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This article was originally submitted by Muhammad Hamza Qamar
The importance of “harem” and how it served the sultan of the Ottoman Empire; is a question that has recently arisen in our minds. Doesn’t our consciousness get filled with silk, gorgeous women with veils and gold trays; heaving under heaps of exotic dates and figs? But that is a western illusion; what actually happened in the harem is a part you don’t know yet.
Harem is particularly a Turkish word; from the Arabic “ḥaram” which indicates a forbidden; or sacrosanct place. The Ottoman Harem is the best known (but certainly not the only one). It typically sheltered dozens of women; at its peak, there were 300, and also housed; the Sultan’s spouses, mothers and daughters.
They were protected by black eunuchs (to doubly ensure all children were the sultan’s) and slave servant girls served the members of the harem. It’s worth noting that none of these women were “Turkish” nor were they born Muslim.
In Islam it is forbidden to be a slave so the myth was to bring in young Christian; often Greek girls to be part of the harem.
A new arrival may not see the sultan for years until she became well versed; in etiquette, the playing of musical instruments as well as reading, writing; and were often schooled in poetry.
It all depended upon on the sultan. If you ever caught his eye, you could very well be the son of the sultan with significant power; but more likely you were either to work in the harem or even worse; in all the power playing in this world you may see your own son murdered; as another woman wins the power politics to get her son on the throne.
The harem was not full of fawning young girls – this dark side shows women were just as capable as men; to lie, cheat, and kill to get what they wanted.
Think about the implications of every Sultan’s mother being from a European country.
It meant after a few generations, the Sultans simply didn’t look very “Turkish.” There are records of some Sultans dying their beards darker to look more “Turkish” and it appears that some even had blue eyes.
By the time you get to the peak of the Ottoman state with Suleiman; the Magnificent in the 1500s, the Sultan (sometimes referred to as the “Grand Turk”) was; ethnically about as Turkish as the King of England.
On the edges, Sultans used the harem as offices for councils with foreign dignitaries and/or their own officials. For generations when the new Sultan had proclaimed, all the other male children in the harem were strangled; that would be all of the new Sultan’s brothers and half-brothers, to ensure the line of succession was pure.
This eventually changed as it was recognized as brutal; that so many children should be killed for no good reason. Sons of the sultan lived in harem until 16 years old when it was considered appropriate; for them to appear in the public and administrative areas of the palace. The Topkapı Harem was, in essence, the private living quarters of the Sultan; and his family rather than just a pleasure palace.