For centuries, the Ottoman Imperial Harem was a political stronghold. The empire was in a position of authority and high honor in western Europe and Asia. To be in the harem meant you were important and were needed by someone important. This criteria made it an extremely desired place to live and work. The word “harem” is typically assumed to mean a brothel, or at its simplest, an area to a ruler’s home where his concubines were kept. The role of the harem in Istanbul, located in Topkapi Palace, was removed from this association’s negative qualities. Hundreds of people lived in the Ottoman Harem, having different ranks and duties. Many roles made up this harem, some of the most influential being titles held by women.
Women were brought to the harem typically as slaves, but none would consider the role they would take on as slavery. There were women brought in at young ages, to be used for the sultan and his sons, kept their by their own choosing, many of whom experienced a much better upbringing than what they may have experienced with their own families. Many families gave up their own daughters with the hopes that they would have a better life than what they may have been able to provide for them. It was not until they were older where they would spend time with the sultan, some being taken as wives, which was one of the highest positions of woman could hold for the time. The sultanate of women was actually the term used to describe the centuries for which women helped lead the Ottoman Empire. The main reason this position in the harem was so coveted, was that all women wanted to become the Valide Sultan.
The Valide Sultan was the one woman in the whole empire who held the highest position, this was because she was the mother of the sultan. She also helped her son run the country, and these women were regarded as the most important in all the kingdom. The important thing to understand was that the men who were in line for the throne were kept under a form of house arrest in another section of the palace pretty much their whole lives. This was started because the brothers of the sultans became so ruthless that fratricide was a common cause of the sultan’s death. To restrict this from happening, all heirs to the throne are kept together under constant surveillance, but unable to learn the basics of ruling a country. This is where their mother comes in. From the day a new sultan is appointed, the new Valide Sultan is by his side. She is needed with teaching him the ways of the empire. This lack of knowledge and skill from the sultan resulted in the terms they served usually being cut short and having a new sultan appointed, any surviving brothers or his first son.
Another role of the harem was that of the Eunuchs, who were castrated male slaves, either prisoners from war or ones who had been purchased. They began serving in the palace during the rein of Mehmed I, and remained throughout the rest of the empire. Their role was to take care of the palace and those who inhabited it. The chief of these men, or the Harem Chief Eunuch, commanded these hundreds of men, and this was a very well thought after title to receive, and often thought of as second to the Grand Vizier. Similar to the other roles found in the harem, these men were a vital cog in the entire working machine and although they were slaves, were given opportunities other slaves would not have received.