Ottoman Imperial Harem

The Imperial Harem (Ottoman Turkish: حرم همايون‎, Harem-i Hümâyûn) of the Ottoman Empire was the Ottoman sultan's harem composed of the wives, servants (both female slaves and eunuchs), female relatives, and the sultan's concubines, occupying a secluded portion of the Ottoman imperial household.[1] This institution played an important social function within the Ottoman court, and demonstrated considerable political authority in Ottoman affairs, especially during the long period known as the Sultanate of Women.[2] The utmost authority in the Imperial Harem was the Valide Sultan, who ruled over the other women in the household and was often of slave origin herself. The Kizlar Agha (Kızlarağası, also known as the "Chief Black Eunuch" because of the Nilotic origin of most aghas) was the head of the eunuchs responsible for guarding the Imperial Harem.

Odalisque (Boston Public Library)
Cariye or Imperial Concubine


The word harem is derived from the Arabic harim or haram which give connotations of the sacred and forbidden. The female quarters of Turkish households were then referred to as haremlik due to their prevailing exclusivity.[3]

The Harem as a social and political institution

The harem was the ultimate symbol of the Sultan's power. His ownership of women, mostly slaves, was a sign of wealth, power, and sexual prowess. The institution was introduced in the Turkish society with adoption of Islam, under the influence of the Arab Caliphate, which the Ottomans emulated. To ensure the obedience of the women, many of them were bought and kept into slavery. However, not all members of the Harem were slaves. The main wives, especially those taken into marriage to consolidate personal and dynastic alliances were free women. This was the exception, not the rule. The relationship between slavery and polygamy/harems in the Turkish Harem continued until 1908, at the very least.

The imperial harem also served as a parallel institution to the sultan's household of male servants. The women were provided with an education roughly on par with that provided to male pages, and at the end of their respective educations they would be married off to one another, as the latter graduated from the palace to occupy administrative posts in the empire's provinces.[4] Consequently, only a small fraction of the women in the harem actually engaged in sexual relations with the sultan, as most were destined to marry members of the Ottoman political elite, or else to continue service to the Valide Sultan.[5]

Harem quarters

The Imperial Harem occupied one of the large sections of the private apartments of the sultan at the Topkapi Palace which encompassed more than 400 rooms. After 1853, an equally lavish harem quarter was occupied at the new imperial palace at Dolmabahçe.

Role of the Valide Sultan

The mother of a new sultan came to the harem with pomp, circumstance and assumed the title of valide sultan or sultana mother upon her son's ascension. She was paramount chief and ran the Harem and ruled over the members of the dynasty. The Valide Sultan who influenced the political life of the Ottoman Empire during various periods of history (such as the Sultanate of Women in the 16th and 17th centuries) had the authority to regulate the relations between the sultan and his wives and children. At times the valide sultan acted as regent for her son, particularly in the seventeenth century, when a series of accidents necessitated regencies that endowed the position of Queen Mother with great political power.[6]

In 1868, Empress Eugénie of France visited the Imperial harem, which was to have a lasting effect. She was taken by the sultan Abdülaziz to his mother, Valide Sultan Pertevniyal Sultan, but reportedly, Pertevniyal became outraged by the presence of a foreign woman in her harem, and greeted the Empress with a slap in the face, almost provoking an international incident.[7] The visit of the Empress, however, did cause a dress reform in the harem by making Western fashion popular among the harem women, who dressed according to Western fashion ever after.[8]

Role of the court ladies

Favourites courtyard Topkapi March 2008
The Courtyard of the Favourites in the harem of Topkapı Palace

For the perpetuation and service of the Ottoman Dynasty, beautiful and intelligent slave girls were either captured in war, recruited within the empire, or procured from neighbouring countries to become imperial court ladies (Cariyes). Odalisque, a word derived from the Turkish oda, meaning chamber: thus connoting odalisque to mean chamber girl or attendant, was not a term synonymous with concubine; however, in western usage the term has come to refer specifically to the harem concubine.[3]

The court ladies who were introduced into the harem in their tender age were brought up in the discipline of the palace. They were promoted according to their capacities and became kalfas and ustas.

The court ladies with whom the sultan shared his bed became a member of the dynasty and rose in rank to attain the status of Gözde (the Favorite), Ikbal (the Fortunate) or Kadın (the Woman/Wife). The highest position was the Valide Sultan, the legal mother of the sultan, who herself used to be a wife or a concubine of the sultan's father and rose to the supreme rank in the harem. No court lady could leave or enter the premises of the harem without the explicit permission of the valide sultan. The power of the valide sultan over concubines even extended to questions of life and death, with eunuchs directly reporting to her.

The court ladies either lived in the halls beneath the apartments of the consorts, the valide sultan and the sultan, or in separate chambers. The kadıns, who numbered up to four, formed the group who came next in rank to the valide sultan. Right below the kadıns in rank were the ikbals, whose number was unspecified. Last in the hierarchy were the gözdes.[9]

During 16th and 17th century, chief consort of the sultan received title haseki sultan or sultana consort. This title surpassed other titles and ranks by which the prominent consorts of the sultans had been known (hatun and kadin). When the position of valide sultan was vacant, a haseki could take valide's role, have access to considerable economic resources, become chief of imperial harem, sultan's advisor in politic matters, and even have an influence upon foreign policy and on international politics. This cases happened during Hürrem Sultan and Kösem Sultan's periods.

Role of the eunuchs

Ottoman eunuch, 1912
Chief Black Eunuch of the Ottoman court; Photo, 1912.
Eunuch courtyard Harem Topkapi Istanbul 2007 85
The Courtyard of the Eunuchs in Topkapı Palace

At Topkapı Palace, at the court of the Ottoman sultans, the harem staff included eunuchs. These were Nilotic slaves captured in the Nile vicinity.[10] The castrated servicemen in the Muslim and Turkish states in the Middle Ages were recruited to serve in the palace from the times of Sultan Mehmed I onwards. These eunuchs who were trained in the palace and were given the charge of guarding the harem rose in rank after serving in many positions.[11] The harem eunuchs and the harem organization were under the command of the Chief harem eunuch, who was also called the Master of the Girls (Kızlar Ağası) or Chief Black Eunuch. They supervised the quarters where the female population of the palace lived. They had influence on the palace and later on the state administration in the 17th and 18th centuries as they had access to the sultan and the sultan's family and became very powerful.

The Chief Black Eunuch was sometimes considered second only to the Grand Vizier (head of the imperial government, but often working in his own palace or even away, e.g., on military campaign) in the confidence of the Sultan, to whom he had and arranged access (including his bedchamber, the ne plus ultra for every harem lady), also being his confidential messenger. As commander of an imperial army corps, the halberdiers ('baltacı'), he even held the supreme military dignity of three-horsetail pasha (general).

Meanwhile, the Chief White Eunuch (Kapı Ağası), was in charge of 300 to 900 white eunuchs as head of the 'Inner Service' (the palace bureaucracy, controlling all messages, petitions, and State documents addressed to the Sultan), head of the Palace School, gatekeeper-in-chief, head of the infirmary, and master of ceremonies of the Seraglio, and was originally the only one allowed to speak to the Sultan in private. In 1591, Murad III transferred the powers of the white to the black eunuchs as there was too much embezzlement and various other nefarious crimes attributed to the white eunuchs, but later they regained some favour.

During the Sultanate of Women (Kadınlar Sultanati), eunuchs increased their political leverage by taking advantage of minor or mentally incompetent sultans. Teenage Sultans were "guided" by regencies formed by the Queen Mother (Valide Sultan), the Grand Vizier and the Valide's other supporters- and the Chief Black Eunuch was the Queen Mother's and Chief Consorts' intimate and valued accomplice.

Golden Cage

Veliahd Dairesi Topkapi Istanbul 2007 panorama
The apartments of the princes, also called kafes (cage), were part of the imperial Ottoman harem

The Ottoman harem was often called "the golden cage". After Ahmed I's reformation of the law of succession to Ottoman throne and decline of sancağa çıkma (system of appointing young princes as provincial governors to train them in how to rule), princes were confined the kafes, (cage, also the Şimşirlik, Boxwood Quarters) in Topkapı Palace. They lived here in seclusion until they either acceded to the throne or were executed in order to prevent a war of succession.

See also

Further reading

  • Necipoğlu, Gülru (1991). "The Third Court: The Imperial Harem". Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: The Topkapı Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 159–183. ISBN 0-262-14050-0.
  • Peirce, Leslie (1993). The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-508677-5.



  1. ^ "Harem". Merriam-Webster, Inc. n.d. Retrieved 23 October 2013.
  2. ^ Iyigun, Murat (July 2013). "Lessons from the Ottoman Harem on Culture, Religion, and Wars". Economic Development and Cultural Change. 61 (4): 693–730. doi:10.1086/670376.
  3. ^ a b DelPlato, Joan (2002). Multiple wives, multiple pleasures: representing the harem, 1800-1875. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 9780838638804.
  4. ^ Necipoğlu, Gülru (1991). Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: The Topkapı Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 90, 111–2. ISBN 0-262-14050-0.
  5. ^ Necipoğlu, Gülru (1991). Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: The Topkapı Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 180. ISBN 0-262-14050-0.
  6. ^ Peirce, Leslie P. (1993). The imperial harem: women and sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. Oxford University Press. p. 258. ISBN 9780195086775.
  7. ^ Freely, John (2016). Inside the Seraglio: private lives of the sultans in Istanbul. I.B. Tauris. p. 230.
  8. ^ Micklewright, Nancy (March 1990). "Late-Nineteenth-Century Century Ottoman Wedding Costumes as Indicators of Social Change". Muqarnas: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture. 6: 162. ISBN 9789004259256. ISSN 0732-2992.
  9. ^  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Harem" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  10. ^ Abir, Mordechai (1968). Ethiopia: the era of the princes: the challenge of Islam and re-unification of the Christian Empire, 1769-1855. Praeger. pp. 57–60.
  11. ^ Goodwin, Godfrey (1999). Topkapi Palace: an illustrated guide to its life & personalities. London: Saqi Books. p. 76. ISBN 0863560679.

Other sources

External links

Bedrifelek Kadın

Bedrifelek Kadın (Ottoman Turkish: بدر فلك قادین‎; 4 January 1851 – 6 February 1930) was the second wife and chief consort of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire.

Bidar Kadın

Bidar Kadın (Ottoman Turkish: بیدار قادین‎; 5 May 1855 – 13 January 1918) was the fourth wife of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire.

Circassian beauties

Circassian beauties is a phrase used to refer to an idealized image of the women of the Circassian people of the Northwestern Caucasus. A fairly extensive literary history suggests that Circassian women were thought to be unusually beautiful, spirited, and elegant, and as such were desirable as concubines.

This reputation dates back to the Late Middle Ages, when the Circassian coast was frequented by traders from Genoa, and the founder of the Medici dynasty, Cosimo de' Medici, had an illegitimate son from a Circassian slave. During the Ottoman Empire and Persian Safavid and Qajar dynasties, Circassian women living as slaves in the Sultan's Imperial Harem and Shah's harems started to build their reputation as extremely beautiful and genteel, which then became a common trope in Western Orientalism.As a result of this reputation, in Europe and America Circassians were often characterised as ideals of feminine beauty in poetry and art. Cosmetic products were advertised, from the 18th century on, using the word "Circassian" in the title, or claiming that the product was based on substances used by the women of Circassia.

In consequence, most wives of several Ottoman Sultans were ethnic Circassians converted to Islam, e.g. Valide Sultans (Empress mothers), including Perestü Valide Sultan, Pertevniyal Valide Sultan, Şevkefza Valide Sultan, Tirimüjgan Valide Sultan, Nükhetseza Başhanımefendi, other important Hatuns (Ladies) and Sultans like Şemsiruhsar Hatun and Saçbağlı Sultan, Haseki sultans (chief consorts) such as Mahidevran Haseki Sultan, Hümaşah Haseki Sultan, Hatice Muazzez Haseki Sultan, and Ayşe Haseki Sultan besides numerous Başkadınefendis (most senior consorts), including Bedrifelek I, Bidar II, Kamures I, and Servetseza I as well as Kadınefendis (senior consorts) such as Bezmara VI, Düzdidil III, Hayranıdil II, Meyliservet IV, Mihrengiz II, Neşerek III, Nurefsun II, Reftaridil II, Şayan III, amongst many others, or İkbals (honoured lady consorts), most notable of them being Cevherriz II, Ceylanyar II, Dilfirib I, Nalanıdil III, and Nergis IV in addition to Gözdes (favourite lady consorts), including Dürdane I, Hüsnicenan III, Safderun IV, amongst others. The "golden age" of the Circassian beauty may be considered to be between the 1770s, when the Russian Empire seized the Crimean Khanate and cut off their slave trade in Eastern European women, which increased the demand for Circassian women in Near Eastern harems; and the 1860s, when the Russians destroyed Circassia itself.

In the 1860s the showman P. T. Barnum exhibited women who he claimed were Circassian beauties. They wore a distinctive curly, big hair style, which had no precedent in earlier portrayals of Circassians, but which was soon copied by other female performers in the United States, who became known as "moss-haired girls". This hair style was a sort of a exhibit's trademark and was achieved by washing the hair of women in beer, drying it and then teasing it. It is not clear why Barnum chose this hairstyle. It may have been a reference to the Circassian fur hat, rather than the hair.

There were also several classical Turkish music pieces and poems that praise the beauty of the "Lepiska Saçlı Çerkes" (Straight, flaxen-haired Circassian; "lepiska" refers to long blonde hair which is soft and straight, as if flatironed).

Dilpesend Kadın

Dilpesend Kadın (Ottoman Turkish: دل پسند قادین‎; 16 January 1861 – 17 June 1901) was the fifth wife of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire.

Emsalinur Kadın

Emsalinur Kadın (Ottoman Turkish: امثال نور قادجن‎; 2 January 1866 – 20 November 1952) was the seventh wife of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire.

Gülcemal Kadın

Gülcemal Kadın (Ottoman Turkish: کل جمال قادین‎) (c. 1826 – 15 December 1851) was the sixth wife of Sultan Abdulmejid I, and the mother of Sultan Mehmed V of the Ottoman Empire.

Gülüstü Hanım

Gülüstü Hanım (Turkish pronunciation: [ɟylysˈty]); (c. 1831 – c. 1865; Ottoman Turkish: کلستو خانم‎) was the nineteenth wife of Sultan Abdulmejid I. She was the mother of Mehmed VI, the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

Kizlar Agha

The Kizlar Agha (Ottoman Turkish: قيزلر اغاسی‎, Turkish: Kızlar Ağası, "Agha of the [slave] Girls"), formally the Agha of the House of Felicity (Arabic: Aghat Dar al-Sa'ada, Turkish: Darüssaade ağa), was the head of the eunuchs who guarded the Imperial Harem of the Ottoman Sultans in Constantinople. Due to his proximity to the Sultan and the role the harem ladies played in court intrigues, the post ranked among the most important in the Ottoman Empire until the early 19th century. Soon after its creation and until its abolition at the end of the Ottoman Empire, the post came to be occupied by Black African eunuch slaves, and hence is also referred to as the Chief Black Eunuch.

List of consorts of the Ottoman sultans

This is a list of Consorts of the Ottoman sultans, the wives and concubines of the monarchs of the Ottoman Empire who ruled over the transcontinental empire from its inception in 1299 to its dissolution in 1922.

List of mothers of the Ottoman sultans

This is a list of the biological mothers of Ottoman sultans. There were thirty-six sultans of the Ottoman Empire in twenty-one generations. (During early days the title Bey was used instead of Sultan) Throughout 623-years history the sultans were the members of the same house, namely the House of Ottoman (Turkish: Osmanlı Hanedanı).

Mezidimestan Kadın

Mezidimestan Kadın (3 March 1869 – 21 January 1909) was the sixth wife of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire.

Navekmisal Hanım

Navekmisal Hanım (c. 1838 – 5 August 1854; Ottoman Turkish: ناوك مثال خانم‎) was a consort of Sultan Abdulmejid I of the Ottoman Empire.

Nergizev Hanım

Nergizev Hanım (Ottoman Turkish: نرکزو خانم‎; c. 1830 – 25 October 1848) was the twelfth wife of Sultan Abdulmejid I of the Ottoman Empire.

Nurefsun Kadın

Nurefsun Kadın (Ottoman Turkish: نورافسون قادین‎; c. 1851 – c. 1915), was the third wife of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire.

Peyveste Hanım

Peyveste Hanım (Ottoman Turkish: پیوسته خانم‎; 10 May 1873 – c. 1943) was the ninth wife of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire.

Rabia Sultan

Rabia Sultan (Ottoman Turkish: رابعه سلطان‎; died 14 January 1712) was a consort of Sultan Ahmed II of the Ottoman Empire.

Sazkar Hanım

Sazkar Hanım (Ottoman Turkish: سازکار خانم‎; 8 May 1873 – c. 1945) was the ninth wife of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire.


A seraglio ( sə-RAL-yoh or sə-RAHL-yoh) or serail is the sequestered living quarters used by wives and concubines in an Ottoman household. The term harem is a generic term for domestic spaces reserved for women in a Muslim family, which can also refer to the women themselves. The Ottoman imperial harem was known in Ottoman Turkish as Harem-i Hümâyûn.

Tirimüjgan Kadın

Tirimüjgan Kadın (Ottoman Turkish: تیرمژکان قادین‎; died 2 November 1853) was the second wife of Sultan Abdulmejid I, and the mother of Sultan Abdul Hamid II of the Ottoman Empire.

Central system

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