Life in an Ottoman harem

Franck Fernandez – Translator, interpreter, philologist

Harem means “sacred”, “secret”, it is a place like a cloister where young virgins await the favors of the Sultan.

The word is also used by extension to the harems of other civilizations such as those of Ancient Egypt, Muslim India and China.

The girls of the Ottoman harem were necessarily foreign because a Muslim could not be a slave; they were usually brought from the slave market directly from present-day Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasus regions because they were considered the most beautiful. When they arrived at the harem, the most traumatizing thing began for them: the medical examination. To find out if they had one of the three main diseases: cholera, leprosy and plague, they were put on the neck, without them noticing, a flea. If the flea did not bite his victim, it was a sign that they were infected and for that reason expelled. It is evident that they were also subjected to medical examinations to confirm their virtue.

Once this sieve passed at bedtime, a eunuch entered her room to find out if she had a light or heavy sleep and if she snored. If she snored, immediately, the buyer asked for a reduction in the price requested by the seller or even expelled her from the harem.

In the harem music, song, dance, poetry, embroidery, the arts of love, Turkish, Persian, Arabic and the Koran were studied.

These women spent much of their time in the hammam or Turkish bath where they maintained their beauty to attract the attention of the Sultan.

Everything was well regulated by classes, depending on the degree of relationship with the Sultan. Those who gave children to the Sultan had their own private, more luxurious apartments, servants and money.

If the girl was selected by the Sultan to be her partner that night, she put on makeup, shaved, combed and dressed. The Sultan was the only one who could undress them and break a beautiful pearl necklace around his waist, a symbol of his virginity.

The harem was guarded abroad by white eunuchs and the interior service was run by black eunuchs. The only complete man who entered the harem was the Sultan. White eunuchs were primarily brought from Bosnia while blacks were brought from Ethiopia and even from the lake area of Chad.

As castration among Muslims is strictly prohibited, boys were taken from the occupied territories in what was called “blood tax”, that is, each family had to hand over the first male child to serve as war guards and soldiers, also called Janissaries, or to castrate them to serve as eunuchs.

Castration was done in young boys with a huge mortality rate. The only way to control the hemorrhage was to bury the poor creature waist-deep in the sand and wait for nature to do its job.

The true queen of the harem was the mother of the Sultan, also called “Sultana validé”. It was she who selected the young women who may be lucky to be part of the harem. All decisions, all concubine assignments, even for just one night, go through her. Even after the Sultan was married, his wife passes under the aegis of the Sultana validé.

In our times, we tend to imagine that a harem is a kind of brothel but nothing is further from reality. It had the function of reproduction of the sultanate, essential for the perennial State. The most beautiful women of the Empire and other places are recruited, mainly by the Sultana validé, to be the (or the chosen ones) to give birth to the future sultans of the empire.

From the moment a woman from the harem is selected from hundreds of concubines, she conceives a male child will never be touched by the sultan again. Then he will look with other concubines for other sons to perpetuate the dynasty.

That is how life was going on in an Ottoman harem. If you visit Topkapi Palace in Istanbul be sure to visit the areas reserved for these girls.

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