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The Ottoman Harem: A Retrospective History

The odalisque was a constant source of Western fascination.

The odalisque was a constant source of Western fascination.

Analyzing Historical Perceptions

There are few things less understood in the Western mind than Eastern culture. It is a world that many have seen as exotic; this singular, almost mythical location of “the Orient” was painted by Europeans with little knowledge of the culture and the people who lived within its borders.

The rise of Orientalism in art and literature in the 18th century showcased how widespread this fascination truly was. Many of these depictions focus on grand golden palaces, foreign religions, and perhaps most notably: veiled and therefore mysterious female beauty.

Yet, the subject of this art often had very little to do with the high culture of the regions they emulated. Inside the gilded frames of foreign artwork lied a pervasive mythos: that the residents of these distant lands were as barbaric as they were alien.

What was neglected instead was the lived reality of the East. The Islamic Golden Age, for example, was a period of vast scientific expansion and literary development. This period was ushered in from the nature of Islam itself; the hadiths of the Prophet and of the instructions of the Quran drew Mohammedans toward the pursuit of education and higher knowledge.

The word "harem" in the Western world often conjures up the idea of veiled women locked deep inside a palace, waiting patiently for a wealthy sultan. Often, they are fair-skinned and scantily-clad, fawning over a bejeweled young noble. It was a source of constant fascination by European outsiders who marveled at the stratified society and the strange world outside their anglicized sphere.

The problem with these ideas is that these historical ideas have been proposed by predominantly white Christian men, who, by the nature of the harem, would have never set an eye on one.

Historical Context of the Harem

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was a vast and expansive statehood that encompassed, at one point in history, over 32 provinces and numerous vassal states that contributed to its economy and wealth (Ottoman Empire). It reigned much of the Middle East from the 14th century until its dissolution after the end of World War Two. Suleiman the Magnificent (known more commonly as Sulemain the Lawgiver in the Middle East) is commonly regarded as its most prosperous ruler.

The Influence of Islam

The separation of male and female spaces is an important concept in Islam, one often muddied by outside interpretation. Even the word harem is an anglicized version of the Arabic word ḥarīm, which denotes at its simplest the female members of a family.

As such, gender segregation was an important part of society during the Ottoman Empire. While these structures were less prevalent in lower classes of society, they affected the nobility greatly. It was common for women outside of the palace walls to own businesses or help their families run theirs.

Harems Outside of the Islamic World

The separation of male and female sexes in nobility for reproductive and sexual purposes is common throughout history. Such institutions include but are not limited to:

  • The Chinese Imperial Harem, also known as the hougong
  • The Russian terem during the Tsardom of Russia

The Practice of Purdah

Modesty is at the heart of gender segregation in traditional Islamic societies; the court of the Ottoman Imperial Harem was no different. Purdah is the practice of secluding women from public view, both in their own clothing and the physical separation through the use of curtains, walls, and screens in the home (Encyclopædia Britannica). While most modern scholars agree this is not a Quranic mandate, it is an important cultural concept for the time period.

Not all women were able to practice the fullest degree of purdah, however. Lower-class women had to interact with men outside of their families frequently in their occupations. As such, being able to practice high degrees of purdah was commonly regarded as a privilege and a mark of wealth and status.

Haremlik vs. Selamlik

The haremlik was the portion of a household that was entered in only by the family. It was not exclusive to women; it was the interior of the home where outsiders were not permitted.

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The selamlik, in contrast, was the public area of a home where guests and visitors were allowed. Women were not permitted to be in these areas of the house without a male family member who could escort them. These male family members are known as mahram.

The Role of the Seraglio

The term seraglio is also a European one, used as early as 1581 (Kahf, M). It originates from the Italian spelling serraglio which originally meant "enclosure" or "containing wall," such as one that would house livestock or other animals. This was a word not used by the Turkic Ottomans to describe their own environments: it was an imposed one. Regardless of the origin of the word, it had been adopted into the Turkish language to mean the private housing in a palace for the sultan's wives, consorts, and female family members.

Women had increasing social and political power during this time period.

Women had increasing social and political power during this time period.

The Role of Women

The Ottoman Imperial Harem had strict social stratification as followed through traditional Islamic law. Women of the harem practiced purdah and most never left the palace.

The Valide Sultan

The valide sultan held the most powerful position in the Ottoman Imperial Harem, more powerful than even the sultan himself in those walls. She was the mother of the sultan and was his father's chief kadin. It was the most desirable position in the harem court and one of great political power. She was in charge of the household and its staff and even played a large role in selecting the women who would be made available to the sultan as consorts. Her quarters were often as lavish as the sultan's himself-- and always adjacent to her son's.

The Role of the Mother

The Ottoman Empire was under theocratical rule throughout its history. As such, the ideals and social mores placed by Muhammadic tradition were law. Islamic tradition dictates that the mother was the most honored member of a household. As such, the mother of the sultan held a vital place in the harem court. It was not commonplace for a sultan to have a legal marriage to any of his consorts, although it happened several times over the course of Ottoman history. However, legal marriage was not necessary for a woman to produce legitimate heirs as long as they were recognized by the father.

Political Power and Status

The first woman to hold the official title of valide sultan was Hürrem Sultan (pictured above), the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent. She was one of the most influential people in the Empire and was an ardent patron of education, healthcare, and religious study.

The Kadins

Kadins were the legal consorts of the sultan, those who were the first to produce a male heir. This was the most sought-after position in the harem, directly under the valide sultan. Once reaching the rank of kadin, a woman was eligible to receive a host of benefits, including a government pension. After the birth of a baby boy, this woman would be promoted to larger quarters and a host of servants. They were also promised more regular night visits with the sultan-- something unique to this role in the harem.

When this son reached maturity-- typically in his late teens-- he would be sent to govern one of the Empire's provinces. He was always accompanied by his mother, who served a similar role in her new court as the valide sultan did in the central palace. The oldest son would become sultan upon his father's death and his mother would become the new valide sultan in most cases.

Haseki sultan

While this status was not always filled, the haseki sultan was the sultan's primary wife or most favored consort. Being the favored wife of the most powerful man in the Ottoman Empire had its benefits, and often women who held this title had great political sway. Like the valide sultan, these women sometimes interacted with heads of state and government officials via letters on behalf of the sultan. She had great power and could sometimes fill the role of valide sultan in the absence of the sultan's mother.

The Ikbals

An ikbal was an officially recognized consort of the sultan who had not yet borne male children. Ikbal is an Arabic word that means "fortunate" or "favored one" and typically denoted a woman who had an intimate relationship with the sultan himself (Argit, Betül Ipsirli). There was no limit to the number of ikbals a sultan could have, unlike the kadins who typically had a limit of four. They held a strict hierarchy within themselves, with the ones who caught the sultan's eye first (or most frequently) having a higher ranking with more social standing and more privileges. Women of this role had typically converted to Islam and as such were no longer legal slaves.

The Gözde

The gözde, was an enslaved woman or girl whose purpose in the household was the sexual gratification of the sultan. These women were the quintessential "Ottoman concubine" and had far fewer rights than the women above them in the harem hierarchy. The contemporary understanding of Islamic law only allowed sexual slavery in warfare or non-Muslim land (Zilfi). Low-ranking gözde were known as cariyes and also served as servants to the valide sultan and her children.

The Odalisques

The odalisque was not a woman or girl sexually available to the sultan; rather, she was an attendant to one of the ladies of the court. They were slaves of the lowest ranking, who may eventually elevate in rank with education and training. Despite the fact that odalisques had little to no interaction with the sultan (or any man not a eunuch, for that matter) the odalisques became a topic of constant fascination for Orientalist paintings. These women were often depicted in a highly erotic manner for Western consumption.

The Role of Eunuchs

The History of Eunuchs

Eunuchs were men or boys who were castrated, often for a specific occupation or role. The history of castration is extensive, with some of the earliest known records of eunuchs dating to the Sumerian kingdom. They were a valuable asset in the Barbary slave trade, prized for their purported loyalty and intellectual prowess. These men were sometimes considered sexless or third gender, giving them a unique status in many societies (Bresciani).

In the Ottoman Empire, eunuchs served a variety of roles. Young eunuchs served as guards in the court harem or as attendants in the sultan's palace. However, older and more educated men often had important political roles. Eunuchs in the Ottoman harems were separated by occupation based on the outward appearance of race.

Black eunuchs, as they were called, typically hailed from northern Africa and were inducted as guards into the palace at a young age (Campbell). They served the women of the harem.

Chief Black Eunuch

The most important role in the Ottoman harem court, outside of the Valide Sultane, was the Chief Black Eunuch. The Chief Black Eunuch, also known as a kizlar agha, was the central link between the inner world of the harem and the outer world of the palace.

White Eunuchs

White eunuchs were typically slaves from the Caucasus or Balkans and did not serve inside the harem proper. Instead, they served the sultan in other men's spaces.

Works Cited

Ottoman Empire. Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Purdah. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 6, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/purdah.

Kahf, M. (2002). Western representations of the Muslim woman: From Termagant to odalisque. University of Texas Press.

Right n. 22: The right of the mother. Al. (2013, February 2). Retrieved December 4, 2021, from https://www.al-islam.org/a-divine-perspective-on-rights-a-commentary-of-imam-sajjads-treatise-of-rights/right-n-22-right.

Peirce, L. P. (2010). The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman empire. Oxford University Press.

Davis, F. (1986). The Ottoman lady a social history from 1718 to 1918. Greenwood Press.

Argit, Betül Ipsirli (October 29, 2020). Life after the Harem: Female Palace Slaves, Patronage and the Imperial Ottoman Court. Cambridge University Press

Madeline Zilfi: Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire: The Design of Difference

Bresciani, Edda (23 June 1997). "Chapter 8: Foreigners". In Donadoni, Sergio (ed.). The Egyptians. University of Chicago Press. p. 222.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Dani Merrier

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