No known portraits of her exist. This painting...

From slave to sultana, this name was worn by one of the most remarkable women in history.

Kara’s week continues with Roxelana as our Baby Name of the Day.

First things first: Roxelana had lots of names.  This wasn’t her birth name, nor was it a name that she would have used in official documents.  Roxelana translates to Russian or Ruthenian,  and refers to her country of birth – probably in modern day Ukraine.

She was born around the year 1500, and her birth name may have been Alexandra or Anastasia.  She was probably kidnapped during a raid by Crimean Tatars in the 1520s, and sold into slavery.

Her story becomes more certain at that point.  We know she joined the harem of Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  The harem system was complex, political, and woven into the fabric of the sultan’s household in a way that is difficult to explain.  Let’s say this: it’s likely that the overwhelming majority of female slaves in Suleiman’s household never attracted their master’s attention, and lived rather frustrating lives.  Roxelana’s rise, from slave to favorite, was quite extraordinary and involved some serious risk-taking on her part.

She didn’t stop there.  Sultans did not marry.  Their children by their concubines would become their legal heirs.  Roxelana had a son, an achievement that secured her status in the harem.  Normally this would be the beginning of the end – when her son reached a certain age, he’d be dispatched to an administrative posting far outside the capital, and Roxelana would only return to court if the son succeeded his father.

Roxelana broke all the rules.

Suleiman and Roxelana continued having children, and she never left his side.  Their firstborn son, Selim II, did inherit the throne – over at least one older half-brother.  Most shocking of all, the couple officially married.

In everyday life, she would have been called Haseki Hürrem Sultan.  Hurrem meant cheerful; Haseki was a title, meaning mother of a prince.

She advised her husband on matters of state and corresponded with world leaders on her own.  In poetry, he called her ” … my most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.”

Suleiman was taken by her, and their love story inspired others.  Paintings, an opera, a ballet, novels, and more followed.  Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 63 is often known as La Roxelane.

Was it a romance or a triumph of an ambitious, clever woman in impossible circumstances?  It’s hard to say, and maybe that’s why the name has been so rarely used.

In the US, she’s never been given to more than five children born in a single year.  But there have been a handful of women named Roxelana – I’ve found them in Ohio and Connecticut, California and Utah.  Spelling variants abound: Roxelina and Roxelane.

So what would it mean to use the name for a daughter in 2014?

On the one hand, she sounds right at home: Alexandra, Isabella, Roxelana.  But other Rox- names: Roxana, Roxane, Roxanne are out of favor in recent years.  Blame The Police’s chart-topping lament, or maybe Roxanne’s good run from the 1950s into the 1970s.

Overall, Roxelana makes a terribly daring name – the story is complicated.  And yet, she’s tempting to consider, an exotic and weight name that might still be wearable.

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About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. I’ve seen the name Roxelana before but I had just assumed it was an elaboration of Roxanne. I kind of like it!

  2. I love finding out about previously unknown historical figures, particularly one with such a interesting story and such an intriguing name!

  3. Thanks Abby for another great post! I’m a historian, and I love it when I find unusual names in the documents (though honestly you do end up with a lot of Johns and Marys most of the time). I came across Roxelana as a 19th century Shaker elderess living in Massachusetts and was absolutely enchanted by the name. Although it seemed more fitting for a Star Trek heroine than a 19th century Shaker! I didn’t know about Roxelana the Sultana until I was teaching World Civ this year and she is definitely an interesting historical figure.

    I definitely think Roxelana is daring, but wearable, for 2014. And I think the Roxy names are due for a comeback.

  4. Wow, that’s a lot of name. So pretty. I’d probably use Zel or Xelana as a nn, but I’d be more likely to use the name Rosalina instead.

  5. This is why I love this site. Every once in a while you completely surprise me with a name and/or a history that I have never heard of and it’s amazing. I’ve been a name nerd for years and it just delights me when I come across something new and fascinating.

    Roxelana sounds like a seriously cool lady with an amazing story.

  6. This is a new one on me, but what a fascinating story! Roxelana is intriguing – perhaps a little cumbersome, though I agree with the previous poster that it lends itself beautifully to Roxie and Lana, both of which are great nicknames.

  7. Roxelana is quite exotic, yet has the familiar -ana ending; it’s over the top, but has the same consonant/vowel pattern of more familiar names like Katarina, Penelope and Veronica.

    Roxie and Lana come to mind as nicknames. Rare as it is I do think it is completely wearable in 2014.