I first encountered Hurrem Sultan, the red-haired Ottoman Empress in a Turkish soap opera series, titled The Magnificent Century, which aired in Pakistan a few years ago when I was a teenager. Since Pakistan shares a special affinity with Turkish shows, the show was dubbed in Urdu and became a cult favorite amongst the prime-time audience.
So this is what I, along with many Pakistanis, learned about Hurrem Sultan from The Magnificent Century:
Hurrem Sultan was brought to the imperial court as an enslaved person during the reign of Sultan Suleiman I, the Magnificent (1520-1566). Within the span of a few weeks, she ascended the ranks from a slave girl to the Sultan’s favorite concubine to the Sultan’s chief consort (Haseki Sultan) and eventually his wife. Her trajectory towards the throne was swift because of her power-hungry nature. She crushed all opposition, luring the Sultan towards only her. She turned him against his former favorite concubine, Mahivedran, who had also birthed his first son, Shehzade Mustafa.
Out of jealousy, she demanded monogamy from the king during an epoch where Ottoman emperors had only practiced polygamy. She demanded the King marry her, which broke all traditions in the Ottoman era where Kings did not marry women due to legal complications, but instead only used them to bring heirs into this world. She birthed more than one child, which was a stark violation of the “one concubine, one son” rule that allowed her to wield a monopoly of heirs.
And lastly, she disobeyed the custom of Sancak Beyliği, which dictated that when the sons came of age, they were to be sent to rule a faraway province with their mothers. The mothers could not return to Istanbul unless the son succeeded to the throne and they became Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan). She insisted on staying put at Top Kapi Palace.
One transgression after another. She was a serial rule breaker.
Popular history caters to the whims and fancies of public opinion which can be swayed by the mention of the scheming foreigner.
She was a threat to the status quo. And in a show which glorified the greatness of the empire, the audiences immediately disliked her. In fact, she entered the show in the space of the “other woman”. And her role in the execution of Shehzade Mustafa, her stepson along with the grand Vizir, Ibrahim Pargali, did not help her popularity. She was the bloodthirsty, manipulative seductress. In fact, in one scene she is seen seeking help from a sorceress to make sure the Sultan remains bewitched by only her. There was even a half-baked subplot about her wanting to marry the Emperor for revenge for the traumas she had had to endure in life.
To be honest, I could not help but hate her. Every show needs a villain, and she fit the archetype perfectly. Everything from her expressions to her dialogue, to the background soundtrack, emphasized her treachery and deceit.
With Netflix airing the show a couple of years ago, and with my recent intrigue for Ottoman history and some nuance in my perception, I decided to re-watch it. I decided to re-watch it, not through the eyes of a gullible audience, but one that can detect the infiltration of fiction into the narrative. I was taken aback, by the concoction of popular history and the host of myths surrounding the most influential woman in the Ottoman Empire. I delved deeper into her life and this is what I found:
Hurrem Sultan was just a woman playing by the rules of imperial court politics.
Alexandra or Roxelana (her original name remains obscure) was captured brutally by a bunch of Crimean Tatars who sold her to the Ottomans. She was separated from her hometown and her family as a teenager. As a Christian, she entered a predominantly Islamic empire and was considered acceptable only as a slave girl or a concubine. When she decided to convert to Islam, her decision was met with skepticism. She navigated through a maze of court conspiracies which ranged from murder plots to being ostracized.
She fell in love with the Sultan deeply, wrote poetry in letters to him when he was on military expeditions. She birthed six of his children. After becoming a mother of the first child, she wanted to be freed of her status as a slave so that she could be with the Sultan out of consent, not coercion. The Sultan named her “Hurrem” (the cheerful one) because of her positive demeanor. But this “positive” woman also witnessed much heartache; one of her own children was executed by his father (the king) for causing much unrest in the empire. Brutal? I know. But where legacy and power is concerned, blood ties begin to mean little. I mean, we’ve all watched Game of Thrones, right?
Anyway, I digress.
She was a philanthropist who commissioned many public works including a charity soup kitchen in Mecca for poor pilgrims. She advised the King on matters of foreign policy and helped diplomacy between the Ottomans and other foreign states owing through her unique vantage point as a foreign empress. Today her final resting place is in Suleymaniye mosque (Istanbul) which was built as an homage to her.
See what I mean?
One is the narrative spun with the threads of court gossip which we now know as popular history. Popular history caters to the whims and fancies of public opinion which can be swayed by the mention of the scheming foreigner. It can be titillated by the exotic Other who once seduced their Emperor into challenging the tradition.
The counter-narrative is hard historical facts supported by evidence. Within this narrative, Hurrem Sultan was just a woman playing by the rules of imperial court politics. She was a foreigner stuck in an alien land, which insisted on objectifying her. She was just learning the language (literally) of the people who bought her. She was just insisting on some dignity in her personal relationship by requesting the King not to see other courtesans. Maybe she was just competing for her husband’s attention, not an Emperor’s favors.
It’s the same woman – just two different ways of looking at her.
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