Ottoman Harem

Ottoman Harem – Legends, Mysteries and Rumors about Harem

The imagination of the western novelists and painters portrayed fantasy like details about the harems without any documents or eye witnessings. In light of the information conveyed, Harem is a school with discipline, not a pleasure house. Let’s learn what is wrong about harem in the Ottoman Empire.

Harem means sacred and respected place. The word even can be translated as ‘’protected place’’. It is the place where ladies of the house could continue their daily lives without encountering foreign men. Harems were usually planned in the houses, mansions, and palaces. Always facing the inner courtyard. The fact that women living in the harem are also called harem means that entrance of men to those sections outside of a certain blood connection with household women is also forbidden.

Inside the Topkapi Palace Harem Section

History of Harem Culture in the Ottoman Empire

Harem was a common part of daily life in the Ottoman Empire from 1299 to 1923. The wives of the sultan, women slaves, castrated slaves, and concubines made up harem’s residents. Topkapı Palace harem had more than 400 rooms. Murad the third had the harem section built inside the Topkapı Palace. Harem was designed by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in 1578.

Hire tour guide for a guided harem tour

Harem as a School and a Residence

Harem was a residence for the members of the dynasty. It can also be described as an educational institution for the servants of the royal family and the Sultan. Young women were trained not only to be brides for the Sultan. They became suitable wives for men close to the top of the military / administrative hierarchy too. Just as Enderun (Ottoman school where high ranking clerks were trained) prepared the men to serve the dynasty, the harem was preparing the women to take their roles in the outside world through personal service to the sultan and his mother.

People of the Harem

Valide Sultan (Queen Mother)

Queen Mother Pertevniyal Sultan

The head of the harem was undoubtfully the Sultan. As you can understand Sultan was not present in the harem all the time. His mother known as ‘’Valide Sultan’’ was in charge when his son, Sultan, was not around. Valide Sultan didn’t have authority just on the concubines and the slaves, she also ruled over the members of the dynasty in the harem. Several incidents caused incompetent Sultans to get the Ottoman throne making Queen Mother an authority even in matters of the outside of harem but this is a story for another article.

Hire tour guide for a guided harem tour

Court Ladies

The court ladies who were brought to the harem at their young age. They were educated in the harem and were thought the discipline of the palace. They were promoted according to their capacities. After their training is complete they were introduced into the Sultan’s service. They started their new life as a concubine and had three possibilities waiting for them. They could be a favourite which means they would have chance to share a bed with the Sultan. Then they could be a fortunate meaning they became one of the loved concubines of the Sultan. The final position they could achieve was being a wife. After they became one of the four lucky women in the harem who becomes Sultan’s wife they could give birth to a prince and hope him to be the Sultan one day. If their son became a Sultan, wife became the Queen Mother which is the highest position a woman could reach in Ottoman palaces.

Harem Dancer by Sandor Alexander Svoboda

Eunuchs

There were two types of male slaves serving in the harem. They were called white and black eunuchs. The chief of white eunuchs was responsible for 300 to 450 white eunuchs who dealt with the bureaucracy, paperwork, and outside world matters of the Sultan. Chief of black eunuchs was responsible for 150 to 200 black eunuchs who were serving only inside the harem and they were allowed to see the women in the harem. These people were especially taken from the Nilotic area of the Ottoman Empire. It was believed that the most loyal people come from the Nile Valley.

A Black Eunuch in Topkapı Palace

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Could anyone leave harem?

Matter of fact, Yes they could. When one of the concubines wanted to leave the palace for any reason, she wrote a petition to the sultan and folded it in four and explained the reason for her wish to leave. Concubine later put this petition in a place where the sultan could see it. The sultan reviewed this request and gave the concubine permission to leave the harem if he finds the reason to be plausible.

Fantasies and Rumors about Harem

What claimed to be eyewitnesses wrote about the harem is mostly like an erotic novel. The concubines in the harem were taken to be educated in Harem and then to marry either the sultan or the government officials. No men could enter Harem except Eunuchs. No foreigners and men were let inside. That’s why no western writer or adventurer actually saw the harem. The fantasies of western writers about the harem were gossip they heard or purely their imagination. There are thousands of artwork showing life in the harem. Among these, paintings showing that the Sultan had milk baths with the concubines and posed between the naked women are very common. The sultan would have fun with his family in the harem, but no Ottoman source in the harem institution writes that the sultan had such a tradition.

Pool in Harem by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Hermitage Museum

Tour Guide to Harem

I invite you to unveil the mysteries of the harem with your professional licensed Turkish tour guide. You can contact me to learn more about Harem in the Ottoman Empire or you can write to me to hire a tour guide to Harem quarters in Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahce Palace, and other Turkish palaces. See you soon, Hasan Gülday.

Interesting Facts About Harem

Central Hall of Harem
in Topkapı Palace
  • When the sultan entered the harem, he wore clogs that made a loud sound so that the concubines would understand that the sultan was in the harem and behaved more carefully.
  • Harem chiefs and female servants were chosen from foreigners because of the prohibition of the enslavement of Muslims.
  • There is a great harem in Dolmabahçe Palace, which was built in 1853.
  • Harem became a regulated and settled institution in Ottoman Empire after Istanbul was conquered. Ottomans got the harem tradition from the Byzantine and Persian cultures.

Hasan Gülday

Hasan Gülday. Professional licensed tour guide working in Turkey.

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