible to place any estimate on the true historical legacy of this remarkable Ukrainian lady. Ukrainian historians have argued that she succeeded in restricting slave raids in her native Ukraine, while her time as wife of the mighty Sultan also coincided with a period of relative peace between the Ottomans and their European dversaries — most notably the Poles. We can at least say with some certainty that she participated in the process of diplomacy as it was understood in the early sixteenth century, as two of her personal letters to the Polish King have survived.
Roxelana certainly seems to have had considerable influence — there can be no disputing that she managed to see off all her harem rivals and have her son anointed as Suleiman’s official successor — but ultimately we will never know how big a role she played in shaping imperial policy at a time when Ottoman power was at its zenith. However, it seems highly unlikely that any Ukrainian lady before or since has had a hand in such earth-shattering policy decisions or been involved in such a dramatic rags-to-riches transformation from one end of society to the other.

Honoured by the Mariupol Muslim community
In the Muslim world Roxelana is often portrayed as a patron of public works and charitable figure. She is credited with sponsoring the construction of a female hospital next to the female slave market in Constantinople — perhaps the most poignant of her large body of public works given her own background in slavery. Roxelana’s public works also included bath houses, mosques, madrassas and hospitals throughout the vast Ottoman domains. An apparently pious and devout Muslim throughout much of her adult life, Roxelana is today perhaps better remembered in the Islamic world than in Europe itself. She is known in modern Turkey by her Ottoman title ‘Hurrem Sultan’ and is buried in Suleiman the Magnificent’s mausoleum complex in Istanbul. Meanwhile, in her native Ukraine she has yet to  receive the kind of attention that her incredible story would seem to warrant. There are no great avenues named in her honour — indeed, Roxelana has been almost totally overlooked during the frenzy of renaming which has seen the country’s streets and squares rebranded in their thousands since the collapse of communism. One of the few Ukrainian tributes to the historical legacy of Roxelana can be found in the Donetsk region port city Mariupol, where local Muslims opened a mosque in her honour in 2007. This lack of recognition in her native Ukraine might be due  in part to the sensitivity of the themes which her story touches upon — modern Ukraine has paid scant attention to the role of the Tatar slave trade in shaping the national psyche and has focused almost exclusively on the country’s troubled historical relations with Russia instead. Nevertheless, in the 21st century Ukraine is once more a global centre of sex trafficking, making the story of Roxelana more relevant than ever.