Since it was impossible for outsiders to enter the harem and observe life there at first hand, narratives and pictures were often based on imagination, and rumours concerning the lives of the female slaves known as cariye who served in the harems were rife. But while the truth diverges widely from the dreamed-up visions of western painters, it is often just as fascinating. The harems of royalty and statesmen in Istanbul and other oriental cities functioned as schools as well as social institutions. The ladies of the household, whether originally noblewomen or slaves, presided over a self-contained community of daughters in law, African nursemaids, Anatolian housemaids, and cariyes from many different lands. Women spent then-time at sewing and embroidery, caring for their children, reading, drawing and various other amusements, and paying occasional visits to family and friends. Young cariyes received a strict education from their seniors. Lessons included reading and writing, religious knowledge, sewing, embroidery, manners and etiquette, and music. Playing instruments, singing and dancing were valued accomplishments, and the best teachers of the time were engaged to give lessons. Apart from male members of the family and the chief black eunuch, few men might
gain admittance to the harem, but
music teachers were a notable exception.
The importance of music in Turkish harems is reflected
in 17th and 18th century pictures. In 1628 Hans Ludwig von Kuefstein, the
Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Istanbul,
commissioned a series of miniature
paintings, one of which is today in a private collection in Istanbul. The faces of the girls, and the designs of the cushions and carpet are carefully drawn in fine detail, the predominant colours being blue, red and white. The patterns of the girls' clothes and the carpet mingle into one another, In the upper part of the painting are four musicians. Two play the rebab, a forerunner of the violin introduced from
the Middle East to Europe (where it was
known as the rebec), one the santur
or dulcimer and another a tambourine. In the centre two girls holding handkerchiefs are dancing. There is a parrot in a cage hanging from the ceiling and a monkey
sitting on a balustrade. In the lower
part of the picture are 22 girls who
are depicted as shorter than the others
in order to fit them into the frame. Five of these girls are in male
costume, two of them accompanying dancers
on tambourines and three performing a
pantomime with their partners. In this pantomime a girl in a veil is
approaching another in male dress at
the far left, and a second pair are
embracing while the third 'boy' lifts the veil from the girl's face. Two other pictures illustrating harem musicians can
be seen, in a miniature album in Museo Correr in Venice, One of these shows
Sultan Mehmed IV (1648-1687) and his son entering the harem, welcomed by girls
playing musical instruments. The second picture in this album shows the valide
sultan (mother of the reigning sultan) and her women being entertained by two
dancing girls, who are accompanied by an orchestra playing five instruments:
the kudum (small kettledrums), çeng (primitive harp), tambourine, rebab and miskal (panpipes),
One of the few foreigners to have entered the imperial harem was Madame de Girardin, wife of the French ambassador. Pierre de Girardin was chosen by Louis XIV on account of his knowledge of Turkish, and was posted to Istanbul in 1686, During their stay his wife was invited by the valide sultan to an entertainment in the harem, and drew a number of sketches, which she afterwards used as the basis for a painting which is today in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, In the centre of the painting is the valide sultan, and to each side are cariyes, one fanning her and the others offering her coffee and other beverages from a ewer, bottle and other vessels in their hands. In the centre are two dwarfs and two girls with castanets dancing, while beside them musicians are playing.
Another 17th century miniature in Topkapı Palace Illustrates an evening entertainment in the harem. This miniature painting shows a couple seated side by side being served by cariyes, while three girls play instruments, and two others holding castanets prepare to dance. Puppets and shadow plays were other entertainments performed by cariyes in the 17th century. Archive documents tell us the names of music teachers who taught
in the imperial harem, the instruments they taught, the fees they were paid,
and sometimes the names of the harem girls whom they taught. Thus we discover
that they were even taught to play wind instruments such as the horn, trumpet
and zurna (instrument similar to the oboe). A miniature by the famous 18th-century
painter LevnT shows four female musicians, one of whom is playing the zurna. No
pictures exist showing women playing the trumpet or horn, but another document
dating from the reign of Mehmed IV mentions harem girls playing the horn.
Due to strict etiquette relating to the preservation of privacy in the harem, girls were chaperoned during music lessons with male teachers, but despite this precaution love affairs inevitably occurred. During the 19th century two celebrated Turkish composers, Sadullah Ağa and Hacı Arif Bey, both fell in love with girls in the palace harem while teaching there.
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