Rewriting Roxelana

Event Recap of Empress of the East, 12/5/17

On December 5th, Professors Leslie Pierce (NYU), Lale Can (CUNY), Larry Wolff (NYU), and Jane Tylus (NYU) came together to discuss Empress of the East, Pierce’s new book chronicling the life of Roxelana (Hurrem in Turkish), who was Suleyman the Magnificent’s beloved wife, concubine, and queen. Peirce argued that this was not only a “great love story,” but a radical union which broke the rules governing the lives of concubines. Suleyman freed Roxelana, married her, and made her queen. Although Roxelana began her life in the Ottoman Empire as an enslaved girl, taken from her home in what today is the Ukraine, she died the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire.

Although history remembers Roxelana as a temptress and usurper, as Larry Wolff demonstrated through his brief exploration of Roxelana as a sinister character in Western European Opera, she was a great philanthropist. Roxelana oversaw architectural and humanitarian projects, such as developing women’s hospitals and soup kitchens. Lale Can said Empress of the East “guides readers into the world of understudied persons,” exposing a less sinister and more historically accurate depiction of Roxelana as a great and charitable queen.

Jane Tylus asserted that Roxelana represents early modern women, many of whom were enslaved, forced into sexual relationships, and lacked freedom of choice. Yet, “Roxelana doesn’t go silently into the night,” Tylus said. Roxelana laid the foundations for the royal harem to become a branch of the Ottoman government, creating a new profile for royal women as diplomats through her letter-writing diplomacy and correspondence with Western European monarchs.

Hear their full remarks from the event: