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Myth and Reality of the Ottoman Harem

Leslie P. Peirce

We in the West are heir to an ancient but still robust tradition of obsession with the sexuality of Islamic society. The harem is undoubtedly the most prevalent symbol in Western myths constructed around the theme of Muslim sensuality. One of the most fertile periods for the production of texts and images treating this theme was the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, and the most frequent subject the court of the Ottoman Sultan. Preoccupied with its own forms of monarchical obsolutism, Europe elaborated a myth of oriental tyranny and located its essence in the sultan’s harem. Orgiastic sex became a metaphor for power corrupted.

In fact, Europeans were not off the mark in fixing on the harems as a central arena of politics. It was not sex, however, that was the fundamental dynamics of the harem, but rather family politics. This is not to say that sex — sexual desire, the sexual act — was absent as an animating force within the imperial harem, but it was only one of several forces, and, for most of the period examined here, one of relatively little importance.

Sex for the Ottoman sultan, as for any monarch in a hereditary dynasty, could never be purely pleasure, for it has significant political meaning. Its consequences — the production of offspring — affected the succession to the throne, indeed the very survival of the dynasty. It was not a random activity. Sex in imperial harem was aimed in part at shaping, and thus controlling, the outcome of the sultan’s sexual activity. Sexual relations between the sultan and chosen women of the harem were embedded in a complex politics of dynastic reproduction. This fact belies the simplistic but indefatigable notion that harem women acquired power by imprisoning sultans in the thrall of their seductiveness. In fact, their power had complex sources that stretched far beyond the walls of the imperial bedroom.

Harem: Sacred, Protected, Forbidden

To an Ottoman subject, the term “harem” did not connote a space defined exclusively by sexuality. The word harem is one of an important family of words in the vocabulary of Islam derived from the Arabic root h-r-m. These words partake of one or both of two general — and obviously related — meanings associated with the root: to be forbidden or unlawful, and to declare sacred, inviolable, or taboo. A harem is by definition a sanctuary or sacred precinct. By implication, it is a space to which general access is forbidden or controlled and in which presence of certain individuals or certain modes of behavior are forbidden. That the private quarters in a domestic residence and by extension its female residents are also referred to as a “harem” comes from the Islamic practice of restricting access to these quarters, specifically access by males beyond a particular degree of consanguinity with the resident females. The word harem is a term of respect, redolent of religious purity and honor, and evocative of the requisite obeisance. It is gender-specific only in its reference to the women of a family.

The most sacred or exalted places in sixteenth-century Ottoman world were harems. The holy cities of Mecca and Medina and their environs were, and remain, the two most revered harems in Islam. One of the most important titles held after 1517 by the Ottoman sultan, like the sultan of the preceding dynasties before him, was “the servant of the two noble sanctuaries” (hadimul haremeyn ül-şerifeyn), a title proudly used today by the rulers of Saudi Arabia. The central Muslim religious compound in Jerusalem, Islam’s third most holy city, was also known as the “noble sanctuary” (harem-i şerif). In Ottoman usage, the inner courtyard of a mosque — its sanctuary — was also a harem.

While not himself divine, the sultan, “God’s shadow on Earth,” created a sacred space with his presence. Because the sultan lived there, the inner precinct of the royal palace, inhabited only males, was known as “the imperial harem” (harem-i-hümayûn). When toward the end of the sixteenth century the sultan established a second set of private quarters in the palace precinct to house women and children of the royal household, the latter area also began to be referred to as “the imperial harem” because of the presence not of women but of the sultan. The inviolability of the imperial residence in the minds of the sultan’s subjects is revealed by the fact that it was not well defended and yet rarely assaulted, even in the seventeenth century when sultan themselves began to be forcibly deposed and even murdered. It was not in one of the great public mosques of the city but rather in the inner precinct of the palace that the holiest relics of Islam were enshrined when brought to Istanbul after the conquest in 1517 of the Mamluk sultanate. In times of crisis, the sultan manipulated these relics — especially the mantle and sacred standard of the Prophet Muhammad — to create a public aura of haremlike sanctity so that he might invoke supranormal standard of loyalty from his subjects.

Despite the multiple connotations of the term harem, this book will confine its use to the two meanings familiar to a non-Muslim audience: the private quarters of a family and the women of a family. These meanings of course existed in the vocabulary of contemporary Ottomans, but it is important to note that, while the institution of the household harem ultimately derived from notions of sexual propriety — specifically, the belief that unmarried women and men who might lawfully enter into a sexual relationship must be kept apart — sexuality was not the dominant ordering principle within the household. An Ottoman Muslim household of means included women related to the male head of the household and to each other in what could be a complex set of relationships, many of which did not include a sexual role. The harem of a prosperous household would include the wife or wives of the male head of the household, and perhaps one or more slave concubines (a Muslim male might have four wives and an unlimited number of concubines); it seems, however, that polygyny was rare among the Ottoman middle and upper classes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Children too, both male and female, and perhaps, the widowed mother and unmarried, divorced, or widowed sisters of the husband lived in the harem. The harem would also include female slave servants, who might be the personal property of either the women or the men of the family.

The imperial harem was much like the household harem, only extensive and with more highly articulate structure. In our period, the head of the harem was the mother of the reigning sultan. The queen mother exercised authority over both family members — royal offspring; the consorts of the sultan, who might themselves acquire considerable power; and unmarried or widowed princesses — and the administrative/service hierarchy of the harem. During the last half of sixteenth century this latter group grew rapidly in numbers and status, undoubtedly because of the new presence of the sultan. High-ranking administrative officers of the harem — all of them women — received large stipends and enjoyed considerable prestige, especially the harem stewardess, chief of the administrative hierarchy. These women supervised the large number of servants who performed the housekeeping tasks of the harem, and, more important, managed the training of select young harem women who would wait on the sultan himself or his mother. With the exception of the reigns of one or two notoriously uxorious sultans, few women of the imperial household occupied the sultan’s bed. Indeed, as the more astute and well informed of the European observers commented, the imperial harem was more like a nunnery in its hierarchical organization and the enforced chastity of the great majority of its members.

Leslie P. Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, Oxford University Press, 1993, Intro. pp. 3-6

Published : April 2, 2014

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