Ottoman sultans were renowned for their patronage of art and architecture, one rarely equaled by the rulers of other great empires. It was the duty and prerogative of a sultan to commission monumental architectural complexes that incorporated religious, charitable, and educational institutions. These complexes, known as külliyes, were supported by endowments funded by agricultural, industrial, and commercial revenues. The best architects and artisans of the empire were employed in the creation of imperial külliyes, which not only served the public but also displayed the sultans’ immense wealth and power.
The most splendid structures were built during the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (reigned 1520-66) whose empire extended from Tabriz to Vienna. During this period, which is known as the golden age of Ottoman art and architecture, the Ottomans controlled the crucial link between three continents (Asia, Europe, and Africa) as well as the surrounding seas.
It was not only Süleyman who commissioned and endowed large architectural complexes but also two outstanding ladies in his family: his daughter Mihrimah Sultan, and his wife Hürrem Sultan. Hürrem was an exceptional woman in Ottoman history. She is thought to have been of Russian, Ukrainian or Polish origin, captured by marauders and sold as a slave to the Ottoman court in the Crimea some time in the late 1510s, when Süleyman was serving there as governor.
As was customary with the Sultan’s concubines, Hürrem was taught proper court etiquette, educated, and given a Turkish name, Hürrem, meaning “the smiling and endearing one.” Her intelligence, composure, and personality captivated Süleyman, and she soon became his confidante and one and only love. In contrast to Ottoman imperial practice, Süleyman married Hürrem, becoming the only sultan (with the exception of a 19th-century ruler) to officially take a wife. His devotion for Hürrem continued after her death, as observed in the poems he wrote bemoaning her absence and his loneliness.
Hürrem’s power and influence over the sultan intrigued both the Ottomans and the Europeans. The Europeans called her Roxelane (the Russian) or La Rosa (the red one), presumably referring to the color of her hair, which must have been red or auburn, as suggested by one of Süleyman’s poems in which he calls her “my orange.”
As a Haseki (a title given to a royal wife, literally “belonging to the ruler”), Hürrem accumulated immense wealth, and used these funds to build and support architectural complexes in Istanbul and Jerusalem in addition to those in Ankara, Edirne and Mecca. In 1539, she commissioned the newly appointed royal architect Sinan to design and build a group of buildings that included a mosque, a medrese (university), and a school. The complex called the Haseki Külliyesiwas constructed in a district in Istanbul known as Avrat Pazarı, which came to be called Haseki, the name it bears today. In the early 1550s, a hospital for women and a soup kitchen were added to the complex; the mosque was enlarged in the early 17th century.
The Haseki Külliyesi is unique on several accounts. First, it is Sinan’s first commission as royal architect, a product of his early years before he became world-famous for numerous structures – ranging from mosques to bridges – built throughout the empire. Second, the Haseki Külliyesi was commissioned by the wife of a sultan, funded by her own money, and supported by an endowment set up in perpetuity. Finally, it included a (still-functioning) hospital for women. The vakfiye (deed of endowment) established by Hürrem Sultan for her Haseki Külliyesi is a meticulous document stipulating the salaries and duties of the staff, the types of meals to be served, and the source of income for staff expenses and building maintenance. It is a model for such documents set up for charitable institutions, even today.
Hürrem’s second endowment is even more unusual. Known as the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı (Bathhouse), the two sides of this hamam (the men’s section and the women’s section) mirror each other. Built across the street from the famous 6th-century Byzantine church of Aya Sofya (converted into a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 and now a museum), the building is unique among Istanbul hamams. Each half has two domed units, one large and one small, creating a harmonious silhouette. One of the few still-intact historical hamams in Istanbul, it was used as an exhibition gallery until recently. Today, it serves a luxurious Turkish bath.
Hürrem was a self-made woman who excelled in her role as the supportive and assertive wife of the most powerful man of the age. Her personality can be best studied in the letters she wrote to her husband when he was away on military campaigns. (Süleyman undertook more than a dozen campaigns in both Eastern Europe and western Asia during his lifetime and was often on the road for months at a time). In her letters, Hürrem relates the activities of the court and her family, and even sends Süleyman shopping lists. In one instance, she requests “something called cologne” which she heard was quite popular, referring to perfume from the German city of Cologne which was the rage in Europe at the time. As the wife of the sultan, she felt confident and assured enough to send a letter to the new king of Poland (who was Süleyman’s ally), congratulating him on his accession.
Hürrem was the first woman to take up residence in Topkapı Palace, which had originally been designated as the administrative and educational headquarters of the empire. The women of the royal family lived in what was then called the Old Palace (now the site of Istanbul University) and did not reside in Topkapı Palace until the late 16th century. Hürrem complained that her children missed their father since he was away so often, and since, when he was in Istanbul, he worked late in his offices at Topkapı. Then, one day, a mysterious fire broke out in her suites at the Old Palace, forcing her to relocate to Topkapı Palace. Hürrem had succeeded in remaining close to her beloved husband.
In return, Süleyman fully supported Hürrem in every way, his love and devotion for her lasting until his death. The sultan’s most beautifully executed tuğras (imperial monograms), decorated with exquisite illuminations, appear on the fermans (edicts) drawn up to sponsor Hürrem’s endowments, setting aside revenues from farming and commercial activities to provide funds for these charitable foundations. The sultan’s poems, written under the pseudonym Muhibbi (meaning the “lover” or “dear friend”) further attest to his love for and devotion to this remarkable slave girl who captured the heart of the most powerful man in the world.
Hürrem died in 1558. During her nearly fifty-year marriage to Süleyman, she gave birth to five sons and one daughter. Three of her sons died during her lifetime; the remaining two fought for the throne, and one survived to become Sultan Selim II (reigned 1566-74). The most illustrious of her children was her daughter Mihrimah Sultan, who inherited her mother’s high intelligence, shrewd personality, and strong interest in patronage.
Hürrem is entombed in a domed octagonal structure erected in the cemetery behind the Süleymaniye Complex in Istanbul. This complex, designed by Sinan, encompasses over a dozen buildings surrounding the Süleymaniye Mosque. Next to her tomb is an impressive mausoleum built for Süleyman, who died during a campaign in Hungary in 1566. Even in death, Hürrem stayed by Süleyman’s side.
Originally published in The Guide Istanbul Sept/Oct 2008. Updated on 6 January 2012.