Roxelana’s Ring


by Elizabeth Zelvin


“Roxelana’s ring?” Professor Aydin said. “Provenance, Rachel, provenance! An historic artifact without it is worth nothing! Show me a mention in the Sultana’s own hand, and then we will talk.”

“Bring me back a golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides,” I muttered. “Conjure me a flying carpet.” Professor Aydin knew every scholar, archaeologist, and museum curator in Istanbul. I wanted him to invite me along on his next trip. Turkey was on the State Department’s  travel advisory list. I doubted “Not a tourist! Serious academic!” would give terrorists pause. But that would change. It had before.

Compared to the Professor’s bottomless well of knowledge, my dissertation was a mere splash in a plastic beach bucket: 1520 to 1566, the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. In particular, I was interested in the Sultan’s harem.

Cheesy movies notwithstanding, very little is known about harem women at that time, because nobody ever saw them. Everyone knows that many of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 ended up in the Ottoman Empire. Almost no one knows that Jewish women had any contact with Muslim women. But I knew—a doctoral candidate’s dream. My many times great-great-grandmother Rachel Mendoza, had a job in the Sultan’s harem. No, not that job. She was a purveyor of goods and services, a sort of personal shopper to the concubines. We had family documents that had been handed down. These ordinary things had aged into priceless historical data, primary source material, pure gold. And now I had found a ring that I was certain had belonged to Hürrem Sultan, known in Europe as Roxelana—the concubine Suleiman married, the love of his life.

The Mendoza papers did not  include a letter stating the ring had belonged to Hürrem and explaining how our family had acquired it. If it had, my career would have been made. It looked like an Empress’s ring. And it matched a family heirloom, a spectacular necklace that I knew had once belonged to Hürrem, who’d given it to the first Rachel Mendoza herself. But I couldn’t put that tale into my dissertation. My grandmother— darling Gran!—had bequeathed the necklace to me along with provenance that I could never use and some family secrets, that long-ago Rachel’s and her own. Gran picked the wrong man to marry in her youth and paid a heavy price for it. She thought I’d be savvy enough to make a better choice.

And the I met a man. possibly a very special one. Gran had raised me to detect the three S’s—selfishness, snobbishness, and self-satisfaction—and avoid any guy who showed the slightest sign of them. Jared passed every test. I met him at a venue that was almost too good to be true: the launch of an anthology of Me Too stories, at which his good looks and air of sincerity stood out as well as his gender in a mostly female crowd.

Over coffee afterward, he confessed that he’d known it might be a good place to meet a woman who could see beyond his pretty face. He was an acquisitions editor for an educational press based in Chicago. and traveled extensively both in the US and abroad. I thought the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs sounded glamorous. He thought my work was far more interesting than his and encouraged me to talk about it. He thought Jewish women had an exotic beauty. He thought Rachel was a lovely name. And when I told him that Sephardic women didn’t share the Ashkenazic stereotypes of anxiety disorders and guilt-tripping their loved ones, he broke into a knee-melting grin and said, “My cup runneth over.”

Jared listened raptly as I burbled on about the ring. He didn’t beg to see it. No, he said, “It sounds splendid—unique.” And, “You’ll knock the committee’s socks off.” And, “Will you let me take a look at the dissertation before some university press snaps it up?” Before long, I was begging him to let me show him the ring.

And the ring was gone, along with charming, plausible, perfidious Jared, by the time I woke up alone the next morning. I had been exactly the kind of fool that Gran had believed I couldn’t possibly be.

At least I hadn’t told him about the necklace. It could have been worse, but it wasn’t much comfort.. First, the futile search, on the slim chance the ring had slipped behind the bed. Then, the call to Jared’s cell phone. Out of service. A bad sign. The address on his business card did not exist. Nor did the publisher he’d named as his employer. He hadn’t faked his knowledge of London or Frankfurt. Two of his other favorite cities were Amsterdam and Antwerp. Weren’t they centers of the diamond trade? He was probably a professional jewel thief. No doubt he had boarded an international flight while I slept.

I couldn’t report the theft. I’d resign myself to a lackluster dissertation. I would never get the ring back. And I would never trust a man again. I’d never trust myself again.

I spent the morning in bed in fetal position. I don’t remember getting out the magnificent Mendoza necklace. I found myself at the window with the necklace in my hands, my thumbs caressing it. It was a marvel of cabochon rubies and sapphires and rose-cut diamonds in a setting of intricately worked gold filigree. A shaft of sunlight fell on it. The diamonds, the only faceted stones in that era, winked and sparkled. My hands tightened around the necklace. It felt warm, almost hot, and vibrated like a purring cat.

“Oh, Gran,” I whispered. “Grandmother Rachel, forgive me. I’d give anything to undo it.”

#

The light was laced with threads of ruby, sapphire, and diamond, too dazzling for the eye to comprehend. When my dizziness subsided, I found myself imprisoned in a web of questing hands and soft silken veils. Giggles and whispers and a tinkling of bangles teased my ears. My back was pressed against an extremely luxurious carpet that smelled of myrrh and cinnamon and jasmine and very faintly of camel.

Hatuns?” a female voice inquired. “Have you new pet? Does it eat peacocks? If so, the Kizlar Agha will not let you keep it.”

The wriggling mass crushing me dissolved into a pile of young women, dressed not unlike sorority sisters at a come-as-your-dream-self slumber party. They disentangled themselves, allowing me to breathe normally and sit up.

“It’s a girl, kira, but very strangely dressed. We do not know if she eats peacocks.”

The girls themselves, almost a dozen of them, were all quite lovely and extremely diverse, as we say nowadays: Asians, Africans, blondes, and brunettes in a variety of shades and body types. They all had glossy hair, perfect skin, and immaculately tweezed brows. They were speaking an archaic form of Turkish that I only understood because Professor Aydin had insisted I learn to converse with him in every language I needed for my doctoral research and a few I suspected he drilled me in simply to show off. Hatuns were “ladies.”

“Speak to her, kira.”

“No! Perhaps she is a djinn.”

“The kira is not afraid of djinni. They cannot harm her. She is a Jewess.”

“The Jews are kin to the djinni.”

“Nonsense! If they were, would Sultan Bayezid have welcomed them to Istanbul? You are just an ignorant horse-girl from the Caucasus!”

Istanbul! Could I really be in Istanbul? Suppose the necklace had somehow transported me to this—this—it was looking less like a sorority house by the minute and more like a very high-class harem. That was where. But when?

The older lady shooed the girls away.

“She needs air.” She held out her hand. “Let me help you up. Forgive the hatuns. They mean no harm, but they are like puppies who never get out.”

“Can you tell me where I am?”

I repeated my question in Hebrew. I had spent a year in Israel. My spoken archaic Turkish wasn’t so hot, but my Hebrew was okay.

“You are in the haremlik of the Lord of Lords, Suleiman of the Ottomans, Sultan of Sultans, Commander of the Faithful.”

I heard no subtext of You idiot, how can you not know? in her tone. I appreciated her tact.

Oh! The early sixteenth century, the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. Now it would be one helluva dissertation—if I ever made it home.

“Will you tell me your story?” she asked. “Have no fear. I am Jewish, but I assure you I am not a djinn.”

“Good,” I said in modern Hebrew. “I’m not a djinn either, and I’m Jewish too. My name is Rachel Miriam Mendoza Porter. I am a descendant of Rachel Mendoza of Seville, who left Spain in 1492 and settled in Istanbul. Her husband was Ümīt Gezgin, born a Taino. I was born in the year 1995 on the Christian calendar—5755 in the Jewish calendar.”

She responded in Ladino, the sixteenth-century Spanish dialect of Sephardic Jews.

“I am Rachel Mendoza Gezgin, born in Seville in 1480. I have had many surprises in my life, Rachel Miriam my many times great-granddaughter. I do not know how you come to be here—”

“Me neither,” I said. “It was completely unexpected.”

“But my heart tells me you are of my blood.”

“I know a lot of your story,” I said. “The family has letters, artifacts—treasures. You’d be amazed how much has survived.”

“I need no convincing, but I am eager to hear all you have to tell. For now, you must come home and keep Shabbat with us. We will surprise the family—my husband, my sons Moshe and Sammy, and my daughter Miriam.”

Miriam and I were sisters on sight. She said I could call her either Miriam or her Muslim name, Meryem.

“Miriam would have been Mimi at my camp,” I said.

“We might give a kid such a name!” Miriam’s twin brother, Moshe, exclaimed, meaning a baby goat.

“Mi-i-ih—mi-i-ih!” The littlest brother, Sammy, ran around the table bleating until his father caught him up and lowered him squirming into his seat.

All of them found the concept of a recreational camp for children hilarious. In the sixteenth century, daily life was a lot like camp, with no marshmallows and a lot of work. After a lively discussion on what to call me, the name Rachel being taken, the family settled on the Arabic version of my name, Rashil.

I shared a bed with Miriam that night.

“You might not have gotten out of the Palace alive,” she said, as we lay in the dark, “if Mama hadn’t a staunch ally in the Kizlar Agha, the Chief Eunuch of the harem. No one dares offend him, so she can do as she pleases, even march past the janissaries’ noses with a stranger who entered the harem without leave.”

“What if I hadn’t been with her?”

“They’d have thrown you in the Bosphorus in a sack,” she said. “Or perhaps added you to the Sultan’s collection.”

I hoped she was exaggerating. But it was a good thing that Rachel had taken me under her wing when I’d arrived so unexpectedly displaced in time.

“If you’d been a boy,” she added cheerfully, “they’d have gelded you. Or beheaded you, perhaps, if Mama could convince them you were important enough.”

For a boy caught in the harem, I suspected she told no more than the truth.

“I wouldn’t want to be a concubine.” Miriam yawned. “No daughter of Rachel Mendoza would accept such a life.”

“Or a great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter either. Let me tell you about something called a doctoral dissertation.”

But Miriam had fallen asleep and was snoring a lot more authentically than Jared had the night before.

I spent the next few days exploring sixteenth-century Istanbul with Miriam and Moshe. From Rachel, I learned details of our family’s history that had been lost in five hundred years as I helped her with the endless work involved in keeping a family clean and fed without twenty-first-century conveniences. I fell a little in love with Great-great-grandfather Ümīt, who was handsome and charismatic and good at everything from mathematics to throwing a javelin while riding a galloping horse. He had converted to Islam when his offer to convert to Judaism to please Rachel’s parents had been rejected by the community’s rabbis. His being Muslim gave the family access to the highest ranks of Ottoman society. In general, the multicultural family’s religion was rather elastic. I’d always been proud of being a Mendoza. Realizing what mavericks we’d been from the beginning made me prouder than ever. We had survivor skills.

Like a drumbeat running under all the fascinating sights and smells and sounds and tastes and endless conversations was a thought that never quit: But how will I get home? Sometimes, the chill breath of probability whispered: Will I ever make it home?

They were all kind, taking me into the family without reservation. But Rachel had keen eyes and exceptional empathy. Sometimes I caught her regarding me with compassion in the midst of the constant family hubbub, which included shouting, mock arguments, and food throwing—although the food was always caught and eaten.

We finally had a moment alone to talk.

“You are afraid you will be unable to return to your own time. Rashil. I understand. We have come to love you, and you will always be welcome, but for you, it is not home.”

Close to tears for the first time since my arrival, I said, “Do you feel that way about Istanbul?”

“No,” she said. “They took us in. But we lost our home, while yours awaits you. We will find a way to restore you to your time.”

“Since I don’t know how I got here,” I said, “I have no idea how to get back.”

“Tell me again what happened,” she said. “You were holding some kind of talisman?”

“A necklace. Not a talisman. It isn’t magic. We don’t have magic.”

“Yet here you are,” she said. “What kind of necklace?”

As I described it, she became more and more excited.

“This very necklace is in Istanbul! There cannot be two like it. It belongs to Hürrem Sultan. Would you mind taking her into your confidence? We must use it to get you home.”

Mind! Would I mind meeting Roxelana, the most legendary empress ever, about whom people were still arguing five centuries after her death whether she was a conniving schemer or the heroine of one of the greatest love stories in history?

“Would she be willing? And can she keep a secret?”

Rachel laughed heartily at that.

“The haremlik is the heart of a palace of secrets. I believe she tells the Sultan everything—she would be a fool not to —but she will consider this women’s business and tell him no more than need be.”

“I’ll try anything. But you have been wonderful to me, Rachel, all of you. Even if this is just a dream, I will never forget it.”

“Do you think it is a dream?”

Smiling, she took me in her embrace and kissed me on the cheek. I smelled her breath, redolent of rosemary, fennel, and garlic, for she had been cooking all morning. I hugged her so tightly I could feel her heart beating. Her cheek was warm when I laid mine against it. Her skin was unwrinkled, although she was in her forties, old for a woman of that time.

“No! You’re real—as real as bread.”

“My bread!” Rachel exclaimed, rushing to rescue four loaves in the nick of time.

Later, Rachel said, “Rashil, I have been thinking about your ring.”

“The ring is gone.”

“It is gone in your time,” Rachel said. “It is not gone here.”

What? Hürrem has my ring?”

“Even better.” Rachel grinned. “I have your ring. She gave it to me as a gift. That is, I have one ring, and Hürrem has the other. You see, there are two rings.”

“You’re kidding!” I said. “Two identical rings?”

“As like as two lentils,” Rachel said. “And I have a plan to get your ring back to you and make sure this bad Jared loses the ring he stole.”

“I can’t take your ring with me,” I objected. “It’s very valuable, and it was a present from the Empress. Besides, even if the necklace somehow transports me back, who knows if the ring would arrive with me. It might vanish into that blur of light I passed through on the way here.”

“My plan is nothing like that,” Rachel said. “My ring will remain here with me and come down through the family to you. But this is not the ring that your wicked Jared will steal. He will steal the other ring. but he will not profit by it.”

“I keep telling you that we don’t have magic,” I said. “Are you sure you don’t have magic? How can you affect what happens to Jared in my time?”

“There will always be things we do not understand,” Rachel said, “whether we call them magic or miracles from God. I do not try to explain them. But my plan is simply a matter of logic. First, you must tell me exactly how and where your ring was hidden.”

“It was in a wooden casket with a false bottom,” I said. “There were letters in the main compartment, but we missed the ring in the hidden compartment. The box wasn’t sixteenth century.”

“Wood would not last that long,” Rachel agreed. “Is there a sixteenth-century casket among the Mendoza family heirlooms?”

“Yes, some jewelry and documents are in a silver filigree casket about this big”—I showed her with my hands—“rectangular, with a semi-cylindrical top and geometric patterns on the surface. It’s Venetian. We’ve had it appraised.”

Rachel’s eyes shone with satisfaction.

“Wait here a minute.”

She hurried away, returning with the very casket I had described.

“That’s it!” My voice came out a squeak. “But it’s shinier. And it’s priceless, like the ring. I can’t take—”

“Hush. You’re taking nothing. We’ll simply put the ring in this casket. By the time you find it, I’ll be long gone. You say the guardians remove nothing and move nothing from one receptacle to another?”

“No, everything stays exactly as it’s bequeathed by the previous guardian, always a mother or grandmother. My grandmother Rachel left the charge to me. But what about the ring that Jared stole? How do we get it back? If I get back before he steals it, I won’t show it to him. I won’t even tell him about it!”

“We don’t know how to control the time that you return,” Rachel said. “One possibility is  that you never have two rings. There never is a ring in the wooden casket.”

“I’m afraid the ring will somehow find its way to Jared anyway,” I said. “As if it were destined to happen.”

“It can’t if the ring doesn’t exist,” Rachel said.

“How can it not exist?” I asked.

“If it’s been melted down,” she said.

“And what if he’s already stolen it?” I said. “If the then in which he steals it matches the now before we melt it down?”

I was afraid that Rachel wouldn’t get it, not having spent a lifetime reading time-anomaly science fiction. But she was with me instantly.

“In that case,” she said, “I’m hoping that when we destroy the ring, it will melt away in your time.”

“Preferably,” I said with relish, “while he’s admiring it and gloating about how he put one over on me.”

The second ring was Hürrem’s ring, and Rachel said we had to ask her permission. Both rings were a gift from the Venetian Ambassador. His hopeless crush on the Sultana was well documented.

“Poor silly man,” Rachel said. “I would feel sorry for him if I weren’t convinced he enjoys it. Suleiman had the necklace commissioned as a gift for Hürrem, and the Ambassador, who patronizes the same master jeweler, had the matching rings made for her as a compliment. You’d think a lifelong diplomat would know better. The Sultan called it impudence. But since he couldn’t have a foreign plenipotentiary strangled with a silken bowstring like one of his own subjects, he chose to laugh it off. Hürrem wisely disposed of one ring by bestowing it on a nobody—me—and the other sits in a box in the harem treasury with other disregarded baubles. She’ll be relieved to have it gone for good.”

So I met the incomparable Hürrem Sultan. And I thought I knew what charisma was. Standing a respectful two feet from her with head bowed was like feeling the crackle of a live electric current and trying to keep it from leaping the gap by will power alone. When she reached out and raised my chin, I felt the shock. I no longer thought the Venetian Ambassador’s crush quite such a joke.

“Pretty,” she said. “One can see that you are kin to my Kira Rachel. Would you like to stay with us, child? Life here would be easy, and we would be kind.” She released my chin and stroked my hair. “No, you have intelligent eyes. I suspect you harbor ambition. You must seek another path. Now, dear Kira Rachel, tell me your errand.”

Rachel gave a graceful explanation that did not include my coming from the twenty-first century, and we wrenched ourselves away from the Sultana’s entrancing presence.

“I see she has won your heart,” Rachel said, grinning, as we marched with our escort of eunuchs—another kind of personage we didn’t see much of at home—to pay our respects to Rachel’s friend the Kizlar Agha before proceeding to the treasury to collect the Sultana’s ring. The Chief Eunuch was an imposing African giant swathed in silk, draped with jewels, and topped with a towering feathered turban. He and Rachel were very much at ease together, joking and exchanging one-liners in several languages. I managed to surprise him by capping a quotation from the Persian poet Rumi. I am a scholar.

Who did you say she is?” the Kizlar Agha asked.

“Rachel Miriam Mendoza,” Rachel said, “my goddaughter and cousin.”

I teared up. If this necklace thing worked, I would miss her. If it didn’t, maybe I could get used to living in medieval-to-early-modern Istanbul.

We took the ring to a family of swordmakers, old and trusted friends of Rachel’s, in the Bedestan, Istanbul’s vast covered market, to be melted. They would sell the gold for a small commission and set the gems into silver earrings for her and the handle of a dagger for Ümīt.

“Depending on how time runs between now and then,” she said, “either this ring will never have existed at all in your time, or that wicked man will get nothing in the end.”

“Now that’s taken care of, what about me?” I asked. “You didn’t say anything to Hürrem about the necklace.”

“In her eyes,” Rachel said, “I have done her a favor by getting rid of those embarrassing rings. So if I ask to borrow the necklace for a night, she will not ask why. We will make the attempt tomorrow night in the Kizlar Agha’s private apartments. It will be perfectly safe.”

All right for her to say. She wasn’t trying to get beamed up for the second time without knowing what the hell she was doing. But I had to get home. I had parents. Nieces and nephews I adored. Friends. An apartment with a freezer that made ice. A convection oven and a microwave. A hot shower. And a dissertation waiting for me. That reminded me—

“Rachel,” I said, “I never told you I had one big problem about using the ring in the scholarly text I am preparing for my university. I have no evidence that the ring ever belonged to Hürrem Sultan.”

“What kind of evidence is usual?” Rachel asked.

“What we call provenance,” I said. “Documents mentioning the ring and its transfer from one owner to another. We have such letters about other artifacts, including one that makes it clear that the necklace passed from Hürrem to you, but—”

“What!”

Heat flushed my cheeks. I must have turned brick red. I clapped my hands over my mouth. Rachel took me by the wrists and removed them gently but quite firmly. She held my hands.

“What is this, Rashil? Are you telling me that I will not return the necklace once you are gone?”

“No, no,” I said. “Rachel, I am so sorry I mentioned it. I didn’t mean to. But I can’t tell you. I can’t. Listen, in my time there are storytellers who write stories, like the Thousand and One Nights, that are not true but are meant to entertain. There are many stories about time travel.”

“Time travel is known, then?”

No. It is believed to be impossible, like flying carpets. But everybody knows about it. And one principle of time travel is that if you change certain things in the past, you change the future. And it is always for the worse. So I must not tell you what will happen later in your life. It has nothing to do with my visit here. Will you accept that and not ask? Please!

I started sobbing. In no time, I was bawling on Rachel’s shoulder, and she let me blow my nose on her apron like a big baby.

“I’m sorry!” I wailed. “You’ve been so kind to me, and now I’ve gone and worried you,   and I’m going to leave you wondering about this. If it was me, it would drive me crazy.”

“Hush, child,” she said. “If I let things drive me crazy, I’d have been chained in a shed wearing rags and eating slops from a bowl long since.”

Nice clean psychiatric hospitals, I thought. Twenty-first century medications. My own time wasn’t so bad.

“Now,” Rachel said, “about provenance for the ring. Do you want a letter in Hürrem’s hand thanking the Venetian Ambassador for the ring with a full description?”

“That would be perfect!” I said. “Does such a letter exist?”

“It can,” she said.

“What! You’d forge the Sultana’s handwriting? Forget it. I won’t let you risk execution over my stupid dissertation!”

“I won’t have to forge it,” Rachel said. “I am her scribe. She writes her letters to the Sultan herself—after all, they are love letters—but I write all her letters to the Venetian Ambassador and other diplomats with whom she corresponds.”

And sure enough, the letter she put into the silver casket along with the ring, to which she promised to add other authentic Mendoza papers as the years passed, was written in the same hand as letters I had pored over in the course of examining every scrap of  Roxelana’s non-marital correspondence that a twenty-first-century American doctoral student could get her hands on.

And then it was time to leave. All the Mendozas hugged me, cried, and tried to feed me, as if I’d be traveling in a caravan through the desert for weeks. But I ate nothing. This unknown journey might last a second or an eternity, leave me dizzy or seasick or dead. Or home.

Rachel swore she had told the Kizlar Agha nothing, but he bowed, the tallest feather on his turban sweeping the floor, before departing for the evening.

“Farewell, daughter of Mendoza and fellow lover of Rumi.”

Candles flickered in pierced lanterns. We were alone, though mute eunuchs stood guard outside the door. Rachel unwrapped the necklace from a length of rich crimson velvet and held it out to me.

“What do I do?” I asked.

“I do not know,” Rachel said. “But somehow you got here, so we must believe that you can return. Let your heart guide you. Think of those you love and those who inspire you.”

For a minute, I could think only of Rachel, my great-great-grandmother, progenitor, and friend. I loved her more than any boyfriend. She inspired me more than any teacher. Why risk some kind of magic that might not even work? I could stay. Couldn’t I? But then I thought of my family and old Professor Aydin. A stern voice I recognized as mine said, And what about your work? Rachel had fought her battles. Mine were ahead of me.

I looked into the heart of the jewels, the sheen of the rubies and sapphires, the winking diamonds, the delicate gold wires curling around them.

“What do I say?”

“Summon up the image of your place of greatest comfort, and say what is in your heart to say.”

In my mind, I flicked past images of my apartment, my carrel at the university library, then paused in the sunny, high-ceiling parlor in Gran’s brownstone apartment, where she had loved to sit and read. It was where I had read her letter telling me of the Mendoza heritage and first seen the necklace I held in my hands, five hundred years from now. She had left the place to me, but I had never lived there. When I got back, I would move in.

Feeling only a little foolish, I said, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”