Rarely have women in history played a more deliciously mysterious role than that of the 600 years of the Ottoman Empire, when what is modern-day Turkey and lands from the Balkans to Syria sat at the center of a great Empire. These were the days of the harem, when women - and girls as young as seven years old - were held in a secret world where they could be governed, educated, and primarily enjoyed by the sultan and his court.
But as slaves or subjects? Given as gifts or claimed as spoils of war, these women represented the caliphate's power, wealth, and sexual prowess. Just like a scene from Arabian Nights, daily life in an Ottoman harem was a life suspended in a secret paradise full of sensual delights - as well as endless rules, expectations, and boundaries. Derived from the Arabic word haram meaning sacred or forbidden, the harem was part of a legendary patriarchy that tried to bottle the essence of woman, capture it in all its glory, and use it solely for its own felicity.
During the 8th and 9th centuries, Turkish nomads were pushed from their homes, eventually converting to Islam when the Mongols arrived on the scene. By 1299 CE, the Ottoman Empire was established, bringing a lot of changes to the region, including taxation, social shifts, and a great deal of religious indoctrination. Between 1299 and 1923 CE, it also brought about a cultural phenomenon known as "The Imperial Harem," which held all the wives, servants, female relatives, and sultans' concubines in the court. As the Empire expanded its territory, sultans came and went; economic and social institutions evolved from the Byzantine Empire; and Islam became the pervasive law of the land.
The entrance to a harem was hidden away in the center of an elaborate court. The women who occupied these immaculate spaces rarely left the confines of the court - but at least their surroundings were drop dead gorgeous. Placed in an ethereal world of green and blue tiled rooms, outlined in gold and lined with plush furniture, the outside world became a distant notion, only glimpsed through the occasional view of the Sea of Marmara.
Eunuchs, some of whom could become quite powerful within the court, monitored the women of the harem. No one was allowed to see them unless first carefully inspected by senior officials who ensured there was no funny business on either end. It was also forbidden for men to look upon another man's harem. But it was just not the eunuch who could weasel his way into positions of power. Women who lived in the harem, if they were smart and lucky enough, could also achieve great authority, respect, and wealth within the imperial court.
The surroundings of the harem were beyond gorgeous. The center of the harem dwellers' realm was a great pavilion with a giant courtyard where the women could bathe in a pool or gaze upon a garden. It was blissfully peaceful and quiet, a place where contemplation and rest were commonplace. The courtyard was a gathering space for the women to read together, pray, or just share stories, and it offered a much-needed escape from the interiors of their confinement. Within their gilded cage were private apartments for the sultan and more than 400 rooms for sleeping, entertaining, and living.
The Imperial Harem typically housed scores of women, including the sultan's official wives, mother, daughters, female relatives, and servant girls. And of course, the eunuchs were always watching in the wings for any impropriety. The sons of the sultan also lived in the harem until they were about 12 years old, at which point they were considered men and allowed to appear as palace courtesans.
The harem was considered a profoundly intimate and private place where no man outside the sultan's inner circle could lay his eyes. As a result, the harem had to be guarded by those who were domineering yet somehow not sexualized as male. This was perfectly achieved through eunuchs, castrated men tasked with guarding and protecting the women. They served as the medium - physically and symbolically - between the male and female worlds and were considered the hybrid gender fit to fully partake in both realms. Convenient, right?
Eunuchs were typically slaves who had been captured in war or purchased on some far-flung platform in Ethiopia or Sudan. There were two kinds of men in this role - black and white - and their appearance and general roles were considerably different. The black eunuchs, or Sandali, had their genitals completely removed during the process and were the most preferred for harem service as a result. The white eunuchs were allowed to keep at least some of their penis or testicles and were thus awarded less harem duties, as there was always a risk they might use what little they had left. Whereas white Eunuchs were from the Balkans and were predominantly Christian (with "white" skin), black eunuchs were from the African continent.
All serving under one chief harem eunuch known as the Master of the Girls, or Kızlar Ağası, the black eunuchs were charged with guarding the women and often rose in rank, occupying many positions in the palace like vizier, confidante, or even a general in the army. Meanwhile, the white eunuchs served under the Kapı Ağası and had the privilege of handling state matters and other issues of "inner service" to the sultan.