Women of the Harem

February 16, 2012


The loftiness of the Ottoman Empire captivated and excited my imagination ever since I first stepped into the balmy scented, richly adorned Topkapi Palace, the very core of  the former world power, with its slim columns sustaining the low roofs and a general medieval feeling which doubtlessly made half its charm. Another world, really. Gold everywhere, lush vegetation, slim shapes full of majesty and a winding whisper, somehow projected from the depths of time, dominating over the general silence… The official residence of the Sultan for more than 400 years, Topkapi is a tad similar with the surreal places vividly depicted in Scheherazade’s 1001 stories and a great example of Muslim architecture: I’ve seen artists drawing its laboriously detailed buildings from the cool shades of old trees, inspired by the mellifluous ambiance. It quite felt like inside a Turkish baklava, metaphorically, of course.

My favorite section of the Topkapi complex was doubtlessly the Harem (which means “forbidden or sacrosanct place” in Arabic), where the prevalent stillness was taking another flavor,  immersing the visitors who, thought many in number, didn’t make any noise, with the reminiscences of a life long extinguished but still lingering over the paved walls and marble floors. How amusing to watch the otherwise garrulous tourists strolling in complete silence through the beauteous chambers once belonging to the highest esteemed concubines of the Paddishah (a courtesy title for the obese, bearded Sultan) when nothing but the stately view imposed it to them!It was something dignified about it, a haughtiness none could expect to perceive in the house of slave courtesans.

I would later learn the muteness induced to those walking across the Harem was just an ancient trick employed by the most experimented concubines to hear every murmur, plot, gossip, every step of their rivals. Oddly enough, its echoes subsisting over centuries as if maintained by veritable  ghosts. Well, that’s disputable.


Anyway, I became  keen on the Harem life and the women who, prisoners in a jeweled cage, had to constantly and respiteless resort to diligence for their survival. These female characters, so vivid and strange to the western mind, are the most bizarre examples of metamorphosis as they’re obliged to pass from one initial identity (the pure girl of a merchant, the precocious daughter of a huntsman), abandon their native language, lifestyle, clothes and even name to undertake the Ottoman traditions and become odalisque, the wealthiest slaves we know. They suffer a forced reincarnation and transform in what’s inflicted, forgetting their roots or remembering them through a curtain of mist, illusory memories loosing, in time, any tangency with  reality; the arcane women.

I couldn’t help to do some research about them, remove their veils and reveal the real human beings, not just the cryptic projection. It was in vain  for the only materials I’ve found presented the same enigmatic essence: brief facts, synthetized biographies, the ambiguity remaining unsolved.


In a generation of concubines in the Paddishah’s Harem, the sole registered by history is his mother, former Hasaki (favorite to the dead Sultan), who successfully succeeded to protect her child from her rival’s poisons and murder attempts, sustaining him to snatch the title of Oriental King. They weren’t women, but atrocious hunters filled with grace, fighting to obtain supremacy and gain even the slightest amount of liberty, achievable only by being Valide Sultanas. Mistakes could cost their whole struggling.

Just look at the ingenious plans made up by the most powerful Valides: Nur-Banu (ca. 1525 –  1583), consort of  Selim II, concealed his corpse in an icebox for approximately 12 days, until her son,  Murad III, came to Istanbul from Manisa, where he had occupied the function of governor; she also corresponded with Queen Catherina de Medici and, assisted by the Grand Vizier, held a great political influence over the Sultan’s decisions; her daughter in law, Safyie (ca. 1550 – fl. 1603), previously Sofia Baffo of Venetian nobility, ensued Nur-Banu as Valide and reigned with an iron hand, aiding Queen Elizabeth to secure the trading treaties with the Porte and gaining such domination over her servants she could earn thrice more than the next valide, Handan (ca. 1574 – 1605), until the end of her days.


True, old-fashioned manipulation at its highest: women with a brilliant knack have always been able to trick faith and overpass any state, be it slavery or other. Here you had the paradigm.


5 Responses to “Women of the Harem”

  1. bennythomas Says:

    The harem was petticoat government in a sense. Suleiman the Magnificent’s wife,Roxanne, an Armenian slave who rose to the highest position deserves mention here. She had her rivals killed( with a silken cord-garotte) and by her machinations Selim II came to power. He was nicknamed Selim the Sot for the right reasons. It is rumoured that he conquered- what his father could not achieve in his lifetime, Cyprus because of its most famous produce, Cyprian wine.
    In Harem politics eunuchs also came to play an important role. They were castrated and yet the penetration was no problem without the natural consequences of illicit relationship. If caught death would have been the result for both parties yet women sequestered and protected by intrigues knew how to survive and could still get away it.

  2. thank you for informing me about roxanne and her interesting ways of gaining power and raising to the status of Valide as i haven’t studied about her.
    indeed, the eunuchs played a great part in the harem lives and had affairs with the kadins, but i do think, though hidden, these were highly dangerous and could end with them both drowned in the Bosphorus- for the most influential concubines it was a risk they most likely didn’t assume while all eyes were upon them and they had no trustful persons to rely on

  3. Susan Ozmore Says:

    This is fascinating! It makes me wish I had the money to travel to exotic places, places that are much older and contain much more history than my own country. Thank you for a glimpse into another world.

  4. I’ve just returned from the Mediterranean. And I’m sorting through and captioning my photos of the Harem. I am finding the comments on various blogs useful for filling in details I may haave missed. But I wonder. How many people who visit sites like Topkapi Palace stop to think about the human costs implicit in such enterprises?

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