Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the «Diamond Owl» intellectual game «What? Where? When?»
Liberal Arts
10 minutes for reading

OH, LOVE: the last great Sultan and a girl from a Ukrainian village

OH, LOVE: the last great Sultan and a girl from a Ukrainian village
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Artwork: huxley.media via Photoshop


Everything in the world is similar. Nowadays, most countries have three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. In the Ottoman Empire of the 16th century, there were three of them too, only different: the Sultan, the vizier, and the harem. They even had a fourth power: in our time it is the press, and back then it was the Janissaries — they did not officially rule either, but they had to be listened to.

And there was a time when all the power in the harem, and then not only in it, was seized by one single girl, who was born in about 1505. It is not quite clear whether she was born in Chemerivtsi or Rohatyn, in Khmelnytskyi or Ivano-Frankivsk oblast, but it was somewhere there.

This gifted priestess was very capable of languages — as a child, she mastered Greek and Latin, later she learned Turkish, Persian, and Arabic, and even wrote poems in them. She, as it turned out later, was a person extremely resilient and strong-willed, with a well-adaptable psyche and rock-hard soul — that’s why she survived in circumstances that broke and disfigured so many people. Her birthplace, on the other hand, was fatally unlucky.


Her homeland, as well as the entire territory of present-day Ukraine (and not only it), at that time was continuously subjected to devastating raids of robbers and slave traders — most often Crimean Tatars, vassals of the Ottoman Empire. People were captured like cattle and sold into slavery — men for hard labor, girls into Ottoman harems of various levels.

The more quality goods — healthier, prettier, smarter — the more luxurious harem they would be sold to. Poor Nastya Lisowska fell into the clutches of such thieves — I think that was her name, but if not, what does it matter?

It seems that she was such a quality product that she quickly got into the Sultan’s harem — but how did she manage to stand out there? Many different and unsubstantiated things have been written about it, but all agree that her laugh was so loud and remarkable that any man couldn’t help but pay attention to her.

Here was Sultan Suleiman, who fell for it and gave her a chance. He even called her «the laughing one» — in Turkish, Hürrem. Many people still know her by that name. The Sultan himself later began calling her Haseki, meaning «sweetheart of the heart».

But of her many names most of all known given exclusively because of illiteracy of Venetian diplomats, who, knowing where she was born, began to call her roxelana — like this, with a lowercase letter, by the name of the tribe, which, in their opinion, lived in these places.


Портрет Роксоланы, XVI век
Portrait of Roxelana, XVI century / wikipedia.org


By the way, they hit the shot, Roxolans, even Strabo and Tacitus, called Sarmatians, and this tribe was Iranian-lingual. Clearly not Slavs, the same Tacitus opposed them to the Slavs. Moreover, Nastya managed to pass on this alien name.

A couple of centuries later, China discovered a new kind of monkey with a blue face, orange wool, and a nose with holes upwards, snub-nosed, like Nastya herself, judging by her portraits. It was nicknamed monkey-roxolana in honor of the then Sultaness Nastya. So call the monkey that, and Nastya now has prettier names…

If Nastya somehow got into the harem, how could she become a leader? Suleiman’s harem, according to the Sultan’s notions, was the most ordinary — she obviously had several hundred competitors. The leading position in it was occupied by a Circassian woman Gülbahar, who already had a son, Mustafa, from the Sultan, a man who was intelligent, brave, and cruel enough to survive on the Ottoman throne.

Here, Suleiman will live his, Mustafa will sit on the throne and piously fulfill the testament of the conqueror of Constantinople Mehmed Fatih — ordered to slaughter all his brothers and even pregnant father’s concubines, so that no one to his power did not encroach. And Nastya could not tolerate even the thought of such a thing — we are not the kind of mothers to allow such a thing to happen to their children, they would do anything to save them.

Gülbahar quickly realized that Hürrem was a threat to her and took the measures she could think of — she made a scandal, scratched her rival’s face, pulled out a piece of hair, they say she even bit her: it was a common thing in the harem.

Hürrem responded cunningly: when the Sultan ordered her to come to him at night (great happiness and honor in such competition!), she sadly but confidently said that the senior Haseki Sultan made her temporarily unsuitable for the Sultan’s bed and let her even be tied up in a bag with a cat and a snake to send in this company to swim in the Bosphorus (a common punishment in the harem), but to upset the Sultan with her temporary horror, she is not ready.

Instead of chasing the eunuchs for a leather bag, Suleiman figured out what the matter was, and he cooled down sharply towards Gülbahar.

Soon, in the harem, miracles began — harem maidens are fed and supplied but do not call to work, for all the ascetics of the reciprocating movement on the Sultan’s bed selflessly work Hürrem, no one else Sultan does not need. Even foreign envoys write nervous reports to their sovereigns, calling devotion to his wife the only flaw in the Sultan’s character.


Антон Хикель. Роксолана и султан, 1780
Anton Hickel. Roxelana and the Sultan, 1780 / wikipedia.org


You can’t understand how to please these giaurs — they blame Muslims for polygamy, but they don’t like loyalty to one woman either… By the way, for the Sultan, Hürrem is no longer a concubine but a legitimate wife; after the birth of his son, he raises her status. And who would stop him?

Over time, Hürrem learned to control other influential persons of the empire — who was nice and who was not. She married the influential dignitary Rustem-Pasha to her daughter — it seems honorable, he is now the Sultan’s son-in-law, and the fact that his wife spies on him and informs her mommy, remained behind brackets. And the honorable Ibrahim Pasha, who actually gave it to Suleiman, in general, received the full.

Being a grand vizier, he was truly loyal to the Sultan, during military expeditions, slept with him in the same tent — but in peacetime, Hürrem spent nights with the Sultan, and what exactly she told the Sultan about his faithful servant, no one will never know. But in March 1536, the body of his loyal servant was suddenly taken out of the Sultan’s palace. It is said that in one of the halls of the palace are still visible stains of his blood.


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It also solved Mustafa’s problem. He arrived at the camp of the Sultan’s army to his father, not even knowing that he had already read his letter to Suleiman’s adversary, the Iranian Shah Tahmasp, proposing to change the Ottoman Empire and kill his father.

The letter was probably a forgery — who writes such things with pen on paper? But Suleiman suspected the whole world of conspiracies no less than other Turkish sultans, and Hürrem obviously whispered in his ear at night something that made him believe this letter…

The Sultan took immediate action, and it was typical for that state. Mustafa appeared before his father kissed his hand, and the latter made a sign with his other hand, and the executioners immediately threw the traditional instrument of court murder — a silk cord — around Mustafa’s neck.

The envoy of one of the German princes, Buzbek, saw this and said that Suleiman immediately hid behind a curtain and, from there, with the help of terrible looks, as if to penalize the executioners they are so long. Now Hürrem could not worry about her son Selim — it was he who would inherit the throne of the empire!

Not all the accusations against Hürrem are true. For example, do not attribute to her the murder of her own youngest son Bayezid — he, fearing the fate that used to threaten Selim, rose a rebellion and was executed. But all this happened in 1561, 3 years after the death of Hürrem in great glory and honor, to the inconsolable grief of her surviving spouse for eight years.

But the Sultan’s mother did not manage to outlive Hürrem — after she attempted to explain to her son that he trusted this lying and cruel Roxelana too much, Valide Sultan somehow died with very strange symptoms after a short illness. What they say in Turkey about the cause of her death — anyone can guess.


Сулейман І Великолепный — османский султан с 1520 года до 1566 года. Был сыном Селима I Грозного и Айше Хафсы Султан. Сулейман стал самым выдающимся правителем Востока XVI века, будучи на вершине военной, политической и экономической мощи Османской империи
Suleiman I the Magnificent — Ottoman Sultan from 1520 to 1566. He was the son of Selim I the Grim and Ayşe Hafsa Sultan. Suleiman became the most prominent ruler of the East in the 16th century, being at the pinnacle of the military, political, and economic power of the Ottoman Empire / wikipedia.org


The great architect Sinan built near the magnificent mosque Suleimaniye built by him, first the mausoleum of Hürrem, and then the mausoleum of Suleiman himself. There are other places in Istanbul that remind us of Hürrem — a whole district of the city still bears the name of Haseki.

An architectural monument remains and the bathhouse built by her order, the income from the work of which she intended to maintain the integrity of Hagia Sophia. I do not believe that the daughter of the priest wanted to save the great Christian temple of Hagia Sophia from destruction — for Muslim Hürrem, it was simply the most significant mosque in Istanbul.

Yes, she was not a Christian by that time — she had long ago converted to Islam, and obviously sincerely. And she was not a Ukrainian, sorry, either — the passing grade in the harem was a complete refusal of any language and culture, except for Ottoman, and she had no problems with it. And when you change faith and language, it’s easy to change your homeland too, it’s a matter of technique.

According to modern views, a person who speaks Turkish professes Islam accepted by Turks and has a Turkish mentality is a Turk, and with all the considerations about the set of chromosomes, one should address the racial divisions of the Gestapo and similar organizations — no one is interested anymore.

I even feel a little uncomfortable in front of Turks — what am I giving them, they have done nothing bad to me… But the truth is just like that, and there is no escape from it. We can’t write, as one Ukrainian journalist did, that at the readers’ conference in Chemerivtsi, the possible homeland of Nastya Lisowska, everyone «was unanimous that she was born in Ukraine, for which she supported with all her soul until her last days».

It would be nice, of course, but what proof is there for these beautiful words, except for a fervent wish? Could it be that her completely obedient and loving husband, at her request, stopped the terrible raids of the thieves under his control? Nothing like that: they continued their rampage, and Nastya, a Turk, did not care about it from the highest minaret in Istanbul!


Селим II — одиннадцатый султан Османской империи, правивший в 1566–1574 годах. Третий сын и четвертый ребенок султана Сулеймана І Великолепного и хасеки Хюррем-султан. Известен под прозвищами Пьяница
Selim II was the eleventh Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who ruled from 1566–1574. The third son and fourth child of Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent and Hürrem Haseki Sultan. Known by the nicknames Drunkard and Blond / wikipedia.org


And the main thing that she left in gratitude to her favorite spouse and his empire — the next Sultan Selim the Second, red-haired, simple-minded, and not without a flaw, quite expected from a three-quarters Slavic (Suleiman was born from a concubine-Serbian), but categorically unnecessary for a Turkish ruler, and went down in history as Selim the Drunkard, which is as appropriate as the Jewish king, breakfasting on a piece of pork, or the Pope of Rome, ordering cardinals to immediately make circumcision.

And he died in such a way that God forbid the Sultan: he was chasing naked harem maidens in the bath with a jug of wine, slipped and bumped his head on the marble bench — what a shame! This is how Hürrem thanked her spouse for her love and unheard-of elevation!

It is almost impossible for someone who knows the biography of Hürrem not from fashionable serials but from historical sources to tell beautiful tales of great love, to which even the sultans are obedient. It immediately becomes clear that in front of us is not a cute charmer but a cunning and completely heartless creature, ready to do anything to survive.

However, the Ottoman Empire has no right to claim her — it captured her and threw her to survive in such a nightmarish place as the Sultan’s harem. You have to agree that Hürrem had the right to take revenge on the country that did that to her. And she took revenge in such a way that no one would feel bad.

But Suleiman, who turned out because of all this the last, the tenth of the great Turkish sultans, you can pity — critical damage was done to the state, which he raised and cherished as he could, and all this he received for his love and kindness. Does it happen that love and kindness are paid for in some other way?

It happens, but very rarely, and we are so eager to see such a thing that we look for such gratitude even from the unfortunate popish daughter of either Chemerivtsi or Rohatin. And everything, most likely, was simpler.

All her deeds are not payment for love, not revenge for enslavement, but just punishment for the Ottoman Empire, which decided that it is always right and all its neighbors are knowingly guilty. For this, Fatum always takes revenge, and the longer you have to wait for revenge, the more cruel that revenge is. So don’t even think that the story of Hürrem tells us about big love — there are more important things…


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