World History A Glimpse Of Life In An Ottoman Sultan's Harem  

Jen Jeffers
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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 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. 

The Ottoman Empire Evolved Into A Seriously Male-Dominated Society

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Photo: Fausto Zonaro/Wikipedia/Public Domain

During the 8th and 9th centuries, Turkish nomads were pushed from their homes, eventually converting to Islam when the Mongols arrived on the scene. As the new Ottoman Empire grew, it brought about a lot of changes for 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; and Islam became the pervasive law of the land. But one thing that did not change was the need for women and the deep-seated desire to dominate them. 

Women Of The Harem Were Secluded And Hidden From The World

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Photo: Lieutenant James Rattray/Wikipedia/Public Domain

Like a secret womb, tucked away from the prying eyes of an unstable world, the entrance to a harem was hidden away in the center of an elaborate court. Inside, women were enclosed in a gilded cage of luxury, protected yet completely divested of freedom. 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. 

Although its trappings were luxurious, replete with stained glass and looming arches, the imperial harem's rooms took on an air of the perverse when viewed for the prison it was. Although it's worth noting that both early Christian and Jewish women were also confined to private realms where they were expected to perform female duties, it was never done on such a formal scale until the caliphate of the Ottomans deemed it acceptable. The women of the harem were kept in seclusion and guarded by eunuchs who prevented them from doing basically anything. No one was allowed to see them unless first carefully inspected by senior officials who ensured there was no funny business on either end. And when the sultan traveled, his court and his entire harem were expected to pick up and follow him in accordance with very strict traditions and guidelines. 

The Harem Was Built To Serve The Sultan

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Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain

To understand the role of the harem in the sultan's court, it's key to visualize the mind-blowing excess of basically everything around the ruler. Not only did he have a whole court filled with admirers, but the majority of those people were also expected to serve him in a very specific way - the harem included. There was a branch of servants who traveled with him, pages who served him, men who carried his weapons, a guy to help him mount his horse, a special designer for his turban, a dude to give him a perfect shave everyday (which probably pleased the harem ladies a lot), a steward who tasted and carried his food, water, and wood throughout the palace and lit all the fires in the evening, and several hundred people responsible for opening all the doors of the palace in the event that he might want to pass through.

And the harem? They were responsible for providing the very framework of female influence in his life, whether it be socially, emotionally, anesthetically, logistically, or sexually. The women of the harem were many things - mother, daughter, sister, friend, wife, mistress, one-night stand - and they provided him with whatever he needed as it pertained to the female form and function. The difference with the harem versus his other courtesans is that they did not offer him a certain product - they were the product. And their service was their very lives. 

The Harem Truly Was A Gilded Cage For Its Inhabitants

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Photo: Gustave Clarence Rodolphe Boulanger/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Although it could easily be likened to a prison, the actual 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 quite, 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. There was a view of the city, which likely offered them a sense of inclusion in the outside world, although they would rarely see that bustling area in person, if ever. 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.