A strange desire: 1(00)1 nights in the harem

1558591591.interior02© Abbeville Press

“Are youu crazy???” No, I’m not. Actually… Yes, I am. But not in the way you might think! Shhhtt… Chill! Don’t judge before reading, DO comment after.

Let me tell you a short story:

Once upon a time beyond the woods,  beyond high mountains, beyond the seven seas… there was a girl.

Whom am I lying to? This is not a fairytale. This is the opposite of a fairytale. (Is it?) There IS a girl. Now. Here. She hates “fairytales” starring presumed real life monsters, imagined hell and stereotypes. The myths. Hates and loves them in a strange way. Loves to unveil their hidden truth and hates the reactions myths trigger.

Now she points a finger at the Ottoman harem. Wait, they did, and they stained it with their dirty words: lust, brothel, sexual slaves.

And this is her response:

  • “I would love to spend 1(00)1 nights in the harem!”
  • “Are you insane? Have you lost your mind?”- followed by their thoughts-“This girl has no principles! Why on Earth would someone want to become the toy of the sultan?”

Well, that girl is me. And no, I DO NOT dream to be a slave! I don’t even want to see the sultan! My purpose is more… scientific. If I had the opportunity to travel back in time I would choose the Ottoman harem.

Before telling you why, let me debunk some myths and provide you some useful information:

  • Harem is not the synonym of lust, actually harem means sacred, taboo, forbidden, respect, purity and honour:

“The word harem is one of an important family of words in the vocabulary of Islam derived from the Arabic root h-r-m.” meaning “to be forbidden or unlawful, and to declare sacred, inviolable, or taboo. A harem is by definition a sanctuary or a sacred precinct.The most sacred or exalted places in the 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 sultans of preceeding dynasties before him, was “the servant of the two noble sanctuaries” (hadımul-haremeynül-şerifeyn), a title proudly used today by the rulers of Saudi Arabia.” (…)”While not himself divine, the sultan, “God’s shadow on Earth,” created a sacred space with his presence. (…)The private quarters in the palace precinct to house women and children of the royal household, was referred to as “the imperial harem” because of the presence there not of women but of the sultan.”  Leslie Peirce-The Ottoman Harem, Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire

  • Therefore, “harem” referred also to family. This means that we are not talking (only) about slaves but first and foremost about the wife or wives (up to 4), children, mother (valide sultan), mothers-in-law, divorced or widowed sisters of the sovereign, and of course, their female servants.
  • Yes, there were servants. BUT many of them occupied administrative positions in the harem and received large salaries:

According to Travel Link Turkey: “the actual handling of the Harem was performed and shared by two women, Kahya, “Head Housekeeper” and Haznedar Usta, “Head Treasurer”. Haznedar Usta was responsible for the financial matters of the Harem, and she acted like a treasurer allocating cash allowances and material possessions to harem women in direct proportion to their rank. After kalfa and haznedar usta, came Kalfas, the senior maids who were responsible for several duties: First Secretary, First seal-bearer, First Mistress of Robes and so forth. They were assisted by lesser servants called Halayiks.”

  • Consequently, some women enjoyed economic independence:

“A further source of women’s influence beyond the family was their ownership and exploitation of property.”(…) “(Women) contribute(d) to the public welfare by endowing religious foundations (…) or undertaking other forms of charity. From the great mosque complexes founded by the sultans’ mothers to modest neighborhood endowments created by ordinary individuals, Ottoman women left their mark on the cities.(…) An interesting feature of women’s public charity was that a significant portion of it was aimed at helping other women: contemporary histories and testamentary documents show well-to-do individuals making provision not only for female family members and retainers but also for less fortunate women: orphans, paupers, prisoners, and prostitutes.” Leslie Peirce-The Ottoman Harem, Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire

  • Moreover, women in harem were educated: they were teached about Ottoman culture, learned to read and write in Ottoman Turkish, to play various instruments, to sing, to dance and to recite poetry.
  • We must mention that there was a period in the Ottoman history called the “Sultanate of Women”, when the empire was ruled by women. Some of them exerted a great influence in Ottoman politics from the shadow, as Hürrem, the wife of Suleyman the Magnificent, while others, see Kösem Sultan, were official regents.

So, as you can see, life wasn’t that bad in the Ottoman harem.

Now, let me tell you WHY I would choose the Ottoman harem as a destination if I had the opportunity to travel back in time:

  • This part is shorter than you were expected, as my answer is quite simple: to discover the truth and debunk more myths!

A clarification:

  • I would spend 1(00)1 (11, let’s admit 3 years would be too much) nights in the Ottoman harem as an observant or in an administrative position.
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