The Ottoman Empire: The Imperial Harem System

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The Ottoman Empire: The Imperial Harem System


For my Common Assignment in my COR-330-13 class titled Istanbul, I will be summarizing my Ottoman research and coursework.


For my Ottoman research and coursework I have done a three-part project that included a presentation on the harem system, an ekphrasis paper on Roxelana, a famous Valide Sultana, and I will be writing a connections paper on sex work and women’s rights surrounding today’s culture in the US and the old Ottoman empire.

To begin, my presentation on the harem system of the Ottoman empire focused on the question: “how does gender equality and the views of sex work compare between the Ottoman empire and today where sex work is viewed as taboo and exploitative?” In order to ensure an heir to the Sultan, the harem system was created. Harems were slaves to the Sultan, often brought as a gift or a prize from a war. A select few would be chosen to sleep with the Sultan in order to produce an heir. There are multiple positions for a slave in the harem and opportunities to move up in status. Many were only concubines or did not even sleep with the Sultan. The next position above the concubine was one of the Sultan’s favorites. These women lived in better quarters and were favored by the Sultan. The most powerful position was the Valide Sultan, the mother of the Sultan. The Valide Sultan had authority over the women in the harem, chose who could be with the Sultan, and often had an influence on the Sultan over politics. While the harem was slavery, it provided women opportunities to learn, the ability to rise in status, and economic and physical safety. Being a harem was seen as a honorable position and women who left the system were seen as favorable to the elites in the Ottoman empire. This is a stark contrast to today’s society where sex work is taboo and exploitative of women. Prostitution is illegal and women in sex work are seen as lower in class.

The second part of my Ottoman coursework is my ekphrasis paper. In my paper I researched famous Roxelana, the wife and chief consort for Suleiman the Magnificent. Roxelana, also known as Hurrem, is well known for being one of the most powerful women in Ottoman harem history. Hurrem was brought into the harem system from Poland and quickly became a favorite of the Sultan, Suleiman. Hurrem had more privileges than the other women. Harems were only allowed to have one child by the Sultan in order to prevent war between siblings, however, Hurrem was allowed to bare six children and had the majority of the children sired by Suleiman. Hurrem and Suleiman were married, which violated a 200 year old custom of not marrying a harem. Hurrem was the first women in the harem system to gain the title of Haseki Sultan. This was a new status created by Suleiman. From their Hurrem was able to use her authority and influence Suleiman in decisions concerning foreign policy and international politics. She was seen as one of the most power women in Ottoman history. Hurrem emulates Ottoman culture because she gained her power through the harem system, which is uniquely Ottoman. Being a primarily Muslim empire, it is surprising to see that women such as Hurrem were able to gain such status and power which is why Hurrem emulates Ottoman culture.

The last part of my research and coursework is the connections paper. I will be framing my paper very similarly to my question for my presentation: “how does gender equality and the views of sex work compare between the Ottoman empire and today where sex work is viewed as taboo and exploitative?” Beyond this I would like to explore the pros and cons of the Ottoman harem system compared to how we view sex work today. So far, I have not found other societies that have a system similar to the Ottoman’s. Places such as the red light district in Amsterdam that allow prostitution are as close to the system in today. Would something like this work in the United States? We view sex work as taboo but perhaps we should not look down on women who are in that line of work and view it as any other job.  

One thought on “The Ottoman Empire: The Imperial Harem System

  1. Elizabeth Burnam

    What an interesting topic! It’s fascinating that women in harems in this culture were viewed as elites, whereas in most Western cultures they’d be viewed as sinners or “less-than” the rest of the population. For example, in my project, I talked a little about the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, which is where unwed mothers were sent to repent for their sins. There, too, they were essentially slaves, but the work was backbreaking, they had little to no chance of moving up economically, and there were few chances for them to learn. This is in stark contrast to the culture described in your research, where concubines, unmarried to the sultan, were treated as the elite.


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