The Harem in the Ottoman Empire

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A Speech for General Audience at the Anniversary of 700th Ottoman State

In order to understand the Harem and to correct the distorted accounts of it, it is essential to be clear that the word Harem refers to the Sultans’ homes and families: both local people visiting Topkapı Palace and foreign tourists who have often been deliberately misinformed about Turkey, suppose that the Ottoman Sultans lived a life of pleasure and dissipation in the Palace. But it was not like that, for within it were the official buildings that for over 300 years housed the central government of the Ottoman Empire. That is to say, it was the equivalent of both the presidential palace, and prime minister’s office, and key ministries, and headquarters of the army, and so on. As is shown in detail in the book together with documentary evidence and photographs, Topkapı Palace consisted of three main areas:

The First was the Outer Palace (Bîrûn), which extends from the Imperial Gate to the Gate of the White Eunuchs (Akağalar Kapısı), where the standard of the Prophet (PBUH) (Sancak-ı Şerif) was kept, and comprises two extensive courtyards. The Sultan’s apartments were not in this outer area. In the early period, it included the office of the Grand Vizier and the Council of State (Dîvân-ı Hümâyûn), and so on.

The Second was the Inner Palace (Enderûn) and contained the principal offices of the Ottoman state like the Treasury, the Palace School, the headquarters of the army, and in the early period the Sultan’s pavilion and apartments.

The Third was the Sultan’s ‘home.’ The Ottoman Sultans lived here with their extensive families in apartments which today would be considered suitable only as flats for minor officials. Since it was forbidden for men and others who were canonical strangers to enter these apartments, they were called the Harem-i Hümâyûn, meaning Imperial Harem. As is well-known, places it was forbidden to enter were called “harem” by our forefathers. So what does it mean to use the term Harem, which meant places that only people who were not canonically strangers (nâmahrem) could enter, for places where the Sultans caroused and held orgies, as certain writers have described suitably to their own practices?

We may now consider the question of the Sultans’ personal lives and that of the female slaves. What does the term female slave (câriye) denote? It may be understood from the facts given later in the book that in Islamic law this term refers only to female slaves. However, there are two categories of cariye:

The First are female slaves the masters of whom could only benefit from their daily labors, and with whom sexual relations were prohibited; they could not be used as concubines. There was no difference between these and what today are known as domestic servants and cleaners and even permanent staff. They would go to their masters’ houses early in the morning; do the cleaning, prepare food, or look after small children. Their male owners’ relations with them resembled those of any contract of employment. Although they were only slaves, they were not lawful for their masters. In any event, the majority of them were married to slaves like themselves. Only, as is described later, female slaves of this category in the Harem could not marry so long as they did not ‘retire’ from the Palace (çirâg[). Mankind has undergone various stages; there was the era of captivity, then that of slavery, and now is the era of wage-earning. Apart from the name and a few restrictions, there was very little difference between slaves of this sort and women servants of the present day.

Most probably you would not expect the daughters and wives of the Sultan in the Sultan’s household, which was known as the Harem, to cook their own food and wash their own clothes. Since they would not do these tasks, there would have to be servants employed to do them. Like such servants today, these would be women, not both male and female. Since free women would not do this work, it would be women who at that time were slaves, that is, cariyes, who would do it. The female slaves in the Ottoman Harem then, who numbered sometimes fifty, seventy, or even four to five hundred, were women servants of this kind. However wrong it would be for the master of a house today to have sexual relations with a woman servant or cleaner who comes to the house, it would have been wrong to the same degree for the Sultans to have sexual relations with female slaves of this sort. Lists are extant of the numbers of female slaves who worked in the laundry of the Harem, and in its kitchens, and so on. It is known how many women servants are employed in the Turkish President’s Çankaya Residence at the present time; but it is similarly well-known that the President does not have illicit relations with them; no one can suggest such a thing.

The Second category of female slaves were those whose owners and masters had the right both of their menial services and to use them as concubines. Their status was that of a sort of wife. It was prohibited for them to have sexual relations with anyone other than their masters. Their masters were obliged to treat them as wives. If they bore children they took the name of Ümmü’l-veled that is, Mother of so-and-so, and could no longer be sold to anyone else. They would be nominally freed on giving birth to the child of a free man, and obtain their actual freedom on the death of their husbands. They differed from free women in that so long as the marriage contract was not concluded their number could exceed four. It was permitted to conclude the marriage contract with them and give them the status of wife. However, scholars of Islamic law, of chiefly the Hanafi School, did not recommend this in the event of there being free women available.

Very few of the women slaves in the Ottoman Harem were of this category. More importantly, up to and including Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror (848/1444-850/1446, 855/1451-886/1481), the Ottoman Sultans married free women. With the exception of two or three marriages, those succeeding him married not free women but slaves of the second category above. Of these, some concluded the marriage contract. One should mention that when doing this, they were implicitly following the legal views of the Maliki School. That is to say, from Mehmed the Conqueror onwards, the wives of most of the Ottoman Sultans were female slaves of the second category.

Osman Ghazi (680/1281-?724/?1324) married two free women. Until Mehmed the Conqueror, the Sultans pursued their family life with from two to five women, some of whom were slaves. Those who came after him had two, three, four, five, and as will be described below, seven or eight and at the most eighteen. They may be listed as follows:

The First Category: Kadınefendi; the Sultans married from one to four of this rank, sometimes concluding the marriage contract, but they mostly lived as wives without marriage being contracted. The chief of these, that is, the First Wife, was called the Başkadınefendi. Until the end of the 17th century they were also called Haseki Sultan. This does not mean that all the Sultans had four kadınefendis. For instance, Yavuz Sultan Selim (918/1512-926/1520) had two.

The Second Category: İkbâl; towards the end of the Ottoman dynasty despite having at the most four ‘wives’ —either free or slaves— of the above category, one or two but by no means all the Sultans kept at the most four concubines of the category called ikbal. The first of these was called the Başikbal, who if the marriage contract was concluded with her became the Fifth Wife (Beşinci Kadınefendi). There were Second, Third and Fourth İkbals respectively.

The Third Category: One or two of the Sultans kept slave-concubines who were candidates for promotion to the rank of ikbal or kadınefendi. At the most these could be eight in number. The first four of these were called gözde and the second four peyk. The one, or at the most two, Sultans, who kept these may be seen better from list of ‘Sultans and Their Wives’ in Part Five.

The following conclusions may be drawn from what has been written so far:

(1) With one or two two exceptions, the Ottoman Sultans had at the fewest two and at the most four or five wives at any one time. But over the periods of their lives, this number may have risen to twenty at the most.

(2) The Sultans who took the Fifth Kadınefendi as wife were not exceeding the limit of four, stipulated by Islam, for the majority of these ‘wives’ were slave-concubines with whom no marriage contract had been concluded. The restriction to four wives refers to women with whom the contract is concluded.

(3) It is noteworthy that although at the height of their power, the Ottoman Sultans ruled over lands stretching over twenty-four million square kilometers, they never threatened the honour of others, but chose this way to satisfy their needs, which was not forbidden by the Qur’an and was within the bounds of the licit. In the face of all the immorality of the present time, it is a great error to classify as shameful what I have described above.

(4) The gross misrepresentations of what the female slaves did in the apartments known as the Harem, bathing naked and taking part in orgies, are complete fabrications. If you make a tour of the Harem apartments in particular, you will see on the walls of the Sultans’ bedrooms, the princes’ rooms and everywhere suitable, Qur’anic verses and Hadiths of the Prophet (PBUH) instructing in the proper conduct of family life. That is, the Harem was a centre of instruction for the women who were partners to the Sultan.

(5) It never occurred that a Sultan abducted any girl. On the contrary, many daughters of noble families passed themselves off as slaves although they were free, in order to enter the Ottoman Palace and bear a child of the Sultan. All who came were not accepted; they were tested by experienced and knowledgeable women psychologically and for any corrupt tendencies, and were carefully selected.

(6) The Sultans’ taking female slaves as wives rather than free women was entirely to prevent the leaking of secrets by means of his family, for the Sultans bore the responsibility of governing lands that stretched over twenty-four million square kilometers. It was also to disallow the interference in state affairs of fathers and sisters-in-law and other relatives of the wife. For the two occasions Sultans took free women as wives, it indeed resulted in such difficulties, although the father of one was the Shaykhu’l-Islam. They therefore considered the practice to be inappropriate.

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