Ottoman Imperial Harem

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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). The utmost authority in the Imperial Harem, the valide sultan, ruled over the other women in the household; she was often of slave origin herself.

A cariye or imperial concubine.

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 institutionEdit

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.[4] 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.[5]

Harem quartersEdit

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. After 1853, an equally lavish harem quarter was occupied at the new imperial palace at Dolmabahçe.

Role of the valide sultanEdit

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. 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.[6]

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.[7] The visit of the Empress, however, did cause a dress reform in the harem by making Western fashion popular among the harem women, who dressed according to Western fashion ever after.[8]

Role of the court ladiesEdit

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 in their 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.[9]

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 valide's role, have access to considerable economic resources, become chief of imperial harem, sultan's advisor in politic matters, and even have an influence upon foreign policy and on international politics. These cases happened during Hürrem Sultan and Kösem Sultan's periods.

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

Role of the eunuchsEdit

Chief Black Eunuch of the Ottoman court; Photo, 1912.
The Courtyard of the Eunuchs in Topkapı Palace
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. These were Nilotic slaves captured in the Nile vicinity.[10] 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.[11] 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 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 campaign) 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.

Positions in the haremEdit

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.[12] A Haseki Sultan had an important place in the palace, being the most powerful woman and enjoyed the greatest status in the imperial harem after 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.

Kadın: Among the women of the Imperial Harem, the Kadın is the woman (or women) who have given the Sultan a child, preferably a son. Kadin was equivalent to a wife.

Baş Kadın: The first/most senior consorts were called Baş Kadın or Birinci Kadin. The consorts who carried title "Baş Kadın" was in the second rank and most powerful after Valide Sultan in harem. She had a great influence in harem. Before creation and after aboliton of the title haseki, this title (Baş Kadın) was the most powerful position for the consorts of Sultan.[13] A sultan did not have more than four Kadin (same law used for legal wives in Islam).[14] Their position as the possible mother of a future Sultan gives 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 need not necessarily have given a child to the Sultan, but simply need 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.

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Necipoğlu, Gülru (1991). "The Third Court: The Imperial Harem". Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: The Topkapı Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 159–183. ISBN 0-262-14050-0.
  • Peirce, Leslie (1993). The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-508677-5.



  1. ^ "Harem". Merriam-Webster, Inc. n.d. Retrieved 23 October 2013.
  2. ^ Iyigun, Murat (July 2013). "Lessons from the Ottoman Harem on Culture, Religion, and Wars" (PDF). Economic Development and Cultural Change. 61 (4): 693–730. doi:10.1086/670376.
  3. ^ a b DelPlato, Joan (2002). Multiple wives, multiple pleasures: representing the harem, 1800-1875. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 978-0-8386-3880-4.
  4. ^ Necipoğlu, Gülru (1991). Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: The Topkapı Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 90, 111–2. ISBN 0-262-14050-0.
  5. ^ Necipoğlu, Gülru (1991). Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: The Topkapı Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 180. ISBN 0-262-14050-0.
  6. ^ Peirce, Leslie P. (1993). The imperial harem: women and sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. Oxford University Press. p. 258. ISBN 978-0-19-508677-5.
  7. ^ Freely, John (2016). Inside the Seraglio: private lives of the sultans in Istanbul. I.B. Tauris. p. 230. ISBN 978-0-85772-870-8.
  8. ^ Micklewright, Nancy (March 1990). "Late-Nineteenth-Century Century Ottoman Wedding Costumes as Indicators of Social Change". Muqarnas: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture. 6: 162. ISBN 978-90-04-25925-6. ISSN 0732-2992.
  9. ^   Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Harem". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  10. ^ Abir, Mordechai (1968). Ethiopia: the era of the princes: the challenge of Islam and re-unification of the Christian Empire, 1769-1855. Praeger. pp. 57–60.
  11. ^ Goodwin, Godfrey (1999). Topkapi Palace: an illustrated guide to its life & personalities. London: Saqi Books. p. 76. ISBN 0-86356-067-9.
  12. ^ Though his haseki, Kösem Sultan was never married to Ahmed I.
  13. ^
  14. ^

Other sourcesEdit

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