Life in an Ottoman harem was like being imprisoned in a golden cage with endless rules, expectations, and boundaries.
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The term ?harem? conjures up images of beautiful women whose sole purpose in life was to please their sultan sexually.
We visualize in our minds images of oppressed women, deprived of their freedom and imprisoned in golden cages. We see decadence and debauchery of wealth everywhere from shimmering curtains, silken rugs, goblets of wine, exotic heaps of fruit, and seductive women in various stages of undress all trying to vie the attention of an aging sultan, old enough to be their grandfather.
That said, while the images are not entirely devoid of truth, they are also not the entire truth as they were created by westerners. The truth lies somewhere in between. The true state of women in the Ottoman Empire was quite complex and very difficult to understand for an outsider who tends to see them as imprisoned slaves devoid of any fundamental rights.
That said, the harem of a Sultan performed a variety of functions and the women who lived there had significant power and influence in their own right. While every activity revolved around the sultan, it would a mistake to assume that the harem was just a sexual playground for the sultan.
The harem was also home to powerful women who are held in high honor by the sultan, some of whom had a hand in governing the powerful Ottoman empire.in fact, a period in the Empire known as the ?Reign of Women? or the Kadinlar Sultanati saw the harem women playing powerful roles within the Ottoman empire and even beyond, leading them to amass extraordinary powers never done before by any woman.
And life inside the harem was a fascinating mix of rules, hierarchy, power games, and boundaries that need to be navigated by every woman staying there, slave or otherwise.
The world of women inside a harem
The women inside the harem fall into two groups; the wives and relatives of a sultan and the slaves. The larger group belongs to slaves who are brought inside the harem from multiple parts of the world.
Slavery was extremely common in the Ottoman Empire and slaves were largely drawn from places like the Balkans, Caucasus, and Africa. And while the Sultan had legal wives, he married for forging crucial alliances and continuing his bloodline, he also had a large number of enslaved concubines who were used for the purpose of reproduction only.
And while legal wives might have a vested interest in their own sons, leading to disloyalty to the Sultan, concubines were considered more trustworthy when it came to producing sons. However, slave women, unlike legitimate wives, had no recognized lineage.
In most of the cases, the concubines enter the harem at a young age and by doing so severs all ties with their past lives. Once in, the girls were given daily lessons in everything from manners and courtly traditions to dancing and mathematics. Their performance is carefully monitored and the most intelligent and cleverest of them were assigned critical responsibilities like managing harem accounts and administrative activities.
The best out of them were often brought to meet the Sultan. Once the sultan beds them, their status is elevated and they became an official part of the Sultan?s household and were moved to live with the Sultan?s wives and relatives. And from there, they rise through the ranks and attain the titles of Gzde (the Favourite), Ikbal (the Fortunate), or Kad?n (the Woman/Wife). One of the best examples of a slave girl who became an empress is Roxelana, a Ukrainian slave girl who overcame great odds and became the most powerful empress of the Ottoman Empire.
And finally, the queen bee, the most powerful woman of the harem is the Valide Sultan who would either be the wife or concubine of the sultan?s father and had risen to the exalted position within the harem. Nothing moves inside the harem without her permission or knowledge and she also plays an important role in her son?s decisions as a member of the imperial court. So it makes sense for any woman inside the harem to woo her and keep her in good books always as that could guarantee her protection, food, comforts, and even status.
In a nutshell, the harem functioned as a preparatory school where women received the appropriate education on how to fit in the Ottoman scheme of things and find their way around, without ruffling ?wrong? feathers in the process.
The harem women were powerful
The harem was powerful despite its physical seclusion. Records indicate that, in the court, there was a window that the sultan would sit behind. The women of the harem could also sit behind that window and listen to the decisions being made in the court. There are even instances in which the women spoke up against the political decisions being made and also gave suggestions to the sultan for dealing with the enemy.
For example, Roxelana was also Suleiman the magnificent’s political adviser and would correspond independently with many different figures throughout Europe. This was especially key during her husband?s long absences on various war fronts. And as Valide sultan, Nurbanu the mother of Ottoman sultan Sultan Murad III forged and maintained relationships with European monarchs through intermediaries.
Thus from the viewpoint of western eyes, these women of the harem appear to be entirely oppressed from all rights but in reality, the women were highly powerful and feared within the Ottoman Empire. Yes, the sultans after Suleiman the magnificent were weak and indecisive, due to which the harem women particularly the Valide sultan started playing key decisive roles in the Ottoman empire.
The emergence of influential Valide Sultans also led to discontent due to their ?perceived? interference in state matters and they were also vilified by their male rivals. But this does not belittle the fact that these women showed great character and proved themselves worthy of admiration and rivalry in the highly entrenched male-dominated world of the Ottoman era.
As Helen Keller has rightly said.
?Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.?
About the author-:
Mythili is a programmer by passion and a connoisseur of fine arts like painting, calligraphy, and pottery. She writes in the twilight between relationships, creativity, and human behavior.