Ottoman Imperial Harem

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A cariye or imperial concubine. Odalisque (Boston Public Library).jpg
A cariye or imperial concubine.

The Imperial Harem (Ottoman Turkish : حرم همايون, Harem-i Hümâyûn) of the Ottoman Empire was the Ottoman sultan's harem – composed of the wives, servants (both female slaves and eunuchs), female relatives and the sultan's concubines – occupying a secluded portion (seraglio) of the Ottoman imperial household. [1] This institution played an important social function within the Ottoman court, and wielded considerable political authority in Ottoman affairs, especially during the long period known as the Sultanate of Women [2] (approximately 1533 to 1656). Multiple historians claim that the sultan was frequently lobbied by harem members of different ethnic or religious backgrounds to influence the geography of the Ottoman wars of conquest. [2] The utmost authority in the Imperial Harem, the valide sultan, ruled over the other women in the household; the consorts of the sultan were normally of slave origin, and thus were also his mother, the valide sultan.


The Kizlar Agha (Kızlarağası, also known as the "Chief Black Eunuch" because of the Nilotic origin of most aghas) was the head of the eunuchs responsible for guarding the Imperial Harem.


The word harem is derived from the Arabic harim or haram which give connotations of the sacred and forbidden. The female quarters of Turkish households were then referred to as haremlik due to their prevailing exclusivity. [3] [ page needed ]

The harem as a social and political institution

As the sultan became increasingly sedentary in the palace, his family members, previously dispersed between provincial capitals, were eventually relieved of their public duties and gathered in the imperial capital. At the end of the sixteenth century, except for the sultan himself, no member of the royal family, male or female, left the capital. Both children and mothers were permanent occupants of the inner world of the palace. [4] The harem was the ultimate symbol of the sultan's power. His ownership of women, mostly slaves, was a sign of wealth, power, and sexual prowess. The institution was introduced in the Turkish society with adoption of Islam, under the influence of the Arab caliphate, which the Ottomans emulated. To ensure the obedience of the women, many of them were bought and kept into slavery. However, not all members of the harem were slaves. The main wives, especially those taken into marriage to consolidate personal and dynastic alliances were free women. This was the exception, not the rule. The relationship between slavery and polygamy/harems in the Turkish harem continued until 1908, at the very least.[ citation needed ]

The imperial harem also served as a parallel institution to the sultan's household of male servants. The women were provided with an education roughly on par with that provided to male pages, and at the end of their respective educations they would be married off to one another, as the latter graduated from the palace to occupy administrative posts in the empire's provinces. [5] Consequently, only a small fraction of the women in the harem actually engaged in sexual relations with the sultan, as most were destined to marry members of the Ottoman political elite, or else to continue service to the valide sultan . [6] A network was founded on family-based relationships between women of the harem. This family was not limited to blood connections but included the whole royal household, consisting of slaves for the majority. Within the harem, the mother of the sultan and his favourite concubine or concubines were more effectively able to create factional support for themselves or their sons, creating a bridge between the palace and the outside world. [4]

Harem quarters

The Imperial Harem occupied one of the large sections of the private apartments of the sultan at the Topkapi Palace which encompassed more than 400 rooms. The harem had been moved to Topkapi in the early 1530s. After 1853, an equally lavish harem quarter was occupied at the new imperial palace at Dolmabahçe.

Topkapı Palace

The Topkapı Palace served as the royal residence of the Ottoman sultan for four centuries. There is a wealth of sources about this structure making it one of the most fully documented buildings in the Islamic world. The architectural structure of the harem changed over time due consecutive sultans' renovations. During the time of Murad III (1574-1595) each of his 40 wives had separate quarters within the Topkapı harem. Young slave girls, on the other hand, inhabited a large dormitory. [5] At this time, womens' sexual relations with the sultan determined their living quarters. Once a slave girl had slept with the sultan she received her own chamber, attendants, kitchen maids, an eunuch, and pay. All of these were increased if she became pregnant. If she bore a child she might be moved into an even larger apartment. With Murad III the size of the imperial harem tripled in size. [5]

By the mid 18th century an Imperial hall, also known as the "privy chamber," took on Europeanizing decorations and inscriptions dating from the renovations made by Osman III. This was a spacious, domed hall that overlooked the garden and was the place where official ceremonies and festivities took place. The Queen Mother's quarters during this time consisted of a suite with a bedroom, throne room, bath, rooms for her servants, a bakers, commissary, and kitchens which were all grouped around the largest court of the harem, known as the Queen Mother's Court. [5]

Over the course of the sultans' residences at Topkapı Palace the harem was first a residence for slave girls, then became an area of the palace ran by the sultan's favorite wife, then finally a spacious area focused on the sultan's family and ran by the Queen Mother. The rank of individuals resideing in the harem is reflected in its architecture and the quarters were continusously remodeled according to new requirements and changing fashions. This resulted in the space being a collection of ever more fragmented spaces. [7]

Dolmabahçe Palace

The Topkapı Palace was abandoned in 1853 for the Dolmabahçe Palace.

Yıldız Palatial Complex

Though the history of the Yıldız Palace begins in 1795 when Sinan III built a pavilion there for his mother (Selim III), marking a moment when the Valide Sultans began managing and inhabiting their own hilltop estates, the complex is widely known as having been the residence of the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II beginning in 1880. [8] The palatial complex is demarcated by the Çırağan Palace on the waterfront and extending up to a valley between Besiktas and Ortaköy.

After assassination attempts, Abdülhamid II moved his immediate family to the Yıldız Palace to live in an already standing two-story mansion known as the Şale Kiosk. This became the new harem quarters following its location at the Dolmabahçe Palace. Given that this new site did not have enough space to support the number of women in the imperial harem, it was downsized with wives, unmarried sisters, and servants being moved elsewhere.

In 2014 a project began to restore and refurnish the harem of the Yıldız Palace in order to open the space up for tourism. With this project scholars and others began to research and learn more about the harem architecture, furnishings, and everyday lives of its inhabitants. Much of this work has yet to be published. [9]

Role of the valide sultan

The mother of a new sultan came to the harem with pomp and circumstance and assumed the title of valide sultan or sultana mother upon her son's ascension. She was paramount chief and ran the harem and ruled over the members of the dynasty. The valide sultan who influenced the political life of the Ottoman Empire during various periods of history (such as the Sultanate of Women in the 16th and 17th centuries) had the authority to regulate the relations between the sultan and his wives and children. When a prince left the capital for his provincial governorate, he was accompanied by his mother. This was in order for her to complete her role of presiding over the prince’s domestic household and performing her duty of training and supervision. [2] At times the valide sultan acted as regent for her son, particularly in the seventeenth century, when a series of accidents necessitated regencies that endowed the position of queen mother with great political power. [4]

The valide sultan influenced the way that the Ottoman sultans waged wars of conquest. The Ottoman conquests were mostly in the West until the mid-1500s, however, the ethnic background of the valide sultan was an independent and major determinant of whether these conquests would be for North Africa or the Middle East, or in Europe. The sultans were more likely to be mindful of their matrilineal descent. The rule of a sultan with a European maternal ethnic background was sufficient to counteract more than 70 per cent of the empire's western orientation in imperial conquests. In contrast, the sultans with European matrilineal descent had no discernable influence on the empire's eastern conflicts whereas the Ottomans' military ventures in Europe were generally reinforced by a Muslim matrilineal genealogy. Regardless of how the Ottoman harem had developed over time as an organization, the main observation is that the mothers of the princes were solely responsible for their upbringing; the royal mothers had the most direct and sustained interaction with the future sultans of the Ottoman Empire. [2]

In 1868, Empress Eugénie of France visited the Imperial Harem, which was to have a lasting effect. She was taken by the sultan Abdülaziz to his mother, Valide Sultan Pertevniyal Sultan, but reportedly, Pertevniyal became outraged by the presence of a foreign woman in her harem, and greeted the empress with a slap in the face, almost provoking an international incident. [10] The visit of the empress, however, did lead to a dress reform in the harem by making Western fashion popular among the harem women, who dressed according to Western fashion from then on. [11]

Role of the court ladies

The Courtyard of the Favourites in the harem of Topkapi Palace Favourites courtyard Topkapi March 2008.JPG
The Courtyard of the Favourites in the harem of Topkapı Palace

For the perpetuation and service of the Ottoman dynasty, beautiful and intelligent slave girls were either captured in war, recruited within the empire, or procured from neighbouring countries to become imperial court ladies ( cariyes ).

Odalisque, a word derived from the Turkish Oda, meaning chamber: thus connoting odalisque to mean chamber girl or attendant, was not a term synonymous with concubine; however, in western usage the term has come to refer specifically to the harem concubine. [3] [ page needed ]

The cariyes, who were introduced into the harem at a tender age, were brought up in the discipline of the palace. They were promoted according to their capacities and became Kalfas and Ustas .

The cariyes with whom the sultan shared his bed became a member of the dynasty and rose in rank to attain the status of gözde ('the favorite'), ikbal ('the fortunate') or kadin ('the woman/wife'). The highest position was the valide sultan, the legal mother of the sultan, who herself used to be a wife or a concubine of the sultan's father and rose to the supreme rank in the harem. No court lady could leave or enter the premises of the harem without the explicit permission of the valide sultan. The power of the valide sultan over concubines even extended to questions of life and death, with eunuchs directly reporting to her.

The court ladies either lived in the halls beneath the apartments of the consorts, the valide sultan and the sultan, or in separate chambers. The kadıns, who numbered up to four, formed the group who came next in rank to the valide sultan. Right below the kadıns in rank were the ikbals, whose number was unspecified. Last in the hierarchy were the gözdes. [12]

During 16th and 17th century, chief consort of the sultan received title haseki sultan or sultana consort. This title surpassed other titles and ranks by which the prominent consorts of the sultans had been known ( hatun and kadın). When the position of valide sultan was vacant, a haseki could take the valide's role, have access to considerable economic resources, become chief of the Imperial Harem, become the sultan's advisor in political matters, and even have an influence upon foreign policy and international politics. Such cases happened during the eras of the Hürrem Sultan and Kösem Sultan.

Royal concubines of non-haseki status

In the century following the deaths of Suleyman and Hurrem, concubines who were not favourites of the sultan would become forgotten women of the harem. The only ones remembered are those that were brought into the public eye by the question of succession. Their status was inferior to the preferred concubines. They were also not identified among the family elite of the harem. [4]

The court ladies had contact with the outside world through the services of intermediaries such as the Kira .

Role of the eunuchs

Chief Black Eunuch of the Ottoman court; Photo, 1912. Ottoman eunuch, 1912.jpg
Chief Black Eunuch of the Ottoman court; Photo, 1912.
The Courtyard of the Eunuchs in Topkapi Palace Eunuch courtyard Harem Topkapi Istanbul 2007 85.JPG
The Courtyard of the Eunuchs in Topkapı Palace
The apartments of the princes, also called kafes
(cage), were part of the imperial Ottoman harem Veliahd Dairesi Topkapi Istanbul 2007 panorama.jpg
The apartments of the princes, also called kafes (cage), were part of the imperial Ottoman harem

At Topkapı Palace, at the court of the Ottoman sultans, the harem staff included eunuchs. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the corps of harem eunuchs numbered between 800 and 1,200. This was the highest number of eunuchs ever in the harem, and it would remain the most amount ever employed at the harem. [13] These were Nilotic slaves captured in the Nile vicinity. [14] The sultans were able to obtain these slaves because of their conquest of Egypt in 1517, which gave direct access to slave caravans who used those routes. The conquest of northeastern Sudan in the 1550s continued to expand the empire's reach and access to slave caravans that used trade routes through Sudan. [13] The castrated servicemen in the Muslim and Turkish states in the Middle Ages were recruited to serve in the palace from the times of Sultan Mehmed I onwards. These eunuchs who were trained in the palace and were given the charge of guarding the harem rose in rank after serving in many positions. [15] The harem eunuchs and the harem organization were under the command of the chief harem eunuch, who was also called the Master of the Girls (Kızlar Ağası) or chief black eunuch. They supervised the quarters where the female population of the palace lived. They had influence on the palace and later on the state administration in the 17th and 18th centuries as they had access to the sultan and the sultan's family and became very powerful.

The office of the chief harem eunuch was created in 1574. [13] The chief black eunuch was sometimes considered second only to the grand vizier (head of the imperial government, but often working in his own palace or even away, e.g., on military campaigns) in the confidence of the Sultan, to whom he had and arranged access (including his bedchamber, the ne plus ultra for every harem lady), also being his confidential messenger. As commander of an imperial army corps, the halberdiers (baltacı), he even held the supreme military dignity of three-horsetail pasha (general).[ citation needed ]

Meanwhile, the chief white eunuch (Kapı Ağası), was in charge of 300 to 900 white eunuchs as head of the 'Inner Service' (the palace bureaucracy, controlling all messages, petitions, and State documents addressed to the Sultan), head of the Palace School, gatekeeper-in-chief, head of the infirmary, and master of ceremonies of the Seraglio, and was originally the only one allowed to speak to the Sultan in private. In 1591, Murad III transferred the powers of the white to the black eunuchs as there was too much embezzlement and various other nefarious crimes attributed to the white eunuchs, but later they regained some favour.[ citation needed ]

During the Sultanate of Women (Kadınlar Saltanatı), eunuchs increased their political leverage by taking advantage of minor or mentally incompetent sultans. Teenage sultans were "guided" by regencies formed by the queen mother (valide sultan), the grand vizier and the valide's other supporters – and the chief black eunuch was the queen mother's and chief consorts' intimate and valued accomplice. Kösem Sultan, mother of Sultan Ibrahim (r. 1640-1648) and grandmother of Sultan Mehmed IV (r. 1648-1687), was killed at the instigation of the mother of Mehmed IV, Turhan Sultan, by harem eunuchs in 1651. [13]

Positions in the harem

Kızlar ağası: The kızlar ağası was the chief black eunuch of the Ottoman seraglio. The title literally means 'chief of the girls', and he was charged with the protection and maintenance of the harem women.

Kapı ağası: Whereas the kızlar ağası was responsible for guarding the virtue of the odalisques, the kapı ağası was a chamberlain to the ladies. His name means 'lord of the door', and he was the chief of the white eunuchs, acting as a chief servant and procurer.

Valide sultan: The valide sultan was the mother of the reigning sultan and the most powerful woman in the harem, not to mention the empire. She was the absolute authority in the seraglio, and she, with the help of the kapı ağa and the kızlar ağası, often her confidantes, or even men she herself had chosen upon her accession, had a finger in every aspect of harem life.

Haseki sultan: This was the title reserved for the chief consort and lawfully wedded wife of the Ottoman sultan. [16] A haseki sultan had an important position in the palace, being the most powerful woman and enjoyed the greatest status in the imperial harem after the valide sultan and usually had chambers close to the sultan's chamber. The haseki had no blood relation with the reigning sultan but ranked higher than the sultan's own sisters and aunts, the princesses of the dynasty. Her elevated imperial status derived from the fact that she was the mother of a potential future sultan. Hurrem Sultan was the first to hold this title after she became legally married to Suleiman the Magnificent, [17] the first instance of a sultan marrying one of his slaves. [18] The last haseki was Rabia Sultan, the haseki of the sultan Ahmed II. After her deposing in 1695, the title was no longer given to any consorts.

Kadın: Among the women of the Imperial Harem, the kadın was the woman (or women) who have given the sultan a child, preferably a son. Kadin was equivalent to a wife. The first kadin mentioned was during the reign of Mehmed IV.

Baş kadın: The first/most senior consorts were called baş kadın or birinci kadin. The consort who held the title baş kadın was in the second rank and most powerful after the valide sultan in the harem. She had a great influence in the harem. Before the creation and after the abolition of the title haseki, the title baş kadın was the most powerful position among the sultan's consorts. [19] A sultan did not have more than four kadins (the same law used for legal wives in Islam). [20] Their position as the possible mother of a future sultan gave them much influence and power in the harem.

Ikbal: Beneath the kadın was the ikbal, the harem members with whom the sultan had slept at least once. These women needed not necessarily to have given a child to the sultan, but simply needed to have taken his fancy. Many of these women were referred to as gözde (meaning 'favorite'), or 'in the eye', having done just that: caught the eye of the sultan.

Cariye : These were the women who served the valide sultan, ikbal's, kadin's and the sultan's children. They could be promoted to kalfas which meant they were free and earned wages, otherwise they were the property of the sultan and would reside in the harem. Such women were free to go after nine years of service.

Western perceptions of the harem

The Ottoman Imperial Harem, like other aspects of Ottoman and Middle Eastern culture, was depicted by European artists. French artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Fernand Cormon painted some of the most recognizable orientalist artwork based on the imperial harem. The Turkish Bath and Harem, (both pictured), are two such examples. Orientalist paintings reflected Europe's eroticized view of Islam with luxury, leisure, and lust being common motifs. [21] These images constituted the "imaginative geography" outlined in Edward Said's Orientalism. [22] There was a prevalence of nudity in the bath scenes and the depiction of polygyny with multiple women and usually one man in the paintings. [23] The women in these paintings were often portrayed as fair-skinned while the men were often painted as darker. [24] The portraits of notable imperial harem women were less sexualized with many of them resembling traditional European portraits in their dress and physical features. Italian artist Titian's paintings of Hurrem Sultan and her daughter Mihrimah Sultan are extremely similar to his popular Portrait of a Lady, with the only notable difference being the Ottoman headdress. [23] Of the artists who illustrated the Ottoman Imperial Harem, very few actually visited the empire, and all were male, so it is highly possible that these depictions were neither accurate nor authentic. [22]

See also

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