A 15th Century Ottoman harem…

… is not a place you would have ever been likely to penetrate.

The harem, or seraglio, was the women’s quarters in the Ottoman Sultan’s palace. It was not an oppressive place for the women who were admitted through its protective doors, indeed quite the opposite. It was as well-regulated as the Sultan’s civil service or his army with a clearly defined social structure for the women who found themselves living there.

Many of the occupants were captured, or traded, slaves who came in the main from the Christian lands that had succumbed to the relentless progress of the Ottoman Empire. Some suffered the indignities of being offered for sale in slave markets, often having to stand naked in the open air whilst they were examined by potential purchasers. Nevertheless to be selected to join the Sultan’s harem was a considerable honour ensuring, at least, a comfortable place to live and sufficient food and entertainment

New recruits to the seraglio were called acemîs – novices- and they underwent a rigorous training in the principles of Islam, acquiring skills such as sewing, embroidery, dancing, singing, playing a musical instrument, puppetry or story-telling.

In time the acemîs attained higher ranks under what was an apprentice-master system and the select few were then selected to perform a specific service for the Sultan. That could be as menial as doing his laundry but if it were to be a companion of his bed they were known as hâseki – concubines and these were women were further instructed in the erotic arts. In Islam four wives were permitted to the Sultan and the four selected from the hâseki were known as kadins.

In charge of the whole harem, and wielding absolute authority, was the Sultan valide, the Sultan’s mother (who, in her time would have been a kadin to the Sultan’s father.) Not only was she in overall control of the harem but, by virtue of her position, she was the most powerful woman in the land. She was aided by the chief black eunuch, the harem agasi and she carefully chose the women who were to consort with the sovereign.

Boredom was probably the most oppressive characteristic of the Ottoman seraglio. Various games were devised for the young women but they must have palled in time. On occasions Jewish women were allowed in to the harem to display and sell clothing and jewellery. These women soon became purveyors of views and gossip from the world outside and as such were greatly welcomed as an antidote to the pervasive boredom of the closed community.

It has been maintained that some of the women, below the rank of concubines, were able to avail themselves of the services of a number of the eunuchs. These latter, if castrated around puberty and whose penises had not been shaved off by the castrator’s blade, were able to perform very adequately for their consorts; indeed it is reported that they were able to go on all night and were never likely to impregnate their partner.

Castration practices, though, varied and it is likely that the majority of the eunuchs in the seraglio would have undergone total removal of all their external genitalia with one sweep of a well-sharpened razor. Bleeding was staunched by sitting the unfortunate boy on a warm dung hill or a heap of heated sand. It is not surprising that two out of three did not survive the procedure.

Consequent to the genetic mutilation was the hazard of urethral stricture. To obviate this the eunuchs would carry a thin, silver stiletto to keep their urinary passage open. Others suffered incontinence which they attempted to control with a small bung, forced into the amputated urethra.

Only the Sultan valide and the kadins and concubines were allowed to see the Sultan when he visited the harem. All other women had to keep out of sight for fear of punishment meted out by the harem agasi. It was important that the Sultan’s eye should not wander from those who had earned their position in his favour. Consequently many of the girls remained virgins until they left the harem to be married off to members of the Ottoman  Civil Service – apparently one of the fringe benefits of government service for the latter.

The seraglio was, in the 15th Century, a well-regulated and disciplined arm of the state. To 21st Century eyes it is too implicated in slavery, female oppression and lacerating cruelty to be other than condemned. It is no surprise that in the last century or so of the Ottoman Empire it declined and disappeared.

The Ottoman harem features in Andrew Chapman’s new novel IKON

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