Women who built Jerusalem: Hürrem Haseki Sultan c.1500 - 1558
Updated: Dec 24, 2022
Many artists arrived in Istanbul to paint Roxolana, as the Europeans called Hürrem Khassaki Sultan. Diplomats, after having met her in the palace, reported she was neither beautiful nor tall but that she was charming.
The fifth in the series of Women who Built Jerusalem is a Muslim - Hürrem Haseki Sultan, and is one of the most fascinating and colorful characters of the Renaissance. Like most of her predecessors in this series, her story begins in Constantinople, on the banks of the Bosporus. She and her husband, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (known in the Muslim world as Suleiman Kanuni, Suleiman the Legislator) built Jerusalem during the Renaissance. Apart from building a huge empire, extending from northern Europe to Africa, Arabia and Persia, Suleiman's contributions to Jerusalem were to renovate the Al Aqsa Mosque and built the fabulous 3 km of walls around the city. He had the aqueducts that brought water to the city fixed and renovated the great pools and cisterns in the city, built six public water fountains. They preserved, completed and improved the construction of the former Mamluk rulers (1187-1516), giving the city its present character, in the 400 years the Ottomans would rule it, from 1516 to 1917. Construction began in 1538 and was completed a little later, on the ruins of previously destroyed fortifications. And what a wall! Most tourists I bring to the city, religious or secular, Christian, Jewish and Muslims and others, feel overwhelmed when they see the walls of the Holy City. So am I, every time!
Neither Suleiman, nor his wife, the protagonist of this chapter, Hürrem Haseki Sultan, probably never visited Jerusalem. Nevertheless, she built, financed and remotely supervised the construction of a huge complex of buildings now named after her. But who is she and why is she so intriguing? One of the reasons, is the great love story between the magnificent and illustrious emperor and the harem girl, a Christian slave. Young and ambitious, she fetches the great king's attention, and becomes his one and only wife, contrary to custom and tradition, and places her descendants on the throne of the Empire and, in effect, creates the continuation of the Sultanate's dynasty.
Her origin was from western Ukraine, a county called Ruthenia, then part of the Kingdom of Poland. A priest's daughter, probably, she fell captive to Tatar raiders, who kidnapped her and sold her to slavery in Istanbul. There is no certainty about her original name, but it might have been Alexandra Lisowska. She was bought for the Sultan's Hareem. There, she received the title of Hürrem ("the cheerful" in ancient Persian) Haseki Sultan (the Sultan's favorite). In the West, she is known as Roxolana, or Ruslana, or the "Red." We will call her Hürrem.
At that time the Sultan had no official wife. The most influential woman in the harem was the sultan's mother (Valide-Sultan). The harem concubines were meant to entertain and have children. As soon as a possible candidate for heir was born, he was sent with his mother, as an adolescent, away from Istanbul and the palace, for his own and his mother's safety, but also that of the Sultan himself. In the Sultan's court in Constantinople, as in its Byzantine predecessor, the dagger, the strangling cord and the poison vial, were very common means of self-promotion or survival - it was better to be careful.
Press photos to enlarge
Different representations of them in later years, by diverse artists, including Titian.
Caution was certainly not one of Hürrem's attributes. At the age of fifteen, the young slave-girl arrived at the palace with a desire to go for the summit. She studied classical Persian and Turkish, converted to Islam, studying religious law, foreign languages and philosophy, and soon enough caught the eye of the emperor. One Italian ambassador reported to his government: "She was pretty, but not beautiful and on the short side. “Giovane ma non bella” (young but not beautiful) ..." Venice's ambassador was told in 1526 that she was "graceful and short of stature". She was impudent and direct and Suleiman was captivated by her ... It is possible that the way she was provocative excited him, knowingly taking risks, herself. It may have intrigued him. Suleiman's influential mother and Mahidevran, his chief concubine, whose son Mustafa was almost certainly the heir apparent, was beginning to feel the pressure. Mahidevran physically attacked Hürrem in the hareem and Suleiman's patience expired. He fathered another baby with Hürrem, and decided to marry her. This was an historical change in tradition. They eventually had six more children and he remained loyal to her until the day she died.
Suleiman was the contemporary of Francois I of France, Henry VIII of England, Carl V of Habsburg, Ivan the Terrible in Russia, Cosimo de Medici I and Isabella D'Este in Italy. Their love story was already renowned in their day. Unlike the previous stars of this series, whose appearance we could only imagine - here there was a host of Italian Renaissance painters who came over to paint portraits of the Muslim Oriental monarchs, and especially of Roxolana, including Titian. The love poems they wrote for each other were published in Europe and I will introduce to you the famous among them, "Muhibi", which Suleiman wrote her.
Those who watched the Turkish television series "The Magnificent Century" saw an epic soap opera about Hürrem and her relationship with Suleiman, which was a huge success throughout the Muslim world, from Bosnia to Indonesia. There, she was presented in quite a negative light as if she complete control over Suleiman. It is assumed that she took part at least in the intrigue against Suleiman's own son and heir apparent Mustafa, whom the Sultan brutally executed. This made way for her own children to become heirs. It can be seen as act of survival, defending her children, who would have been murdered had Mustafa come to power. This was the norm - to eliminate the rival siblings once one has taken power.
Press photos to enlarge
'The Magnificent Century' (Turkish: Muhteşem Yüzyıl) had made this series of love and intrigue popularized worldwide, especially in the Muslim world. They had chosen two highly glamorous actors: the German-Turkish actress Meryem Uzerli, portraying her as sassy, conniving and calculating character. Halit Ergenç portrays a suave, aloof, idealized Sultan. To the right: a water fountain at the entrance of Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif, part of the Jerusalem water system they had constructed
Some say that in order to atone for her sins, she built the great charity center in Jerusalem in 1552 , while constructing more large charity establishments throughout the empire. Another soup kitchen similar to the one in Jerusalem in Mecca and two large, renown bathhouses in the heart of Istanbul, operating to this day, near Hagia Sophia.
The project in Jerusalem was built on a derelict Sufi center, (Zawiya) built more than 200 years before Hürrem, by another Muslim woman, who moved to Jerusalem, Lady Tunshuq of Muzafer, in 1338. Lady Tunshuq built a spectacular palace, in Mamluk style in the heart of the Muslim Quarter. The palace served as a hostel. Tunshuq died soon after, and the place was abandoned.
Apparently, it was the Sultan's wife emissaries who chose the old palace, renovated it, and added another building, which included a soup kitchen for the poor, serving two meals a day for Jerusalem's paupers and al-Aqsa's needy worshipers and seminarists. The place then included, according to the endowment document, a large khan (inn) for travelers and merchants, a mosque (which does not exist anymore) with domes and arches, a 55-room lodge for the poor and needy, a large kitchen with a bakery and flour mill, several warehouses and a fountain with fresh running water for the tenants and Kitchen . Most of the buildings, apart from the lodge and the mosque, are still standing today. The soup kitchen works to our present day, with the two meals still being served to the poor according to the Hürrem's original recipe!
The place is known by many names, alluding to its different periods and institutions. It is called Al-Imara Al-Amira, which is a Turkish name for a soup kitchen. It is also called the T'kiya Khassaki Sultan after Hürrem and also the Islamic Orphanage. In Jerusalem municipality, the official site name is the Lady Tunshuq Palace, named after the medieval institution.
And who was it who funded the meals, shelter, and charities? For this project, Hürrem endowed 26 entire villages along the route between Jaffa and Jerusalem, several shops in the city, an indoor market, two soap factories, eleven flour mills and two bathhouses in all of Palestine and Lebanon. For hundreds of years, taxes from these properties financed the huge charity, as well a mosque and two lodges for pilgrims and other travelers. Much of these villages were destroyed in the war of 1948, and funding is now available only to the schools from other charitable organizations. The building complex now also contains the orphanage, a professional school and a high school.
Diplomats who met the couple in their later years, said they were still in love and true friends in their relationship. Only four years after building the site, Hürrem Haseki Sultan passed away. She succeeded in marrying her daughter, and positioned her son to become the heir. She took on a role as a statesman, and developed relationships with European statesmen. Also, image-wise, she helped Suleiman in his international relations. There are some reports she had an influential Jewish consultant, a businesswoman of Spanish descent, named Esther Handali. Hürrem died in 1558 and was buried in a mausoleum in the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. It is said that Suliman never overcame her death. He died eight years later in 1566, and was buried beside her, in the courtyard of the mosque named after him.
I would like to acknowledge and pass my heartfelt thanks to Prof. Yusuf Natsheh, chief archaeologist of the Waqf, who himself attended the school Hürrem had built, and over the years became the chief researcher and guardian of the place, leading its restoration. It is through his book "Development and Restoration of Dar al-Aytam al-Islamiya" and a tour I once did with him in person, that most of my knowledge of this place comes from. He is a wonderful and profound researcher and unfortunately, we do not have easy access to hear his wisdom and extensive knowledge due to being on opposite sides of the futile, tragic Israeli-Palestinian divide. Let us pray for this awful situation to be resolved.
Renovation of the Haram a-Sharif
The original Dome of the Rock was built in 705 CE by the Caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty. It used to be covered in mosaics. It was possibly in disrepair by the time the Ottomans got there 900 years later. They replaced the Mosaics with Persian-style Qashani ceramic tiles.
Rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem
Press photos to enlarge
At Suleiman's time, the walls of the city were in ruins. He had a vision he should build a wall to protect it. the project started at the monumental Damascus gate (top) in 1538 and was completed a few years later. The walls we see today are Suleiman's.
Hürrem Haseki Sultan's great project
The part marked out in the photo is where our buildings, the 'Imara al'Amira' are to be found. The charity of education, social support and soup-kitchen for the poor that functions to our present day. In the middle of the Muslim quarter, it is actually a cluster of buildings, not as conspicuous as other monumental institutions. You must get closer to see…
The other landmarks in the picture (from left to right: The Khurvah Synagogue in the Jewish quarter, then the conical dome and belfry of the Dormition Abbey. In the center, the white belfry and black dome of the German Lutheran Erlöserkirche, with the Citadel right behind it. to the right- the two grey domed of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher. Finally bottom right- the silver dome of the Armenian-Catholic Church of Our Lady of sorrows in the fourth station of the cross.
Press photos to enlarge
If we go up the alley, it it still difficult to notice the huge portals, masterpieces of Mamluke and Ottoman art. 'Imara al'Amira. The first monumental portal, (top, right) dates back to the Lady Tunshuq Palace of the middle ages. It is in opulent Mamluke style, with alternate colorful stones (Ablaq) stone mosaics and stalactite like decorations, which have become typical in Isalmic Architecture. The second monumental portal, (bottom, left) which dates back to the Lady Tunshuq Palace of the middle ages, is in a quite unique Mamluke style, with alternate colorful stones (Ablaq).
The third monumental portal, (bottom, center) which dates back to the middle ages. Hurrem's architects only preserved this part and integrated it into the complex. It is in classical Mamluke style, with alternate colorful stones (Ablaq) stone mosaics and carving of Koranic verses. Finally, the fourth monumental portal, (bottom right) built by Hurrem's architects in 1552 . This is the entrance to the soup Kitchen, the 'Imara al'Amira, the school and the rest of the buildings. The portal is in Ottoman style, trefoil shaped, with delicate, lace-like stone carvings typical of Ottoman style.
(from left) The dome of the soup kitchen, a pot full of soup in today's soup kitchen, finally, one of the old copper pots.
The original recipe of the soup
The recipe given by the empress is still used in 'Imara-al 'Amira. there is a morning and afternoon soup.
Frike Soup (Green smoked wheat)
Serves: the poor of Jerusalem
Frike . . . . 14.380 kg
Butter . . . 2.457 kg
Salt . . . . 2.047 kg
Onions. . . 1.638 kg
Cumin . . . . . . . . . . .0.614 kg
Chickpeas . . . . . . . .1.228 kg
Yoghurt . . . . . . . .20.475 kg
Firewood for cooking 57.33 kg
left: The endowment manuscript of the charity
Muhibbi - the great love poem
One of History's most renown love poems is Muhibbi - the lover. Written by the all powerful emperor to his beloved spouse, his total devotion moves us to this day.
click to enlarge your preferred language
Hurrem's Mausoleum in Istanbul