Dr Greta Sykes – Roxelana

Sykes LE P&W March 2024

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing March 2024.

Roxelana is an excerpt from Dr Greta Sykes new novel ‘Eve meets Dante’,
which is about to be published.


It was foggy outside, an early autumn day. I was on my way to university and had a lecture to attend. Leaves fell down rustling like wings of birds. When I reached the forest, I stared at it for a moment and felt my stomach tighten. There was fog. It was like blotting paper had wiped out paths and only shadows of trees looked real. Lanterns shone dimly producing large shapes of trees and branches. My heart was beating loudly. I held on to my bag as if it was a shield and walked leaning forward as if it made me faster. The water under the small bridge rumoured, as if ghosts had gathered. Further down I glimpsed a human figure with a sense of relief. She was walking in the same direction as I towards the station. Oddly, I could not get nearer to her although I began to run. Did she also run? I could not work out what was going on. I ran faster, she ran faster. Was she afraid of me? Did she feel persecuted by me or someone else?

I stopped and looked behind me, but there was only the woman in a long dress or coat and myself. The fog was so thick I could only just make out that she was still there, but she had slowed down, while I had stopped. I speeded up again. She speeded up as well. The walk seemed to get longer. I felt by now I should have reached the railway station, but we were still moving forward one behind the other, and I could not get nearer to her or the station. My panic had disappeared. Instead, I was breaking out in a sweat, partially from running and partially from frustration and disbelief. The thought of reaching the station this way had given way to an intense longing to find out the truth of what was happening right here in the forest.

My eyes were sharply focused on the figure, my hands were clasping my bag and my feet were carrying me as if my life depended on it. I missed the moment when the scenery around us changed profoundly. The fog had lifted, the earthen forest path was covered in stone slabs, and buildings of great beauty rose to my right and left. I seemed to be in the middle of a town, following a person who walked right, then left and right again until she came to a tall portal with massive wooden doors. She stopped and turned towards me who was still hastening to catch up. She looked at me and smiled.

‘I knew you couldn’t resist,’ she laughed. ‘Your desire to get to the bottom of what was happening was too intense. So, you have now left your forest and a day at university. Maybe you are sorry. But perhaps you will enjoy this interruption of your life.’ She laughed in my face, suggesting to me that she felt successful in having abducted me. I was annoyed. An intense feeling came over me of wanting to get to university and hear the lecture.

It must have looked funny to her because she laughed again. I felt hot, my face glowed from the long run and walk. The temperature here was much higher than where I had come from. I felt uncomfortable in my warm clothes and a sense of betrayal occurred to me. On the other hand, she was right. I had shown determination to follow her. No one had made me try to catch up with her. I resigned myself to my fate but said nothing.

‘I am Roxelana. Come along with me now, that will be the best. We are entering the new palace where I live. Follow me, there are many parts to it. No one can pass unless known to the guards. You will be very safe here.’

We arrived in front of a large portal within very high walls which was guarded by the mentioned guards. They saluted her. There were a few people waiting in the courtyard inside. They seem to have business to sort out. To my surprise there were a couple of elephants and horses in the courtyard which looked like a busy area with workshops, a waterworks, and an infirmary. We walked on through a second portal into another courtyard guarded by at least a dozen guards and crowded with people.

She named them as we passed. Janissaries. Embassy staff of the Sultan, council members. Scribes. Money counters and guards are here in their busy life of administration for the Sultan. From the second hall we passed through I spotted the roof of the next hall. It had many chimneys. Food smells came from what must be large kitchens. More great domes and towers. I turned to look at the architecture, but Roxelana had clasped my hand tightly and wouldn’t let it go.

‘We are now entering the inner courtyard through the Gate of Good Fortune,’ she declared. A further large space opened in front of us with a bewildering number of doors and presumably rooms behind them. She unclasped my hand and asked a waiting palace servant to take hold of my bag. We entered one of the rooms to the right, walked on through many ornamented rooms, a garden, and further in a maze of spaces. Finally, she showed me into a large chamber with a generously sized bed, cushions, pillows and blankets, a wash basin, a window to the gardens and a lovely perfumed scent.

‘Eva,’ she started, surprising me again as she knew my name, ‘You can sort yourself out here. They will bring you clothes that will make you feel more comfortable. You are now in the year 1555, and you are my guest. I am Roxelana, also called Hurrem Sultan. I am Sultan Suleiman’s married wife. I have invited you to learn about how we live and take my story with you where you live in your world. Freshen yourself up and come dressed with your new clothes out into the courtyard where I shall be. We shall have some food.’

I felt overpowered. I was still angry about having been abducted, but what choice did I have? I washed and felt a physical relief after putting on new clothes. They involved a headgear which sat like a pointed turban covering my hair. There was a long underdress of soft white cotton, on top fitted a dark blue silk gown and silk shoes. I saw my bag had been placed near my bed and looked for my familiar exercise books, my pen, pencil, and rubber, my precious companions. Holding them gave me a sense of my own identity which had slipped out of my grasp.

It was as if I was losing myself in this strange world. I held on to my books and pen and walked out through the many rooms into the courtyard. Roxelana spotted me and led me out into a garden adjoining the courtyard. A sumptuous table was late with silver cutlery, glasses for wine and a rich array of dishes. We sat down and were served. Roxelana did not waste much time before she began to tell me her story.

‘Now you see what it feels like!’ She said with a certain amount of triumph.

‘I was captured by Crimean Tatars from Russia, quite like how I captured you. They brought me to Istanbul. You cannot imagine what it is like. You are treated like an animal. They check out your virginity, your strength, your health and then group you and assign a price for your sale. I was lucky. Bought by the sultan’s family. I was only seventeen. I became one of his concubines in 1520. You are in the women’s quarter with everyone. They all stare at you to see if you are more beautiful. They train you in how to be artful, but I already had some training. I am a fast learner, that helps.

I tried not to worry about the many other women there and made sure I remained cheerful. Maybe I was a cheerful person anyway. They started calling me Hurrem, the cheerful one! It certainly helped in those early years when there was so much envy and jealousy among the women. It could become quite unbearable. I had to use all my mental discipline not to cry at times or start hitting someone.’ Roxelana laughed showing her teeth. I would not like to be hit by her I thought. She looked strong and fit. She continued,

‘But what is fascinating is that all the women there were Christians from central Europe or Asia. The sultans don’t have Moslem women in their harem. They procreate with Christian women. It seems odd, but that is how it is.’

I was in a state of stupefaction. What could I add. Everything was so strange and different. I did not even know how to ask sensible questions. I just looked at Roxelana with my mouth gaping. I was also very hungry and ate and drank until filled up and ready to sleep, while she insisted on talking. I am not sure how much I took in.

‘We lived in the Old Palace for many years. I gave birth to a son within a year. Within the next four years or so gave birth to all my other children, sons, and daughters. They were arduous years. We were taught every day and all day. The supervision was so that it was impossible to escape into indolence. Hundreds of eunuchs, servants, cooks, carpenters, craft people were part of the palace. The eunuchs were there to guide us wherever we were supposed to be. They might have been four hundred of us harem women all learning the rigours of being representatives of the Ottoman state and to be shown off on special occasions. I had to cope with envy from the women, especially one of them who had given the sultan his first son.

They all began to realise that I became Suleiman’s favourite concubine. Normally a woman, once having given birth to a royal child, would not be seen again by the sultan. Her sole task was to look after her son and bring him up well. But he kept asking for me. I ended up giving birth to many of his children. He appreciated my intelligence and wisdom. Many times, I gave him advice on a military campaign which he found was advantageous. That is how I rose in his estimation. The most shocking event happened after his mother Hafsa died. Suleiman decided to marry me! No slave woman could ever rise above the mother of a sultan.  Marrying me was something unheard of in Ottoman society.’

My eyes must have been shutting and opening between alertness and dropping off when I found Roxelana tug me on my sleeve as she spoke.

‘You are falling asleep, when I want to tell my story!’ She exclaimed.

‘I’m still listening,’ I stated calmly, ‘you said ‘marrying me was something unheard of in Ottoman society.’

‘Oh, good, but I suppose you might be tired, I don’t know what time scale you are in and what time of the day it is for you now. You are a few hundred years ahead of me, is that so?’

‘Well, yes, but it doesn’t feel like it right now.’ I was making a point which was not lost on her.

‘You’re having a little dig at me for bringing you back in time. But you don’t know you might have been much happier and luckier living now!’ She quipped back.

‘Perhaps, but we’ll never know, will we?’

‘Ok, lets leave things for today and get some sleep. But I have not much time, so we’ll chat again tomorrow after siesta. I have meetings to run tomorrow morning.’

Roxelana got up from the cushions she sat on, straightened the beautiful clothes she was wearing and showed me back to the room where my bag had been deposited. A tea set and several books were lying on a table.

‘I saw you brought your papers with you. You must be a keen writer.’ I was not sure if she was mocking me, but I was beyond caring.

‘Eva, make yourself comfortable here and have a good night and rest. Ring when you want to be served food or drink. I’ll come and pick you up from here tomorrow afternoon.’

‘Is there a garden I can walk in, Roxelana, I quite like the outdoors.’

‘Certainly, all you need to do is ring the bell and someone will guide you out into it. It’s an ornamental garden. I think you will like it.’

She disappeared quickly like a piece of magic from a theatre. But it did not bring me back home. I was clearly stuck and had been deposited in another time without my agreement. I pondered this fact for a moment. Perhaps it happens more often than we think that we are suddenly caught without being able to escape. Was it my curiosity, was it my fear or panic that drives these circumstances? I felt too tired and not inclined to think through this subject. I had eaten and drunk. I sat down on the sumptuous bed and was soon overwhelmed by sleep. Incense, bird song, musical instruments and tunes entered my subconscious from time to time, but I drifted only further into night and sleep.

On the following morning, I rang for food and drink. I had a bath with incense and hot towels. I was nurtured and cossetted by several women who also decided to attire me in some precious garment in deep red and gold and a green scarf. They were fascinated by my yellow hair and begged me to let them play with it and turn it into a hairdo of their choice. Why not, I thought. It is pleasant to have someone massage your scalp, comb your hair and have something done with it without having to think about it oneself. I gave in to the pleasures. I had lunch in the garden. There were cages full of different exotic birds all vying for my attention. I could not take my eyes of the owls who stared back at me as if to demand a piece of wisdom from me. I heard Roxelana laughing behind me.

‘Look at you! My girls have transformed you into a fabulous lady. Better not let Suleiman see you! I wouldn’t like him to take a fancy to you.’ She laughed again, then took my arm and walked me to a secluded corner with a bench and a table.

‘Let’s sit here for our chat. I haven’t got much time, as I said. But I must fill in the rest of my story.’

‘Where were we? Oh, yes, at my wedding to Suleiman. I was so proud and happy, I cannot tell you what a marvellous occasion that was. People all over Europe reported it in the newspapers. The Venetians had spies. They knew everything. We married in 1533. It was a fantastic ceremony. It made me an equal to other empresses. I received the title Haseki, meaning Sultan. Suleiman created a new tradition in our empire. I received a salary which was 2,000 aspers per day. Of course, there were rumours. The sultan has given up power for his wife and so on. But that was not true. He favoured my advice over and above that from his other close circle.

I think by that time most people in Istanbul accepted me, but it was different in the harem. The complexity of how all these women related to each other could only be born because of the extraordinary etiquette that was taught as a standard of behaviour. We had been taught exact manners of how to treat each other and become an example of virtue.

That didn’t work with one woman called Mahidevran. She became very envious of me. When she came back from Manisa to live with us in the Old Palace things became very bad with her. It was before I got married. She came back with her son Mustafa who was the only one she had. She soon found out that I had several sons with Suleiman which was entirely unusual. It showed her that my relationship with him was special. It got very bad, now that we were living near each other. She began to hate me.

One day when we passed each other in the harem Mahidevran started to insult me. She yelled and screamed at me, her face flushed with anger. She called me ‘cheap meat’. She scratched my face, pulled out my hair and soiled my dress. I felt in a terrible state and hid in my room. Later that day Suleiman asked me to come and see him. I told him that I could not, because my face was scratched. He demanded I come. I told him what had happened and cried bitter tears. He was incensed and asked Mahidevran if it was true, and she replied it was and that I deserved no better. Suleiman was furious with her and told her to go and not come back. You can imagine that her anger towards me got worse. I began to rule the whole of the harem, and there was nothing she could do. I stayed there all my life, although I moved to our new palace called Topcapi.

This is the building where government affairs were conducted. My presence there as a woman was something that had never happened before. I enjoyed the respect of the people, and I enjoyed my husband’s love for me. You know we even wrote love letters to each other.

This is part of one of my letters:

My dearest sultan! As it has been one-and-a-half months since I last heard from you, Allah knows that I have been crying night and day waiting for you to come back home. While I was crying without knowing what to do, the one and only Allah allowed me to receive good news from you. Once I heard the news, Allah knows, I came to life once more since I had died while waiting for you.

He wrote to me under his pen name, Muhibbi:

“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 Istanbul, 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.’

‘They are both such beautiful poems!’ I exclaimed. ‘You are truly a wonderful woman, in spite of having abducted me.’ I joked. I felt we got on so well that I could make this little sharp remark. I learnt from her that she began what is known the era of ‘the reign of women’ in the Ottoman empire. She had influence on the affairs of the state and foreign affairs. She would listen to the discussions through a wire mesh window. She often accompanied Suleiman as his political advisor. When he was away on a campaign, I had to make all the political decisions. She told me.

‘Do you want to know what really brought us together?’ Hurrem asked me.

‘Yes, do tell me.’

‘It was poetry! He loved poetry, so did I. when he found out we began to read poetry to each other. That is how we fell in love with each other.’

By now the daylight was fading, the colours and scents in the garden were taking on magical hues and odours. Shadow and light played games with our fantasy. Food and drink were brought. We drank some wine that flowed warm down into my stomach.

‘I have to go quite soon, and I know you have to get back as well. But let me just tell you one or two other things I want you to know and take back with you to your world. It’s my involvement to better the life of ordinary people. I had a mosque built, two qur’anic schools called madrassas, a fountain, and a hospital for women near the slave market. I commissioned a bath house, called Hurrem sultan bathhouse and a public soup kitchen in Makkah. ‘

I noticed that Hurrem had not touched her wine, while my glass was already empty. She looked at me closely making a very sweet face, took my hand and said softly,

‘You are a very good listener, Eva. I have got to like you a lot and wish you all the very best for your future. Even it is not easy sometimes, think of me and survive like I did. You can see how strong and happy I am. Do have some more wine. It is one of our best. Enjoy it and sleep on it all. I must be off now.’

She got up, waved and was gone. I had another one or two glasses of wine, soaked in the atmosphere of her wonderful gardens before I went to my room.

While my thoughts meandered about these difficult issues to keep them from thoughts about my own life, I heard footsteps and a knock on my door. A Janissary opened the door and announced Roxelana who was there already and entered my room. I got up, pleased to be relieved from my ponderings and greeted her heartily. She begged me to come out into the garden with her and sit among the bird cages for a short while for a final chat.

‘I know you must get back home, and I will bring you personally back the same way we came. I owe it to you, as I was the one who abducted you.’

I must have looked surprised.

‘You think it cannot be done, but you’ll see. We will just have a very nice drink here first from my garden with its many fruits. Let’s sit here,’ she added pointing to a place with a bench and a small table surrounded by bird cages. She looked me in the eye and her look was warm and sad at the same time. She said let’s get up now. Fetch your things. You must put your own warm clothes on because it will get cold where we are going.

© Greta Sykes

Greta Sykes is a German/English poet, author and artist. She is a founder member of the London Voices Poetry group and its organiser. The group has brought out many anthologies which include her poems and artwork. They can be found in the London Poetry library. Their most recent volume, ‘Under Siege’, came out in 2022. Greta’s novels are ‘Under charred skies’, a family story during the Weimar Republic and ‘The defeat of Gilgamesh’ depicting Mesopotamia 5000 years ago. She is an Associate Researcher at UCL. Greta also works as an essayist. Her work can be found on academia.edu and on her website greta.sykes.com. Her next novel ‘Eve meets Dante’ is with the publishers.

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