Constantly regarded as an enigmatic matter for the European voyagers, the Ottoman Harem was a popular subject for writers, who wrote hundreds of pages and tried to unveil this secretive center of attention. As the matter is still being discussed by many, the Harem Quarter in Topkapı Palace keeps attracting thousands of tourists each year.
In the early ages of the empire the Ottoman Padishahs used to marry girls of Turkish origin. As the empire expanded, the Palace started to pick slaves form various nations as concubines. As time went by, the Harem was populated with women from so many origins. The Harem had a peculiar management system. The highest rank belonged to the Valide Sultan . Unlike the general belief, the population of the Harem women was not merely comprised of the wives of the Sultan. The maids and the wives of the former Padishahs and their families were also members of the Harem community.
Formation of the Harem
The Harem we know today was formed during the reign of Selim II, son of Suleiman the Magnificent. The first Ottoman Harem was in the old palace –which now lies inside the Istanbul University campus- until 1550. As the palace was burnt down by a severe fire, the idea of moving the Harem in the Topkapı Palace was brought on the agenda. After a while, Suleiman the Magnificent was finally convinced by his wife Hürrem Sultan and approved the relocation of the Harem into Topkapı. The old building which was ruined by the fire was restored and redecorated as a residence for the wives and families of the former sultans. Soon after the Harem was annexed to the Topkapı Palace, women started to participate in the state management. Eventually their interference came to a point which can be referred to as “women’s sovereignty”. This last form of Harem system reigning within the main Ottoman Palace lasted until the 19th century.
Management of the Harem
Harem has a strict ranking system. In the order of command, Valide Sultan was followed by the head wife, the
first, second, third and fourth wives of the Padishah, his concubines, female servants, their supervisors and the slaves, respectively. The prerequisite of becoming one of the prestigious wives of the Padishah was to give birth to son, a potential heir-to-the-throne.
Picking concubines for the Harem
According to the Islamic jurisdiction, the slaves had no rights at all. The slave was indeed a property of the master. The master could use it as he/she wished. The master was entitled to sell, donate or even offer the slave as a present. Suleiman the Magnificent liked Hürrem Sultan, who was originally brought from Northern Black Sea region. After Hürrem gave birth to a son, she was liberated. Furthermore, the Emperor married Hürrem, with whom he fell deeply in love. Hürrem Sultan was the first slave to have officially married a Sultan in the history of Ottoman Empire. In addition, she was entitled to manage the entire Harem community. The concubines, on the other hand, were mainly comprised of female slaves captured during the wars. After a war, the beautiful and attractive slaves were sent directly to the palace. The others were brought to the market to be traded. Among the slaves the Circassian, Georgian and Russian girls were renowned for their beauties. The slaves were not only traded by the Turks but the minorities also had a right to purchase slaves. The only condition was to share the same religion with the slave. The concubines picked for the palace were observed for 24 hours before they were paid for. In case she had some sort of a defect –such as being a heavy sleeper or snoring during the night- the price would be reduced and paid accordingly. Most of the time, either her parents or the former owner of the concubine were asked to sign an official document for renouncing all their rights on the girl.
The number of the concubines in the Harem
The number of the concubines in the Harem varied from one Sultan to another. It is known that there were not so many concubines during the initial foundation and improvement eras of the empire. The increase in the population of the Harem started with Selim II. Most of the Harem concubines were the wives of the Padishahs and their maids. While the Harem’s population was 456 during Mahmut’s reign I, it raised to 688 during Abdülmecit’s reign and to 809 during Sultan Abdülaziz’s reign.
For the sake of a concubine
It is known that right before the empire started to be torn apart the Padishahs were got excessively fond of women and were sometimes disgraced. For instance, as if there were not enough concubines in the Harem, Sultan Mustafa III had an affair with a lady named Rifat, who did not reside in the palace. He shared this affair only with
his grand vizier, whom he had to warn repeatedly for keeping his secret from the palace women. Mustafa III met this lady outside the palace for many times. In addition, the wife and mother of the grand vizier also played role for keeping the Sultan’s secret. One day Sultan Mustafa wrote a note to the vizier and asked him to secretly take Rifat to the Harem. A short passage from the note follows: “Bring the woman today or tomorrow. Let her walk from the path with the boxwood trees. This spot is unfrequented. The other gate is always guarded by eunuchs. The boxwood gate, on the other side, is only opened for the visitors”.
The first concubine presented to Murat V
Sultan Murat V noted down his encounter with the first concubine presented to him in his diary: “I was around 13 or 14. One day, I was busy with some carpentry work, when I heard the voice of a lady in the next room. I stopped working. My heartbeats increased. The rustling sound of her silk dress became more evident. I was swirling into feelings I have never felt before. The door to my room was opened. A young and beautiful Circassian girl came in smilingly. She approached to my desk with an elegant gesture. She sat by me whispering something. It was the first time I was sitting in a room with a lady I did not already know. I was inexpressibly ashamed and astonished. As I was too stunned to move, she took the tool out of my hand with a smile on her face. She said “Sir, please leave this activity for a moment and take the advantage of this opportunity for a five or ten minute pause. No one can listen to us at this very moment. Your Agha (the Padishah) is also informed. He is not far; in fact he is watching us right now...”
German Emperor II William’s interest in the Harem
During his second visit in 1898, the German Emperor William II had an interesting discussion with Abdülhamit II. Through his translator the German Emperor asked Sultan Abdülhamit II how many wives he had. At that time Sultan had four official wives and four unofficial wives – concubines, who were the mothers of the Sultan’s children-. Therefore he replied “I have eight wives.” The Emperor, remaining indifferent to the reddening face of his wife, Empress Augusta-Victoria, who was one year older than the Emperor and criticized for being sort of vulgar, asked “Eight women? How do you manage eight women while I cannot deal with only one empress?” Sultan Abdülhamit, who spoke French fluently, finalised the conversation without waiting for translator “This is quite an art, Your Majesty”.
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