The word “harem” refers to the designated female section of a home in Middle Eastern countries, particularly in royal and upper-class families. The purpose of these domestic spaces of a home was for the protection of all females and pre-pubescent boys in a family, to ensure their modesty and privacy. Wives, concubines, female relatives, and female slaves were consigned to this part of the household depending on the extent of wealth, tradition, religion and customs of the country. A harem was a privileged area for the husband, forbidden to all other men with the exception of eunuchs.

The seclusion of women was considered a sign of wealth and a man’s prerogative – he could afford to provide his wife or wives a comfortable private life and he could keep his women concealed from the eyes of other men. The institution of the harem was spread throughout the ancient Near East, and although the origins are unclear, history records harems existing in the Assyrian royal house in the 25th century B.C.

Members of an Arabian Harem in late 19th Century

The Ottoman Turks adopted the concept of harem from the Arab Caliphates, an Islamic state ruled by a person considered a successor to the Prophet Mohammed who died in 632 CE. The practice of isolating wives and concubines was well established amongst the upper classes of Iraq, the Byzantine Empire, Ancient Greece and Persia for thousands of years before the advent of Islam. “The fourth major caliphate, the Ottoman Caliphate, was established by Selim I after their conquest of Mamluk Egypt in 1517. The conquest gave the Ottomans control over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, previously controlled by the Mamluks. Mamluk is an Arabic designation for slaves. The term is most commonly used to refer to Muslim slave soldiers and Muslim rulers of slave origin. The Ottomans gradually came to be viewed as the de facto leaders and representatives of the Muslim world” (“Caliphate,” Wikipedia).

The founder of the Ottoman Caliphate was Osman I whose sultanate lasted from 1299 to 1922. History records only two wives for Osman, but his successors Orhan had four wives and two consorts. Over the ensuing 600 years of Ottoman rule, there have been 36 dynastic sultans, the most famous of whom were Mehmed II, Conqueror of Constantinople 1451 – 1481, and Suleiman I, the Magnificent, who ruled from 1520 to 1566. The concept of the harem grew with the power of the sultan. His ownership of women, both free women and slaves, was a sign of wealth, power, and sexual prowess.

The Imperial Harem of Topkapi Palace was composed of free women (daughters of powerful men), female slaves trained as consorts, domestic workers such as maids (laundresses, seamstresses, musicians, etc.), and young children born to the women who shared the bed of the sultan. The harem was governed by eunuchs, men who were castrated to inhibit their sexual drive and therefore, safe males to be in the presence of the sultan’s women. Interestingly, Islam prohibits castration, so most of the eunuchs were slaves of African or European origin. The Ottoman court harem—within the Topkapı Palace (1465–1853) and later the Dolmabahçe Palace (1853–1909) in Istanbul—was under the administration of the eunuchs. There were two categories: Black Eunuchs and White Eunuchs. Black Eunuchs were African slaves who served the concubines and officials in the harem together with chamber maidens of low rank. The White Eunuchs were Europeans from the Balkans or the Caucasus, either purchased in the slave markets or were boys taken from Christian families in the Balkans who were unable to pay the non-Muslim tax.

European “White Eunuchs” from the Balkans had their testicles removed; these were sought by the hundreds as palace bureaucrats in Istanbul. African “Black Eunuchs” from Egypt or Ethiopia typically had their entire genitalia cut off, and had the more powerful position of serving the royal persons. (They had usurped that role in the late 16th century from the formerly preeminent white eunuchs.)

Girls taken into the palace would first be trained in palace customs and would receive lessons in such essential subjects as religion, Qur’an reading, calligraphy, sewing, and embroidery in addition to reading and writing. They were also trained in palace etiquette and various other subjects such as literature and music, designed to enable them to converse on numerous difficult topics. Those with special talent would be taught to play musical instruments such as the oud or the kanun, or receive lessons in dance, speech, and manners. After reaching puberty, some would be groomed to be concubines or royal concubines, chosen for the sultan and trained under the supervision of the chamberlain or supervisory concubine. All of the concubines received a salary in accordance with their position. The quotidian expenses of keeping concubines were very high. Their clothing was paid for directly out of the treasury, and in addition, they were occasionally given gifts for various reasons. The number of concubines in the Harem changed constantly. There were 456 concubines in the Harem in the reign of Sultan Mahmud I (r.1730-1754); 688 in that of Sultan Abdülmecid (r.1839-1861); and 809 in the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz (r.1861-1876).

The Imperial Harem of Topkapi Palace was called the “seraglio” in the West and acquired the reputation of an exotic place of beautiful women especially groomed for the sultan’s pleasure. Such a fanciful interpretation of the harem omitted ugly facts: 1) many female slaves were as young as ten; 2) many were kidnapped from their families during military conquests or sold by their families; 3) many were killed when the sultan became tired of them i.e., Ibrahim the Mad reputedly threw 280 concubines in the Bosphorus; 4) rivalries among the favorite wives and/or concubines led to injury or death; 5) male offspring of concubines became rivals for power and fought each other; 5) the practice of fratricide began in 1362 with Murat I when he killed his brothers to ensure the safety of his throne, i.e, Mehmed III had nineteen brothers and half-brothers murdered to secure his throne ; 6) when Ahmed I stopped this practice, male heirs to the throne were locked in the Kafes, “The Golden Cage,” a room secluded from the harem and from which they could not escape. This isolation had deleterious effects on mental stability so that by the time a son was to inherit the throne, he was often considered “mad.” 7) female children were married at young ages to older patrons of the court or foreign dignitaries 8) women of the harem were under the authority of the Valide Sultan who chose the companions for the sultan, thus determining their status in the harem.

Part of the Harem in Topkapi Palace                      Courtyard

During the 16th and 17th century, a period of 150 years called the Transformation Age or the Sultanate of Women, the Valide Sultans (Sultan’s mother) and Haseki Sultans (Sultan’s wives) effectively controlled the empire. Foreign ambassadors recounted success if they dealt directly with the Sultanas rather than the Grand Viziers. Beginning with Hurrem, wife of Suleiman I, women gained power and effected policies that determined succession to the throne and the courtiers who would wield influence. Maintaining power was accomplished by building beautiful mosques, funding public fountains and charities, arranging elaborate public ceremonies, and supporting the Janissaries. Following is a list of the powerful Sultanas of the period 1533 – 1683:
Hurrem, wife of Suleiman I, mother of Selim II and Mihramah
Mihramah, daughter of Suleiman I, wife of Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha
Nurbanu, wife of Selim II, mother of Murad III
Safiye, wife of Murad III, mother of Mehmed III
Handan, wife of Mehmed III, mother of Ahmed I
Halime, wife of Mehmed III, mother of Mustafa I
Kosem, wife of Ahmed I, mother of Murad IV and Ibrahim
Turhan Hatice, wife of Ibrahim, mother of Mehmed IV

The Old Palace, Eski Saray  (top image)    Topkapi Palace

Hurrem Sultana was responsible for moving the Sultan’s harem from the Old Palace, Eski Saray, to the Topkapi Palace in 1533 or 1534.

Hurrem Sultan 1525

Kosem Sultan 1590

Turhan Sultan 1673

The kafes at Topkapi Palace was the called The Golden Cage where heirs to the Sultanate were detained until their fathers or brothers died and they were eligible for succession. The isolation made a severe impact on the mental and emotional health of the youth.

Left: Portrait of Emetullah Rabia Gülnuş Sultan, Valide Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, 1695-1715. She was the last imperial concubine to be legally married to an Ottoman Sultan. Thereafter, wives of the Sultans were daughters of powerful caliphs of the Empire.

Right: Neslisah Osmanoglu, last princess of the Ottoman dynasty, granddaughter of Mehmed VI, died in 2012.

Ottoman sultans ruled Turkey for over 600 years. After World War I, a period of chaos within Turkey ended when a popular, charismatic general named Mustafa Kemal took control. Kemal was convinced that Turkey needed to become a modern nation. He believed that if the Turkish people continued to follow their traditions, they would again be attacked by another western power. The popular Kemal often travelled the countryside to encourage the people “Let science and new ideas come in freely,” he often said. “If you don’t, they will devour you.” Greece attacked Turkey in 1921 and 1922, but Kemal led the Turks to victory. By the mid-1920s, the Turkish leader began a modernization program in Turkey, and thereafter, given the name Ataturk, “Father of the Turks,” he brought about the end of the Turkish harem.

Mehmed VI, the last Sultan        Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic of Turkey  


Written by: Susan Watson



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