Rzeczpospolita: Roxelana, the Lisowska Sultana

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.

The coat of arms of the Lisowski family features the hedgehog. Art via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Born in Trabizon the son of Hafsa Hatun Sultan and Selim I, the conqueror of essentially the Arab world, Suleiman the Magnificent started his rule inspired by the military accomplishments of Alexander the Great, but found greater inspiration in the love of a smiling Polish “Ruthenian” toward improving the cultural accomplishments of his country. Art (1549 oil painting) from the Yorck Project by Hans Eworth via Wikimedia Commons.

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.”

Hurrem Heseki Sultan, it is said through her cheerful disposition, won the heart of the greatest Ottoman Sultan and tamed the empire that enslaved her as a girl. Among the first to identify her original name as Alexandra (or Anastasia) Lisowska was Polish poet Samuel Twardowski, who had been researching about her 30-40 years after her death. Art by an unknown 18th century artist via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Suleiman’s wife’s many accomplishments included feeding the poor and inspiring her husband to make peace with her native Poland. She was said to have been born the daughter of an Orthodox priest in her home city in present Ukraine. While a slave, she was named Hurrem, or “cheerful one,” as she was always seen smiling and happy, even in servitude – an attitude that brought her to the height of power. As consort to Suleiman the Magnificent, Western diplomats took to calling her “Roxelana” or “The Ruthenian.” From a near-contemporary drawing of Roxelana, published in Venice in 1550 by Mathio Pagani. Art via “La piu bella e la piu favorita donna del gran Turcho dita la Rossa”.

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.”

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7 Responses to Rzeczpospolita: Roxelana, the Lisowska Sultana

  1. Osman says:

    That is an amazing story. Now, I there is TV serial named “Muhtesem Yuzyil” or the “Glorious Century” that became a big hit around Turkey and the region around. It is all about Suleiman and Harem life. You should check it out:

    • benmangel says:

      Sounds like it will be an interesting teleserial. Not sure it’s airing in Belarus, though.

      It sounds as if the authors have taken something of the Ambassador of Venice’s point of view about the Sultana, that she must have been a conniving and evil person. This sort of formula worked with The Tudors and Spartacus, I suppose, and it should be fairly successful in portraying Suleiman’s life in a interesting and dramatic way.

      My purpose in writing this was to try to find a positve lesson in her life story, rather than create a successful drama. I tend to think, based on what little I’ve seen of the Sultan’s own writing, that she was probably more a positive influence on Turkey than negative. And certainly, in my opinion, the idea that a person, even one as humble as a slave, can tame an empire by simply never letting circumstances get that person down is a much more powerful image than anything a teleserial could portray, though, again, this serial looks like it could be an interesting and well-done program.

      • Maha says:

        this woman you think to be that good example was he reason for the ottoman muslem empire at that time to fall down by her mean ways of trying to take control of that sultan and getting rid of every person who was able to lead that empire sucessfully and made her son the new sultan while he was not able to handle this mission

      • benmangel says:

        Hmmm. I would have to say that “Magnificent Century” is quite a successful history-based prime-time drama, if it can be so easily mistaken for unbiased fact. If memory serves me correctly, a lot of the point of view about Roxelana within the TV story seems to be derived from the Venetian ambassador’s perspective, written from a distance to the private world of the Sultan in diplomatic correspondence that clearly does not paint her in a flattering light. That’s not to say that where there is smoke, there isn’t fire (in a sense, all this reminds me of a favorite Cardinal Richelieu quote: “Give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men and I will find something in them to have him hanged”). But I do find it regrettable that some of the more positive influences she brought to history are lost in the wake of the show’s success. Ah, well, at least such types of soap operas do seem to get some people to actually open books.

  2. Maria says:

    (She likely spoke either Ottoman Turkish or Russian to her husband, as his five languages didn’t include Polish.) Just a correction: Hurrem wasn’t Russian but Ruthenian which is ancient Ukrainian. Roxelana was born in Ukraine not in Poland – at her time half part of Ukraine was captured by Poland. Ukrainian lands were always where Ukrainians lived no mater who ruled there for the number of years Polish, Lithunians or Russians, as well as Poland was always Poland, even during the years when the county lost independence to Germans and etc.:)

    • benmangel says:

      Always appreciate corrections. Yours required me to reread my passage to make sure I had mentioned everything correctly. I think it does – Hurrem Heseki Sultana or Alexandra/Anastasia Lisowska was born in what was then the Polish-ruled Voivodship of Ruthenia, located in present Ukraine. She probably spoke Russian or Ottoman Turk when in conversation with Suleiman as those are the two languages that she and the Sultan might have shared. If there was a mistake, it might be that the actual language used was Church Slavonic rather than Russian, the mother language of a great many nationalities in the region (including both modern Russian and Ukrainian). I don’t think in the text I made any claim as to her speaking Russian as a native language, just that it (or Church Slavonic) might have been the language in which the two may have spoken together. I tend to believe she was probably a native Polish speaker (or at least Polish as it existed in the 16th century).
      Her name appears to identify her as Polish in ancestry, though no one really knows much of her ancestry other than the assertion that she was the daughter of an Orthodox priest in a Polish-controlled area. That her father was Orthodox and not Catholic is interesting and worth continued exploration. But it appears quite likely, given the historic fluidity of borders in the area, that her ancestry was not exclusively Ukrainian.
      The borders, both political and cultural, of present Ukraine were not historically eternal. They even extended, at one point, further to the west and included sections of present Poland, just as portions of present Ukraine were in the 20th century once part of Interwar Poland. These changes of border did not represent simple military occupations, as per the Nazi occupation, but internationally recognized jurisdictional control.
      The fluidity of the borders has even been the subject of local humor – in one joke, an old man in an interview described his life, saying he was born in Austria-Hungary, went to school in Czechoslovakia, married in Hungary, worked most of his life in the Soviet Union, and now lives in Ukraine. When asked if he traveled a lot, he tells the interviewer, no, that he never left Mukachevo. Out of all those, probably the marriage in Hungary was the only example of a simple military occupation (Hungary made the tragic mistake of joining the wrong side in World War II, rendering permanent the loss of territory that the once-rich country suffered from the post-Great War Treaty of Trianon).
      Recognition that western Ukrainian culture as we know it today survived all these changes is more a tribute to the strength of the culture than any suggestion that “Ukrainian lands were always where Ukrainians lived” (presumably meaning the present borders of the country). It also brings us closer to getting an accurate picture of the family histories in the region, which is more in line with my goal in writing this story.

  3. Faridahnur ahmad hamimed says:

    Im a new muslim woman that has been inspired by the story of new muslim alekxandra hurrem…..the strenght of hers described in the series muhtesem yuzyil are amazing…to have overcomed all the unimaginable. ?.and still managed to do so much good deeds…and to always haved been the only one not to wish to take the kings throne…great and difficult lessons to be learned here from history…I stand alone has she as since I entered the fold of islam…I have l lost familly and friends…lived with a culture nt of my own…but here I am still standing by the grace of allah…I have seen many colours of life but like hurem…in the end my heart is to my husband and chidren…faridahnur

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