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.

Poor Arabian women?

January 29, 2012

How we, cosmopolite, liberal Europeans, with pronounced anti-sexist views and very democratic in behavior (really?), love to pity our Islamic sisters, the poor veiled ladies obviously maltreated by their husbands, oppressed by their discriminatory culture which, in addition, breeds mass-terrorist! We feel so superior, so falsely advanced and philanthropic, if we sustain their “cause” or, after reading the tragic memoir of one struggling Arabian wife, deeply involve in “aid Muslim women” organizations with the strongest sense of self-importance! It’s our duty to support them and actively participate in their externally imposed adaptation to the modern values. We made a mean of boasting with our humanitarian actions from it!


And I don’t state that encouraging emancipation is, though majorly artificial, something blameworthy (after all, help’s inevitably welcomed), but it’s wrong to treat Arabian women as being clearly inferior. Not to say it’s another form of the unfairness we claim to want to diminish.

We, sophisticated, unprejudiced lads, seem to have forgotten the funny contrast between our histories. Bet you don’t expect what I’m about to tell.

While the fancy, highly “cultivated” European dame of the Early Meddle Ages was spending her time doing oh-so-complicated things like this…

woman in the middle ages

…and, if aristocratic enough, this…

women spinning

…the poor Muslim gals had to settle on easier jobs, fitted for their limited capacities, like, I don’t know, patronizing world’s first University?

When the erudition of the female population was badly seen by Christiandom and women had to be satisfied with mere basic knowledge so they could remain the docile, plain brides men desired, Fatima al-Fihri (died 880), nicknamed Oum al Banine (meaning “the mother of the children”) founded the oldest academic degree-granting University existing today, the University of Qarawiyyin, in Morocco. Daughter of a wealthy businessman, Mohamed al-Fihri, she invested the money inherited from her father to build gathering locations for scholars. Her sister, Mariam, is said to have been responsible for the construction of the Al-Andalus (Andalusian) mosque in Fes.

university of qairawan

This was late 9th century, almost 200 to 400 years before the birth of our more educated Hildegard of Bingen (1097- 1179) and Christine de Pizan (1363- 1430).

The 10th century doesn’t disappoint either: around 950, Miriam al-Ijli al-Astrulabi hand-crafted intricate astrolabes, a premature type of global/ Sun/ Moon/ planets/ stars positioning system, which was an impressive deed for the epoch.


It’s sad, though, there’s not much information about these two, at least not in accessible language, ’cause it would be great to learn more of their lives and accomplishments. Personally, I discovered Miriam and Fatima’s vague stories from an informative exposition-program I stumbled across in Istanbul. It was called “1001 Inventions”  (if you need further details) and introduced to the public a list of the chief Islamic scientists, astronomers, doctors, architects, mathematicians, etc, amongst whom were our admirable ladies.

fatima-at exposition

miriam- at exposition


Summing up: it’s very nice to help and sponsor Muslim women to speak-up, claim their God-given rights, liberate or whatever, yet you should bear in mind that they’re far from being pathetic and poor, on the contrary: they have a legacy we can’t brag with.

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