10 Fascinating Facts about the Ottoman Harem
Whenever we hear the word harem, we tend to imagine a place full of scantily clad women whose only role is to be the sexual plaything of an Ottoman Sultan in his own personal in-house brothel.
This myth lived on in people’s imagination during the 18th and 19th century as well as in many films and books. However, what went on in an Ottoman Harem was more than just sex, it was a complex place where strict a hierarchy was adhered to and where plotting for power and influence was sometimes necessary to survive.
1. Residents of the Harem
All Ottoman palaces had a harem and Topkapi Palace in Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, was the main residence of Ottoman Sultans from 1465 to 1856. The Sultan’s Imperial Harem occupied one of the sections of his private apartment and traditionally, apart from the eunuchs, men who did not belong to the family were strictly forbidden from entering the harem.
This institution constituted the private and prohibited space of the Ottoman dynasty and played an important social function within the Ottoman court and demonstrated considerable political authority in Ottoman affairs. It was home to the Sultan’s mother (Valide Sultan), the concubines and wives of the Sultan, the rest of his family including sisters, brothers, children, their servants as well as the Black Eunuchs who were the protectors of the harem. The size of Topkapi Harem is a testament to the fact that they required a large number of women attendants to serve the residents and a corps of eunuchs to oversee it.
2. The Sultan
The harem is very symbolic of an Ottoman Sultan and the number of concubines he kept in his harem was a sign of his wealth, power and also his sexual appetite. The sultan was also the only person who could freely enter and leave the harem. The introduction of the harem into Ottoman culture began with the adoption of Islam, thus bringing an Arabic tradition together with a religion. This tradition of a sultan’s harem continued until 1923 when the Republic of Turkey was established.
Although the occupants of the harem were predominately slaves, those women who were taken as wives were free women. In addition, each sultan was able to acquire concubines according to his personal taste and preference; Sultan Ibrahim I, who died in 1648, had a passion for women with a full figure and introduced mostly obese women to Harem. He was also known as the “Crazy One” as he once had his entire harem of 280 women thrown into the Bosphorus in weighted sacks. Also, the highest honor that a Sultan could show a guest was to present them an odalisque (lowly harem maid) that he had not slept with.
3. Women’s hierarchy in the Harem
Within an Ottoman Harem, it was a highly structured society with leadership and subordinate roles for its occupants. The highest position was taken up by Valide Sultan (Sultan’s mother), then came Kadin Efendi (first wife), of which under Islam a man could have a maximum of 4 wives, followed by Kadins (wife of the Sultan). Usually, the position of Kadin Efendi was acquired as a result of being the first woman to bestow on the Sultan a son. The position of the other Kadins usually depended on the order in which they bore the sultan sons.
Due to the patriarchal nature of Ottoman Society women that gave birth to girls were the lowest in the ranking of Kadins, even though they still held a relatively high position in the harem. After the Kadins came the Ikbals, (favorite) who were women the sultan liked for other reasons apart from sex; together they would discuss art, music or politics or possibly the sultan adored her singing talent.
Next in the hierarchy came the Gediks (maids in waiting), who were girls the sultan took a fancy to but did not sleep with and usually became personal servants to the sultan. At the bottom of rung were slave girls, called Odalisques (virgins) who were there to carry out the more menial tasks required in the daily running of the harem.
If you ever thought being a guard in a harem would have been a good job, think again! The most important prerequisite to being an Ottoman harem guard was castration, which was deemed necessary in order to ensure that the Sultan’s wives and concubines were not tampered with sexually by anybody else but them, thereby guaranteeing the lineage of the Sultan.
During Ottoman times there were anywhere between 300 and 900 eunuchs at any one time who were controlled by the Chief White Eunuch. These eunuchs were used to manage the sultan’s inner service involving the bureaucracy of the palace. However, the job of guarding the harem came down to the black eunuchs, some of whom were able to attain relatively high standing in the hierarchy of the state and with it considerable power; the Chief Black Eunuch, generally being considered the 3rd most powerful person, only overshadowed by the Grand Vizier and the Sultan.
These slaves were either captured during a war or were purchased from outside of the empire, usually from the Balkans, Ethiopia, and Sudan. In general, black eunuchs were called Sandali, meaning, clean-shaven, whereby their genitalia was removed completely so they were preferred for working in the harem in close proximity to the concubines. The white eunuchs, however, usually kept part of their penis or testicles and were involved more with secretarial jobs within the harem and palace.
5. Valide Sultan (Sultan’s mother)
Just as the Sultan ruled the empire, Valide Sultan ruled over her domain in the harem. The imperial harem contained thousands of individuals and for a Valide Sultan, who herself used to be a wife or concubine of the Sultan’s father it was like her own mini empire. Like the Sultan she needed assistants while governing, she had ministers, all of whom were female, that formed her cabinet; a chief minister, chief treasurer, secretary of state as well as an enormous staff of overseers and managers to help her to maintain order and to keep the harem running smoothly.
Amongst her other duties, she was also responsible for selecting wives and sexual partners for her son and also training them in how to serve the sultan to the best of their abilities. As the most senior woman she controlled all the concubines in the harem and non-could leave the confines without her explicit permission. Her powers even extended to matters of life and death over the concubines under her control with eunuchs reporting directly to her. Sometimes her power and influence extended beyond the harem as often the Sultans came to the throne at such a young age that their mothers had to run the empire with them.
6. Concubines’ countries of origin
As slavery is forbidden in Islam a Sultan could not take a Turk or an Arab Muslim woman as a concubine. For this reason, many harem women were Caucasians, Georgians, and Abkhazians. They were usually bought from slave markets after being kidnapped or else sold by impoverished parents. Many Georgian and Caucasian families encouraged their daughters to become concubines through slavery as the life of these female servants in the harem was deemed far better than living an impoverished life elsewhere in the empire working in the fields.
These beautiful and intelligent girls were captured, bought or recruited in order to perpetuate the Ottoman Dynasty. All slaves that entered the harem were termed odalisques or " women of the court" - general servants in the harem. The girls came to the harem at a tender age and were brought up in the discipline of the court where they could rise depending on their abilities.
7. Role of the Concubine
Traditionally, the main purpose of a sultan’s wives and concubines was to produce a son in order to carry on his lineage. The emphasis was on the patriarchal nature of power that was hereditary only through sons. For this reason, every female slave entering the palace dreamt of being noticed by the Sultan, as the Sultan was the main authority and the deciding factor in the fate of the women in the Harem. Most of the concubines were slaves of Christian origin and were brought up according to the discipline of the palace and were promoted according to their capabilities.
Wives, unlike concubines, had deep-rooted interests in family affairs. This was often perceived as an opportunity for them to be disloyal to their husband. Consequently, concubines were often preferred over them in regards to having children.
From today's perspective, it is hard to imagine but a lot of women wanted to be in the harem because it meant economic safety and security. Even though most concubines within harems had no significant authority or power, the ones that did a good job of pleasing their Sultan advanced through the ranks to make the best possible lives for themselves, considering the circumstances.
8. Sections within the Harem
Although harems are considered a sultan’s in-house brothel in the minds of westerners it was, in fact, an area of the household designated for Muslim women where they can relax in privacy, without being seen by outsiders. Harem stems from the Arabic word meaning “the place of the women”.
The Harem in Topkapi Palace had over 300 rooms, 9 baths, 2 mosques, 1 hospital and 1 laundry. Because the women in the harem came from many different areas of the Ottoman Empire with differing cultures, the apartments of the harem were designed and furnished to help them feel comfortable and satisfied with their position in life. If the women were happy and contented then they would be better prepared and ready should the Sultan take a liking to them.
The Harem consisted of a series of buildings connected via hallways and courtyards. Depending on where the individual was within the hierarchy of the Harem, every concubine, wife, servant or Black Eunuch had their own designated living space clustered around a courtyard. The Sultan’s concubines mainly lived in halls beneath the apartments of the sultan’s wives (Kadins) and the sultan’s mother (Valide Sultan) or in separate chambers within the harem complex.
Topkapi Palace - Istanbul
9. Education and training for Concubines
Beautiful and talented female slaves that entered the harem were given an education and training, which would help them in their role as a concubine and possible wife of the sultan. They were tutored in reciting poetry and dancing, taught how to sing and play musical instruments as well educated in the finer points of the art of erotica.
Only the most beautiful, intelligent and gifted girls were considered suitable for the sultan. Many women living in the harem never even got to see him as their life revolved around daily chores as one of the many maids in the harem.
On the whole, women entering a harem were provided with an education roughly on par with that provided to members of the Ottoman political elite, with whom they would be married off to once they had completed their education. Consequently, only a small fraction of the women in the harem actually engaged in a sexual relationship with the sultan.
10. Murder and intrigue
The Ottoman Harem was not just based around sex and luxury but was in fact a power center of the Ottoman Empire. As with all places surrounded by such power, it was a snake pit where intrigue, poisoning, strangling and all manner of dirty tricks were part of life within those walls.
Personal aspirations sparked conspiracies, gossip and murder within the Harem and many of these women, in order to rise up in the hierarchy would also conspire with the princesses who were married mostly to the grand vizier or other high government officials. Those men knew better than to go against their wives' wishes, understanding all too well how dangerous and possibly deadly harem gossip could be. They would even go as far as to bribe servants or eunuchs to murder their rival or their children.