A Glimpse Of Life In An Ottoman Sultan's Harem

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. 

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  • The Ottoman Empire Evolved Into A Seriously Male-Dominated Society

    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. 

  • Women Of The Harem Were Secluded And Hidden From The World
    Photo: Lieutenant James Rattray / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Women Of The Harem Were Secluded And Hidden From The World

    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 Harem Was Gorgeous
    Photo: Gustave Clarence Rodolphe Boulanger / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Harem Was Gorgeous

    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. 

  • Castrated Men Guarded The Harem's Entrances
    Photo: Francis Smith / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Castrated Men Guarded The Harem's Entrances

    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 fewer 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.  

  • A Sultanate Of Women Once Ruled
    Photo: Franz Hermann/Hans Gemminger/Valentin Mueller / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Sultanate Of Women Once Ruled

    Despite their limited status, women of the caliphate were not always left weak and vulnerable. Insomuch as men deemed acceptable, figures within the harem were able to exert considerable influence over the Ottoman Empire during the 16th and 17th centuries - a time known as the Sultanate of Women. Granted, many of the sultans of the time were minors who were adhering to their mothers' dominion, but this was an unusual development, especially given the slave-origins of many harem women.

    Despite the male concern for such practices, they were often off fighting (or planning their next strategic battle) and didn't keep a tight reign on the infrastructure of their political landscape. But when the struggle between two of the most powerful female regents - Kösem Sultan and Turhan Sultan - ended in 1687, so did this famous reign of women. After that, the sultans no longer campaigned for war but retired to the comforts of the harem where they could detach themselves from world affairs and spend their time in pampered reflection.

  • There Was A Whole Hierarchy Of Women Within The Harem
    Photo: Juan Giménez Martín / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    There Was A Whole Hierarchy Of Women Within The Harem

    The word odalisque - which was used to refer to many women in the harem - is originally from the Turkish odalık meaning "chambermaid" and only offers a glimpse of what women really did in the harem. Otherwise known as ikbals, these women were the sultan's mistresses, yet they were also more than just mere bed warmers. Odalisques were always attractive in some way and usually possessed a level of talent, whether it be in music, dancing, or singing. They had been officially approved by both the Valide Sultan (the mother of the sultan) and the first wife. In fact, any visiting male guest who received an odalisque as a gift of the sultan had surely been honored. 

    The women below the odalisque were called gedik and were noticed by the royal powers but were not bedded, unless of course the sultan decided to change that. But, mostly, these women seductively served him baklava in the evening. Below the gedik were basic servants who did the same thing but with much less cleavage. The majority of these lower-end women could technically be labeled concubines, as the word very loosely translates to "one-night-stand."  How much the sultan enjoyed the said stand determined the trajectory of her future.