Harem: The Power Within
In Muslim societies the social interaction between unrelated men and women is restricted. Traditional house design often allowed the women the inner part of the house which would be off-limits to outsiders. This is the concept of Harem, which literally means a sacred or restricted place. However, in Arabic and Turkish the word Harem is also used as a general
name for all the women living in an household. According to Alev L. Croutier the most largest Harem of all times was the Harem of the Ottoman Sultans. He claims that in 16th century there were 600 women in the Ottoman Harem. The origin of the girls brought to the Imperial Harem was very diverse. Because the territories of the Empire was expanded into three continent they were girls from European Countries, Iran, Russia, and North Africa. Most of the girls were brought when they were child. The real source for slaves and concubines brought to the Imperial Palace were the continuos wars. These girls were mostly Christian. Because most wars were made with the Christian countries. Later in 14th century when the Mediterranean piracy started the source for girls and slaves became the north Africa and Caucasian. Besides the girls who were brought as a war prisoner, there were also girls sent to Sultan by the ministers and princes of other countries and states of the Ottoman Empire.
Imperial Harem was above all schools. Before being presented to the Sultan, all girls had to learn Arabic, Turkish, literacy, court manners, music and religion. For talented girls Harem also had private teachers coming from other countries. All girls were made Muslim the day they entered the Imperial Palace. A new Arabic or Persian name were giving to them. After that, older women of the Harem were giving these girls the necessary education in case they could see the Sultan one day. If a concubine who saw the Sultan for one time could have the chance to see him again, she became a favorite. Favorites of the Sultan had more chance to marry him. If a girl marries the Sultan and gives birth to a child, then she could guaranty her luxury until the death of her husband. However, the most powerful woman of the Harem and the Empire was the mother of the Sultan. She was also called Valide Sultan which means Mother Sultan. She had a higher income than the Grand Vizier, the vice president, and often acted as the guardian of the interests of the Sultan and the dynasty. Therefore, the dream of all mothers of princes in the Harem was to be a Mother Sultan (Croutier).
However, the character of an Oriental Harem has often been set forth incorrectly. While it may contain hundreds of women, a very few of these are the actual consorts of the monarch(DOhsson). A large number are personal servants and entertainers of himself, his mother his consorts, his daughters or his infant sons. Another section consists of those being educated for some personal service. A fourth group, probably the greatest majority, are mere house-servants, who attend to all the domestic labors of the Harem and are seldom promoted to more honorable positions. There is finally, a group of older women who preserve order and peace, teach, and keep accounts.
The average age in the Harem was 17. Most female children were married off at five to much older men who couldn’t see them alone, until they were 13 and had reached puberty. They were usually married off to leading servants of the Sultan, who were thereby more intimately connected with the imperial household (Altindal 46).
In Harem, it was forbidden for the girls to talk or even to see other men than the Sultan. There was only one Sultan — the rest got turned into eunuchs or killed! Eunuchs were the guardians of the Harem. Although the Sacred Law strongly disapproved the employment of eunuchs, that unfortunate class was thought too useful to be dispensed with entirely. Some were white, brought mainly from the Caucasus region; but the great majority were black brought from Africa. The class deserves mention because several of the important offices of state among the “men of the pen” were held by eunuchs, and now and then rose to high place in the army and administration. They were mostly black slaves turned into eunuchs when they were children. They had very high education and they were the connection between the Sultan and the girls of the Harem (Altindal 89).They were responsible for choosing new girls for the Harem and informing the Sultan about these girls and making rules to keep the Harem peaceful.
For women, being part of a Harem meant emotional and psychological insecurity; and unless they happened to be free, not slaves, and independently wealthy, it meant material insecurity as well. Harem was a boring place for the most part. There really was not that much to do. Women in the Harem could sew, eat, go to the baths, shop, sleep, take care of children if have any — and pray… That was about it. So the women of the Harem channeled their energy into vanities, and vied for positions of most-favor — while trying to maintain their status in a group of 200 to 300 women. It was a fiercely political environment where women fought each other for every tiny scrap of power, or what was perceived as power. From 1541 to 1687 women ruled the Ottoman Empire through the power they created for themselves using the tools forged in the Harem. Some of the women in the Harem were more powerful than the Sultan of the time; there are many examples of these women in the Ottoman history.
During the Ottoman Empire there are periods where Harem women had actively interfere with politics. The most important of these women was Kosem Sultan. Her real name was Mehpeyker. She was brought in Istanbul very young and got into Sultan Ahmets Harem. She was the daughter of a Bosnian priest. During the rule of six different Sultan she governed the Empire behind the bars of the golden cage. When she was young, Ahmet I fell in love with her. After giving birth to four boys and two girls she was the most powerful woman of the palace. Her intrigues started when she became the mother Sultan. She governed the Harem very fairly and she did not ordered the murder of the other children of the Sultan that were from the other wives of her husband. However, after the dead of his husband, the brother of the Sultan took over the power. For six years she lived in a small village far from Istanbul and the politics. When her son Murat IV became Sultan, she gained her power back. Murat IV was 12 years old when he became Sultan. Until he grew up, for 10 years Kosem Sultan governed the Empire. She was as powerful as, for example, a Queen Mother in France. Indeed Catherine de Medici corresponded with her about the renewal of French trade capitulations, writing as the Queen, Mother of the King to the Sultan Queen, Mother of Grand Seigneur(Altindal 121). For 50 years she was the most powerful person of the Ottoman Empire. She was informing her son about the government but she was the person who was giving decisions and making the changes. She was murdered by the wife of her son at 1651. Eventhough there were many women who had the full power of the government during the Ottoman Empire, Kosem Sultan was the most important of them all. Her name is given to first half of the 17th century (Croutier).
The 16th century was the golden age of the Ottoman Empire. The most important Sultan of this century was Kanun-i Sultan Suleiman. Suleiman the Magnificent developed the power of the Ottomans to its greatest extent – from Asia Minor to North Africa. He captured Belgrade, subjugated Hungary and besieged Vienna. After his fleet became the dominant power in the Mediterranean Sea he conquered Tripoli in North Africa. In Istanbul, he surrounded himself with poets, architects and lawyers and introduced most of the characteristic achievements of Ottoman civilization, he is therefore also known as Suleiman the Lawgiver. A woman who captured the heart of such a powerful Sultan was not one of the regular women of the Harem. Roxalane was sent to Suleiman as a gift. Because she was 18 years old when they brought her in the palace she could not get used to Harem life. One day Suleiman wanted to see that Russian girl who was always fighting with the other women of the Harem. After that day Roxalane never left the side of Suleiman again. He sent her first wife away, and got married with Roxalane. This powerful Sultan even wrote poems for her (Keddie 38).
The vice-president of Suleiman was Ibrahim Pasha. Ibrahim Pasha was married with the sister of Suleiman. He was the favorite man of the Sultan. He had the best position in the government after Suleiman. However, he was trying to convince the Sultan to declare his son from his first wife as a crowned prince. Roxalane set a trap for him and caused his death. After that there was no obstacle in her way to be Mother Sultan. During the sultanate of Suleiman she did not have any active role in the politics. But she was the loved wife of the most powerful man of the 16th century. She could never be Mother Sultan as she always dreamed of; because she died before Suleiman. Suleiman lived only 4 years after her death.The death of Sultan Suleiman was the end of the golden age of the Ottoman Empire (Nanji).
Sultan Murat III had 133 children during his Sultanate. He was addicted to women and sex . Turkish pirates brought to Sultan a girl that they found during a war on an island in Adrian sea. When Sultan Murat III saw her the first time she was only 13 years old. But she fascinated him with her beauty. Sultan Murat married her and changed her name to Safiye. Very soon she gave birth to Mehmet III who was going to be the next Sultan of the Ottoman dynasty. After the birth of his son, Sultan Murat left the government affairs to his prime minister Sadrazam Sokkulu Mehmet pasha and started living in the Harem section of the palace with his women. Safiye Sultan was very upset about this because he was no longer the favorite of the Sultan. Instead of jalousie she choose to use her power in the politics. After the death of the Sultan because of drugs, Mehmet III became the Sultan. However; he was only 16 years old. Safiye Sultan governed the Empire with his son until she died. She started the first diplomatic contacts with the neighbors of the Empire. She improved the army, and she built many mosques and schools. After his son died, she was murdered in her sleep in the palace (Wheatcroft 55).
In Ottoman Palace there are many examples of Sultan daughters marrying man who are in age of their grand-father. Ayse Sultan was the daughter of Ahmet I. The first marriage of Ayse Sultan was with Nosuh Pasha when she was only seven years old. Nosuh Pasha had to wait long time before he could enter the bridal chamber. However, he got killed at the second year of his marriage with the baby bride. When the father of Ayse Sultan, Ahmet I, was death when he was 28 years old Osman II became Sultan. Osman was the grand brother of Ayse Sultan. At this time Ayse Sultan was only a teenager and she was again widow after the dead of her second husband Karakas Mehmet Pasha. Osman II found her a new husband and marry her off with the governor of Beylerbeyi , Hafiz Ahmet Pasha. To marry off Ayse Sultan was as important as choosing someone for the government affairs. During the revolt of the janissaries, the mercenaries, Hafiz Pasha was killed; and Ayse Sultan was widowed again. A month later in 1632 Ayse Sultan married off with the prime minister of the Sultan Oman, Murtaza Pasha. But unfortunately her marriage with him did not last longer than a year because of the death of her husband. After that, she had three other marriages again with the most important governors of the time. She had her last marriage when she was 50 years old. But this last one ended with her death in 1656 (Wheatcroft 76).
During the Ottoman Empire there is no other Harem woman who was used in politics as much as Ayse Sultan was (Altindal 21).
Many French historians claimed that the mother of Mahmut II, Nelesdil Sultan was the daughter of a very noble French family. She was brought to the palace when she was 14 years old by the Turkish pirates. The young Aimee was captured in a small Mediterranean island. They changed her name to Naksidil. She was one of the wives of the Sultan Abulhamid I. It is claimed that she was the cousin of Josephine, the wife of French emperor, Napoleon. (Wheatcroft 55)
Naksidil Sultan was the mother of Mahmut II. She was the most important person of the reforms made during the Sultanate of his son (Altindal 74).
The imperial Harem is one of the most interesting study areas of the Ottoman history. Harem was not only the inner part of the house but it was a school of life full of challenges, restrictions and powers. Many women lived in this golden cage of the Ottoman dynasty; however, only a few of them were intelligent enough to use their power outside the closed doors of the Harem. All of them had an important role in the 900 years rule of the Ottoman Empire by serving the Sultan and giving birth to princes. Besides, concubinage is one of the reasons for the long dynasty of the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan had complete control over his partners. There was no possibility of embarrassment, so often caused to other dynasties, by matrimonial or sexual connections with members of the power elite or foreign dynasties(Keddie 67).
Work Cited List
Altindal, Meral. Osmanlida Harem. Harem in Ottomans. Istanbul: Altin Kitaplar Yayinevi, 1993.
Croutier, Alev L. The World Behind the Veil. Reference Desk 17 Dec. 1996: n. pag. Online. America Online. 10 Jul. 1997. Available WWW:
DOhsson, Mouradja I. Tableau General de LEmpire Othoman. General Picture of the Ottoman Empire. Le Journal de LHistoire 23 Apr. 1997:
n. pag. Online. America Online. 10 Jul. 1997. Available WWW:
Keddie, Nikki R. , ed. Women in the Middle Eastern History . By Donald Quataert. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1992.
Nanji, Azim A. Women Men and Gender in Islam. The Muslim Almanac. Ed. Abdullah Kassami. 2 vols. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1996.
Wheatcroft, Andrew. Ottoman Renaissance. History Today
Feb. 1996: 55.