They say that beside every successful man stands a strong woman and this could certainly be said about Roxelana, wife of Sultan Suleiman who rose to rule over the Ottoman empire when he was only 26 years old.
The Turks conquered the Land of Israel from the Mamluks in 1517 and already by 1520, Suleiman had become the leader of the entire empire. Even today, 500 years after the time of his reign, many of his well-known building projects remain in Jerusalem, among them the Old City walls, remains of the water system (known as Sultan’s pool), fountains, markets, and mosques.
Haski Hürrem Sultan was Sultan Suleiman’s wife. She was born the daughter to a local priest in a small village in Ukraine, not far from Lviv, at the beginning of the 16th century. Hürrem Sultan, known in the West as Roxelana, found her way to the Sultan’s harem after she was kidnapped by Tartars. They brought her to the market in Istanbul where she was purchased and brought to the palace as a slave. Roxelana quickly captured the heart of the sultan and became his legal, beloved, and exclusive wife - an unprecedented status in the empire! This is reflected in her Turkish name, “Hürrem”, meaning “official”.
Roxelana was a strong, scholarly woman, even when faced by animosity and jealousy from the other concubines in the harem. Using sophisticated tactics, she succeeded in influencing the Sultan to order the execution of his oldest son from another wife.
Roxelana gave birth to four sons and one daughter and paved her own way within her husband’s extensive circle of power. At a time when few women were able to wield power, she actually managed the internal and international affairs of the empire together with the Sultan, to the benefit of Jerusalem’s residents.
In addition to her many activities designed to strengthen the city and its residents, Roxelana established a philanthropic institution in Jerusalem that is active even today: the soup kitchen of Hasaki Sultan. The soup kitchen for the poor is located in the Saraya complex in the heart of the Old City’s Moslem Quarter and there, just as they did 500 years ago, the quarter’s residents can drink and eat their fill. Parts of the beautiful building still remain, and you can see the old kettles and the chimneys used in the distant past.
Roxelana, who blossomed in the Sultan’s harem, became one of the strongest, most influential women in the history of the Ottoman Empire. She served as an inspiration for legends and folk tales throughout Western culture and her story was weaved into song, literature and art. After her death, Roxelana was buried in a magnificent mausoleum built by the Sultan in Istanbul with a dome reminiscent of the Dome of the Rock, next to the Süleymaniye Mosque complex. Upon his death, Suleiman was buried next to her. Roxelana’s memory lives on, as well, in the many institutions she and the Sultan built in Jerusalem, which are still prominent on the city’s skyline.