Prelude: I started my quest to fill up this blog, following at two-year hiatus first with genealogical writing, and then travel writing. After my brief stint at trying to sell real estate through a blog, and the telling of one last travel story (for what is likely to be awhile), I am probably back to writing about family histories again.
The name “Rzeczspospolita” means “Commonwealth,” but has been more modernly translated to “Republic.” I still would rather regard it by its more traditional translation. Given my return to the territory that was once part of the Polish-Lithuanian “Rzeczpospolita,” here I wanted to build stories based on the utopian hopes of unity that probably accompanied that name when it was first put forward.
Part of the intent of these stories is to show some level of commonality among the various different people of the regions I travel through. Politics tries hard to drive wedges in between people who are better served by bridges rather than borders. Some of these efforts to divide are merely darkly humorous, some of them are more somber. But I hope that the study of history (occasionally fashionable, occasionally not), no matter its horrors, its hatreds, its attempts to forcibly remove identities, will still somehow bring us all together in our search for who we are – particularly our family histories. I hope eventually that we find we are all human.
Everyone aims at the same meaning, but many are the versions of the story.– Suleiman the Magnificent.
Among the most interesting of the family names that we know of on my wife’s side of my daughter’s tree is probably the name Lisowski. This name spawned not only a noble “szlachta” house, and of course the famed, or perhaps infamous, mercenary leader, Aleksander Jozef Lisowski, the most interesting character that carried this name actually spent most of her life outside of Poland. To find her story, you have to look to the ancient southern nemesis of both Hungary and Poland, the enemy in the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire.`
Throughout the 14th century, the Ottoman sultanate grew from an insignificant emirate in Anatolia, one led by a man who dreamed of a tree that covered the sky over four rivers and four mountain ranges stretching over three continents, to an actual empire whose frontiers raced forward toward these very rivers and mountain ranges. Timur’s invasion from the plains of Central Asia put a decade-long halt to the spread of the Turkish Empire in 1402 as the sons of the captive Bayezid I fought to succeed him, but by 1413, the empire was made whole by the victorious Mehmed I, and the Ottoman Empire again spread outward toward its pre-destined frontiers.
By 1444, a Polish-Hungarian crusade was crushed at Varna by Murad II, and Janos Hunyadi, whose family later resided in Somogy, was defeated at Kosovo in 1448 in the reconquest of that region by the Ottomans. In 1453, the Byzantine Empire could hold out no longer from the growing military power surrounding Constantinople, and the city fell in that year to Sultan Mehmed II. The Hagia Sophia, the spiritual seat of the “Second Rome,” became the mosque under which the Turkish Caliphate would call home.
In 1480, that same Sultan, Mehmed II attempted to lay claim to the title of Kaiser-I Rum, or Caesar Romanus, by invading Italy. His intent was to capture Rome and establish Islam as the religion of a new Roman Empire, one that would conquer the “barbarian Christians.” His death a year later put an end to this invasion, and his troops left Otranto shortly after.
However, the story that carries the greatest interest to my wife’s family is that of the Sultan whose rule followed Mehmed’s by nearly 40 years. That Sultan’s name was Suleiman the Magnificent.
Suleiman was born the son of Selim I, the Ottoman leader who captured Egypt and the Arab world, building the Turks into the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean. He learned science, the humanities, and military tactics while studying at the Topkapi Palace in Constantinople, and was ready to pursue his dream of fulfilling Alexander the Great’s vision of a single world empire, created by military conquest.
Bartolomeo Contarini, the envoy of the Venetian Republic to the Ottoman Empire, described the young man who acquired the throne in a message sent back to his superiors: “He is 26 years of age, tall, but wiry, and of a delicate complexion. His neck is a little too long, his face thin, and his nose aquiline. He has a shade of a moustache and a small beard; nevertheless he has a pleasant mien, though his skin tends to pallor. He is said to be a wise Lord, fond of study, and all men hope for good from his rule.”
In the meantime, while Suleiman’s armies were marching on first Damascus and then Belgrade, a young woman was captured by the Crimean Tatars in a raid on the Polish city of Rohatyn, a major center located 68 kilometers southeast of present Lviv, Ukraine, in what was then the Voivodship of Ruthenia. Made into a slave, she was taken southward to the Crimean city of Kaffa, where she was likely put on a ship for Constantinople. As luck would have it, she was selected among the other girls around her for the Sultan’s harem, and was named Hurrem, meaning “the cheerful one.” However, her original name was said to be Alexandra Lisowska.
The Sultan was said to have been personally involved in his campaigns of conquest, and was present when the Battle of Mohacs lead to the destruction of the once rich and powerful Hungarian kingdom in 1526. But upon his return to Constantinople, he quickly took notice of Hurrem, and she soon became his favorite slave girl among the many that lived in the Sultan’s harem, the screened away world reserved only for those privileged to know anything of Suleiman’s private life.
Her sudden rise to favorite stirred trouble. The concubine Gulbahar saw the young ambitious Pole as a real threat, and attacked Hurrem in a fight that might have left some bruises, but was no doubt quickly broken up. This angered Suleiman greatly, and he ordered Gulbahar and her son Mustafa exiled to Manisa. This ended Gulbahar’s career as concubine, and eventually Mustafa would be put to death as a potential rival to Hurrem’s own children by the Sultan.
Hurrem definitely captured the heart of Suleiman, meanwhile. She not only bore six of his children, but she managed to convince the Sultan to free her of her status as slave girl, and marry her under Islamic custom. She became the first wedded wife of a Sultan since the son of Osman, Orhan, took a wife. This made her the talk of diplomatic circles in Constantinople, who began to call her Roxelana, a nickname that meant “The Ruthenian.” (She likely spoke either Ottoman Turkish or Russian to her husband, as his five languages didn’t include Polish.)
By 1541, Suleiman’s military campaigns resulted in the occupation of most of Hungary, the fall of Buda Castle, and the humiliation of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who in a peace treaty was not only forced to pay tribute to the Turks, but was addressed only as “King of Spain” and not as a fellow emperor. The Turks also limited the trade of Spanish ships in the Mediterranean, which were suddenly subject to being preyed upon by Barbary Coast pirates off North Africa, controlled by Constantinople. Suleiman also established his dominion over the Portuguese colonies that once lined the Persian Gulf (Piri Reis, his admiral, noted for his inexplicably detailed maps of the New World, took Muscat in 1552), and all of Mesopotamia in 1554.
As her husband was victorious in war, though, Roxelana was victorious in encouraging her husband to eventually pursue peace. She inspired, perhaps through his poet and artist side, to seek peace with Sigismund II Augustus, King of Poland, and even an alliance was born between the once (and future) warring powers, likely from her influence. Suleiman built great mosques, hospitals, and other architectural monuments, which were perhaps part of the results of her inspiration to create a more civilized Turkish empire. Indeed, during his later rule, the Crimean Tatars were said to have been reigned in from their once continuous raids like the one in which she herself was captured. In Jerusalem, she founded the Haseki Sultan Imaret, a soup kitchen for the poor of that Holy City.
Hurrem Haseki Sultan, born a Lisowska, died the beloved wife of Suleiman on April 18, 1558. Her ruler husband died eight years later, just before his armies defeated the Hungarians at the Battle of Szigetvar, and was buried next to her mausoleum in the mosque she probably inspired him to create. His 46-year-long rule was the longest of all the Ottoman Sultans. Their son, Selim II, succeeded him.
Her best known tribute came in the words of her husband, the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent:
“Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.
The most beautiful among the beautiful…
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf…
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world…
My Constantinople, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief…
I’ll sing your praises always
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.”