Ottoman Imperial Harem

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.

5 thoughts on “Ottoman Imperial Harem

  1. James Hauer

    I find a lot of overlap between this topic and the topic that I chose to write about in my paper for Irish Women and Drama. I wrote about how the importance of Irish women in politics, especially during the time of the Easter Rising and the formation of the Irish Republic, has been overshadowed both in popular media along with in the greater Irish identity. The importance of Irish women in society came from bearing sons and it seems as though that happened as well in Ottoman society but in Ottoman society it seems as though women were praised and given power for bearing children were as women in Irish society were not. I find it interesting that a Muslim culture that is (sometimes wrongly) portrayed in modern times as oppressing women gave them more power than they had in European society which is seen as being more progressive on the women’s rights front.

  2. Grace Ross

    I think it’s interesting how women were slaves, but no one thought of the role in that way. I find that this connects to my topic of Irish women using dance as a form of expression during times of oppression. These roles are often so engrained in our society. We, as members of the society, often undermine the actual oppression going on, due to preconceived expectations. Though, it seems like some women in the Harem often had more power than women in Ireland. This could be because of the difference of culture and wealth of both countries.

  3. Kaylee Coyne

    I find this paper interesting because there are almost no parallels to my course and I thought nothing of the hierarchical structure of the people. For Life in the Amazon, I realized that in everything we learned about the people, never was there such a structure as the one you speak of. There were more ‘male’ or ‘female’ stereotypical roles but nothing in their community that acted as some people being more important than others. It seems as if these are polar opposites.

  4. Elliot Grey

    A parallel could be drawn to my Yemen class regarding the role women play in society. Both countries are predominantly Islamic, and in the Quran women are given many rights and privileges . There seems to be a disconnect when it comes to equality in practice. In Turkey you point out that the roles of women were consistently limited to being subservient to the male. This is especially the case in Yemen we covered the role that child brides play in Yemeni society. Due to poverty and cultural habits many young girls are sold off to older men. They are usually subject to sexual abuse at a young age. In some cases when they try to flee their “husbands” they are killed, this is what it known as an honor killing. Unfortunately these practices are quite common rural areas of Yemen. Due to the abject poverty and war currently taking place, it will be very hard to raise awareness to these issues in Yemen. As Turkey falls into a more totalitarian society there could also be some digressions in regards to equality.

  5. Taylor Dancer

    The way you describe the Harem it seems that the women were highly valued, especially the Valide Sultan. I think it is very significant that is is the mother of the sultan teaching him, instead of his father’s advisors like many other kingdoms. I wrote about a matriarchal Chinese society in which people stay with their maternal families for their entire lives. Both seem to emphasize the important role that families play in shaping a successful person or leader. But, more importantly both cultures do well to treat women respectfully and as equals.


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