There are many gaps in history and many well-preserved and unrevealed secrets. There are also many opposing theories. Everyone knows what a harem is, but the misconception of what it really was is astounding, mostly because what happened in the harems, stayed in the harems and generation after generation grew up with a romanticized idea of a fairy world inhabited by one man and many gorgeous women.
“Hush-hush!” That is the word that comes to mind when opening the doors of the golden cages where emperors kept their women as a symbol of power, for pleasure and for reproduction to secure an heir.
Harems are associated with the Ottoman Empire, but the truth is that the world heard about them quite late. The exact time of the first harem of the sultan is still a mystery. However, there is data that harems used to exist in Ancient Egypt, Asyria, Persia and China long before that – around 6th century BC. What happened behind the walls of these establishments has been obliterated by time and was well hidden.
The sultan could marry four women of local origin. They were his legal wives. Polygamy will be a separate topic in one of the next issues. The harem comprised of women captured in war, taken form conquered lands and also of any virgin girl who had the misfortune or fortune (depending on the point of view) to catch the eye of the sultan. Unfortunately, many were sold by their parents for money or a favour, or from one master to another, but you know… they had to be “not used”. They were all beautiful, their bellies were checked carefully – they had to have the shape of a quince, but sometimes that rule was overlooked. These women were called concubines.
A concubine was, in fact, a man’s female slave. The word harem comes from the Arabic word harim or haram, meaning “secluded” and “forbidden”. Those women were both – they lived in seclusion from the rest of the world and they were forbidden to be touched or to touch other men, but the sultan.
On the plus side, concubines lived in luxury… well, according to their rank (and the hierarchy there is so complicated that I’m afraid I may give you a headache while explaining). The favourites were given separate quarters. Favourites were those who the sultan had graced with his sexual presence. A concubine, who the Sultan had had sex with, moved up the ladder and he could choose to have her again. Those who had given birth to a son were also given quarters, but kicked out of the sultan’s bed. According to their understanding, the woman had to dedicate all her life to bringing up a healthy heir to the throne and was forbidden to give more than one birth – her attention couldn’t be divided between two or more children. The rest of the girls shared rooms.
Upon arrival, they were groomed for the sultan – bathed, dressed, taught to speak the language, to sing, dance and embroider, and later, but not in many cases, were taught to read and to write. They were well fed and looked after. Religion was the main subject in all their studies. The ones with higher rank were responsible for the younger ones and exercised strict control.
From the outside not much was seen. Men were not allowed into that part of the palace, where the women lived. Kublai Khan, who had 7000 women, must have had a hell of a lot of extra space to put them up. Yet, that was nothing compared to the 16 000 women King Tamba of Benaras had. Provably that number helped him get into history.
What for? Why? A city full of women. Lonely women. Very few were lucky to ever have sex with the sultan and the rest were doomed to live a celibate life, much like the life of the hundreds of eunuchs whose job was to guard them from visits from other men and to keep them away from each other’s beds as intimacy between the women was not allowed and… well, a curious fact, which historians pay specific attention too: cucumbers were not allowed in the harem.
The eunuchs were mostly enslaved men from the northern parts of Africa, castrated in the most brutal way – their testicles were either removed, or crushed. Since the Koran forbids the very action of taking a man’s manhood, for the purpose were used Christians from elsewhere, who did it under the threat of a certain death. However, in some cases, especially when the testicles were not cut off, some of the men regained their manhood in time and there are some historical traces of undesired pregnancies which, when well hidden, lead to births and the newborn children were killed at birth and so were the women, after having been severely tortured.
All the concubines were given some amount of money. Most of them little, but those who managed to give birth to a son were swimming in gold, had great privileges and formed the influential circle of the mothers of boys – the heirs to the throne. In every possible way they oppressed the young and beautiful new ones who could catch the eye of the sultan and give birth to a child. In case that happened, mystery shrouded those pregnancies and many babies were lost under strange circumstances. However, in the very influential circles the fight for money and power was severe, the intrigues were bitter, envy and hatred settled in forever.
Although harems were forbidden for the prying eyes of outsiders, especially for men, many diplomatic women actually visited them and got a pretty good idea of the situation within those walls. In their letters to the outside world, they told the stories of what they had witnessed. Historical records also shed some light on the hushed-up events inside and let’s not forget, that the sultan himself would sometimes show his precious collection of living souls to other men of importance. After all, all of his concubines were so beautiful and educated. On occasion, the sultan would allow for a woman from his harem to get married to someone within his circle of allies. These women talked and tales of horror were passed from mouth to mouth.
I don’t know which was worse – living with no love and away from family and loved ones, but saved from death and starvation in the warring territories, or having to live in a nest of hundreds, if not thousands of sakes and to pray for your lucky day to come, to be chosen by the prince, to conceive by some miracle and live a shaky life in comfort and in celibacy, but having a reason to live for – your child.
The other disturbing fact was the war between the boys. Naturally, the children born to the four official wives of the sultan were in the first league in the fight for the throne, but the others were entitled to money and property, too. The fittest survived. I suppose, I need not specify the gory details on how that happened, the role of the mothers, and the supreme role of the Queen Mother, who stirred the intrigues.
The concept of the harem became known to the Western world in the 16th century. Mozart did his research on the topic, asked travelers to tell him more and created his absolute masterpiece “The Abduction from the Seraglio”. This musical piece of art tells the story of the attempt of the hero Belmonte to rescue his beloved Konstanze from the seraglio/harem of Pasha Selim. The story was decorated with romance and told little of the truth behind the walls, but it opened the eyes of the Western countries to another world, to the seclusion, to the forbidden. Europe became the birthplace of many stories of orgies and of erotic tales. Artists such Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (who painted La Grande Odalisque and The Turkish Bath) are to blame for the hypersexual and far too wrong portrayal of harems. Most of these artists had no interaction whatsoever with real-life harems and drew knowledge from the romantic idea implemented by Victorian stories.
Yet, one story stands out, and is actually true. One of the most notorious rivalries in the history of harems was between the Queen Mother of Murad III and his favorite concubine, Safiye. It is known that he was in love with her and could not make love to any other woman his mother would throw his way. Safiye was accused of witchcraft, her servants were tormented, but no one spoke ill of her. Later, Murad III visited a doctor and his selective impotence was cured. After Safiye he fathered 50 more children from different women. Slightly overdoing it, don’t you think?
Yet, the most powerful concubine in history was Kösem Sultan. She was a slave born in Greece, who become the main consort of Ahmed I when she and her “husband” were barely 15. Her career in politics covers a period of over 40 years and she was mourned as “Vālide-i Maḳtūle” (murdered mother) when she was assassinated by the mother of Sultan Mehmed IV in yet more complicated intrigues.
The stories are so many, that no Turkish soap opera can be that long, although several cover the topic and I have had a glimpse of some of them. Honestly? Long, tedious and as brutal as the times were, indeed.
Boys would proudly show their toy-car collections to their friends. Rich men will show off with their collection of rare cars or autographed baseball gloves, or masterpieces and watches. In olden times the powerful men of the Ottoman Empire and of other dynasties in Asia would proudly show the luxurious prisons of their own female slaves, kept for pleasure – pleasure those men could not give, but would not allow for anyone else to give to them.
Whether those women longed for their sultan to knock on their door or they hated him, whether they resented the place and longed for being poor, but free – that I do not know and probably each of them thought differently. One thing I do know: the world was well aware of these prisons for women kept for pleasure (or for feeding the ego) and it allowed their existence – the Imperial Harem survived until 1992. Nezvad Hanim was the final official consort of the 36th and last sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed VI.
In 1992, communism was history, walls between people had been torn down, grunge music was all over the radios, MTV was the most watched channel, people had stepped on the moon a long time ago. And yet, the world did nothing to stop this. No woman should be kept as a bird in a golden cage and forced to sing at the clap of some bloated dictator’s hands.
And here we have our modern men who can barely juggle with a wife and one lover. How did those men manage thousands of women? They didn’t. Women were hunting trophies, decoration, some sick proof of masculinity, well hidden behind noble intention and the guidance in the religious books.
-by Geri Decheva