The Ottoman Harem – Concubines, Odalisques and Eunuchs

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The Courtyard of the Favourites in the harem of Topkapı Palace

The fascinating world of the beautiful women that lived to satisfy and entertain the Sultan at the Ottoman court, surrounded by castrated slaves.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman court was known for its opulence and extravagant practices. Among the privileges of the Sultan, was the right to possess as many women as he pleased even if only for a night. For this reason, the court maintained hundreds of the most beautiful women of the empire locked in a reserved area of the palace at the disposal of the Sultan. With free time and extreme beauty, these ladies only had one thing in mind – to please their Sultan and perhaps become more than just a servant.

The Harem Hierarchy

The girls that arrived at the harem were usually bought at the markets. They were either kidnapped or voluntarily sold by their parents in an attempt to escape poverty. For many girls, to be sold as slaves to the court was a chance to live a luxurious life and be educated. However, behind the golden chandeliers, the fine jewellery and smooth satin, there were competition and intrigues, as the harem hierarchy was very strict and organized.

New girls were called odalisques, but if they were beautiful enough and had potential to be presented to the Sultan, they would be taught poetry, etiquette, erotic arts, entertainment techniques and dance, among other things. Those who were not good enough would become common servants. The hierarchical organization of the harem was divided into five positions:

  • The Valide Sultana –was the most important woman of the Ottoman court, she was the mother of the Sultan and a great political influence as she was in charge of the Sultan’s education;
  • The Kadins – the favourite women of the Sultan and had some privileges such as eunuchs only to serve them and separate apartments. Their privileges were equivalent to those of wives;
  • Ikbal – favourite concubines that gave birth to a male child;
  • Concubines – beautiful women that lived in the harem and were presented to the Sultan at least once. Because there were so many women, a concubine might never see the Sultan more than once or twice, but should remain in harem her whole life in case he asked for her again. and;
  • Odalisques – virgin slave girls purchased at the market. Only the most beautiful of them would be trained in the sexual arts, entertainment and etiquette in order to be presented to the Sultan and become a concubine. If in nine years, the Sultan did not ask for them, they could leave the harem to marry.

The Eunuchs of the Ottoman Court

The eunuchs were slaves in charge of the harem. They should watch and serve the ladies and be loyal to the Sultan. Since the Muslim tradition forbade men to be among other men’s women, the eunuchs were castrated, having their private parts removed just before puberty through a painful process that involved a razor and boiling oil for cauterization. They were not considered men but half man and half woman and therefore, they could enter the harem without being seduced by the girls.

Mostly, eunuchs were black slaves captured in the jungles of Sudan, Abyssinia and parts of Egypt, castrated during the trip and sold in the markets of the Mediterranean Sea. The role of the higher-ranking eunuchs was very important in the court as they served as messengers between the Valide and the Sultan, took the chosen women to the Sultan’s room, bought new odalisques at the market and was in charge of the royal ceremonial events.

Life in the Harem

Some may imagine that being a slave and need to subject to the Sultan’s sexual desires was rather absurd, but historical references depict life in harem as joyful and pleasant. Women had luxurious clothes, jewellery, servants at their disposal and enough time to dance, recite poetry and massage each other. They also bathed themselves very often and spent most of their time making themselves beautiful and desirable by putting on make up and shaving the pubic area. Since there were so many women at the harem and many of them spent a long time without encountering the Sultan, it is said that there were sexual practices among the women as well a bit of unavoidable rivalry.

The Abolition of the Harem

When the Ottoman empire fell in 1909, the gates of the harem were opened and the women were set free to go back to their fathers, brothers or relatives. Interestingly, many women did not want to go back to their free but poor lives. Despite the abolition of the harem, it remains well and alive in the imagination of most men.

Source:

  1. Mourad, Kenize. Farewell Princess, Frederick Muller, 1990.
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