The Ottoman Empire was founded in 1299 and lasted until 1922 when Ataturk dissolved it to create modern Turkey. In all those centuries, it only had one queen: Roxelana (c. 1503 - 1558).
Roxelana was most likely born in modern day Ukraine. Ukraine, Crimea, and Poland were constantly at war, and a common practice was to abduct children to sell into slavery.
Roxelana was kidnapped as a teenager and sold or traded to the sultan’s household to be trained as a concubine of the sultan. At the age of 17, she became a concubine of Suleyman (also spelled Suleiman).
Roxelana was an exceptional woman—an astute politician who learned how to survive harem and court politics. She convinced Suleyman to give up all his other concubines and marry her. They married in 1536 and lived monogamously until her death. They were devoted parents to their five sons and one daughter.
After Suleyman (1494 – 1566) became sultan, he designated Roxelana as his queen. She became his eyes and ears at the court while he was away on military campaigns. To the east, Suleyman fought the Safevid Empire (modern Iran) for control of what is now Iraq. In an earlier version of today’s wars, the Ottoman Sunnis fought the Shias of Iran.
In the west, Suleyman fought to expand Ottoman territory in Eastern Europe. The Ottomans controlled much of modern Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia. The legacy of the Ottoman occupation was an underlying cause of the vicious fighting during the 1980’s when Yugoslavia tore itself apart.
Roxelana and Suleyman represent a cultural high point for the Ottoman Empire. He is known to history as Suleyman the Magnificent. One of his many achievements was revising the legal code which had a side effect of increasing social and political tolerance of Christians and Jews.
They also built extensively. His most famous monument is the exquisite Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, where he and Roxelana were eventually buried. Roxelana was the first female member of the Ottoman court to build in Istanbul. Her most famous project is the Hasecki Sultan Complex, consisting of a mosque, a soup kitchen, elementary school (madrasa), and a hospital. The complex was restored in 2010 – 2012 and is now a tourist attraction.
After the deaths of Roxelana and Suleyman, their son Selim reverted to usual Ottoman practices. He murdered his remaining brothers and nephews so that they couldn’t threaten him or his sons. His sons were expected to fight to the death for the right to lead the empire. He also dispensed with a queen and ensured that no concubine would have more than one son as royal sons were a source of power in the empire.
For more information on the exciting and improbable life of Roxelana, see Empress of the East by Leslie Pierce (2017). I found the book a bit repetitive and disorganized at times but a fairly quick read nonetheless!
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