For centuries, the harems of the Middle and Far East have tantalized the western imagination. During the Age of Romanticism in Europe, artistic depictions of harems as brothel-style sexual playgrounds filled with beautiful and glistening women, lounging around steam baths, came to be the norm. Opera greats like Mozart dedicated an entire concerto to the story of a European woman being taken hostage by an Oriental harem. Furthermore, the depiction of evil and dominant sheiks and sultans having their way with hundreds, if not thousands of beautiful women during their rule, has taken on a stereotypical life of its own.
While there is some truth to the fact that large harems were kept to entertain the sexual whims of powerful rulers, the intent and actual reality of harems goes far beyond that.
In Muslim households, the harem was designed to be the women’s quarters. Its reason for existence was well defined and had deep roots in Ottoman history.
In the Ottoman tradition, both legal-marriage wives and slave concubines were relied upon for the purpose of reproduction. The primary emphasis was on the patriarchal nature of power that was hereditary only through sons. Wives, unlike concubines, had deep-rooted interests in family affairs. This was often perceived as an opportunity for them to be disloyal to their husbands. For this reason, concubines were preferred over them in regards to having children. Sultans across the Ottoman Empire and much of the Middle East implemented harems in their kingdoms. The actual quarters where the women worked and lived were far from the romanticized sexual playgrounds they have been made out to be. They were places where Muslim women could take off their headscarves and relax, other female relatives could visit and young children could play. The slave concubines who had additional responsibilities could also do their work there.
Even though concubines within harems had no significant authorities or powers, the ones that did a good job of pleasing their Sultans advanced through the ranks to make the best possible lives for themselves, considering the circumstances.
Like a fine-tuned corporation streamlined to allow for leadership and subordinate roles, harems had a highly specialized hierarchy that allowed them to function in the most productive manner.
At the highest level of the harem were the Valide Sultans and Kadins. Valide Sultans were women who were empowered by the sultan to ensure that order and productivity were maintained within the harem. They were also responsible for making sure the sultan’s sons learned about things such as politics and acceptable social behaviors. Kadins were the favorite women of sultans and usually possessed extraordinary beauty. They were often brought in as slaves or kidnap victims. Upon promoting a woman to Kadin, the sultans were actually making them wives who were provided with private quarters, fine clothing and jewelry, and a spending allowance. Odalisques were the servants, generally not considered to be very beautiful, and rarely presented to the sultan. They would be taught a wide array of skills including singing, dancing and the ability to play music. Some would be granted titles pertaining to their work including Bath Keeper and Jewel Keeper. Often male guests to the sultan’s kingdom would be presented with an Odalisque to keep him company in the evening. Many women throughout the empire sought to obtain any and all of the above levels in a sultan’s harem; doing so ensured that they would be provided for and potentially obtain a rank and position that would give them the best life they could dream of.
Beyond this hierarchy of women, there were also men in the harem who had a very unique characteristic.
In Muslim tradition, it was forbidden for any man to lay his eyes on a sultan’s harem. Therefore, it would take someone who was considered less than manly to guard them.
This is where eunuchs came in. Castrated before puberty and molded for a life of servitude, eunuchs provided their services in order to give sultans peace of mind. Rendered sexless, these men were considered the ideal guards to watch over beautiful women. Even if their carnal desires were still intact, they had no ability to act upon them. During the height of the Ottoman Empire, nearly 1000 eunuchs served at the same time. They were often sent as gifts to sultans who would provide them tasks as they saw fit. Like harem women, there were hierarchies among the eunuchs and some had more power than others. The commander of the eunuchs could approach the sultan at any time, arrange special events such as births and weddings, promote and demote the women of the harem, and he even had the power to order a woman’s execution if he believed that she was deserving.
The highest level eunuch was often a sultan’s most trusted ally and in an environment as dynamic and potent as a harem, such bonds were critical.
Though not as common today as centuries ago, there are still some countries run as authoritarian regimes that foster an environment where harems can and do exist. One notable sultan from a prominent Middle Eastern country actively recruits women from the United States and many other countries in the world to join his already sizable harem.
In the west, we also have our own version of harems courtesy of certain religious groups that support Plural Marriage and also thanks to media moguls like Hugh Hefner, who flaunts multiple girlfriends lounging around his mansion on the hit show, The Girls Next Door.
Even though the very idea of harems certainly stands in contradiction to gender equality, empowerment of women or any sort of modern notions of human relations, it seems like in one form or another, they will be around for a long time.