10 – What do you think of harems

Ancient harems captured the imagination of Western writers for centuries. Harems and Eunuchs in Ottoman Empire are both concepts so mystical and strange in the western realm. Is the harem it really the sultan’s sex playground? How much is truth from fiction?

To talk about the harem was forbidden back then. Nobody knew what really went on in the harem, they were closely guarded, and this further ignited the curiosity and imagination of the West for centuries.

The Ottoman harem houses the females in the royal court. These include wives, concubines, female relatives, female servants and slaves. The harem occupies a secluded portion of the Ottoman imperial household and is protected by the eunuchs.

The harem was the ultimate symbol of the Ottoman Sultan’s power. His ownership of women was a sign of sexual prowess, wealth and power. 

To get things straight, the harem is more than just a sexual fortress for the Ottoman rulers. By its definition, the harem is ‘a sacred inviolable place’. The harem is probably more akin to a monastery than a sexual playground and orgies for the sultan.

In the Ottoman culture, the nobility can have up to 4 wives and have as many concubines. However enslaving muslims is forbidden in their religion, hence the Ottomans captured Christian girls from the Caucasus or Eastern Europe. 

Harems are more a monastery than a sex playground

Harems were initially created to protect the women while men went away in conquest or war.

Moreover, making love to the sultan was exceptionally rare. Very few get to spend the night with the sultan. Majority of the women in harems spent doing laundry, cleaning, chores, watching and rearing children for majority of their life.

Women in the harem can climb the social ladder and better their social status. The women in the harem can improve their status if they become a favored concubine of the sultan.

Hurrem, also known as Roxelana, was the most famous concubine in history. She was able to successfully rise up the ranks during her lifetime to queen and ruler of the Ottoman Empire. This is an amazing feat: she started as a slave captured in the Caucasus region; and she eventually became Sultan Suleiman’s favorite concubine; and finally he married her (even if he didn’t need to) and made Hurrem the legal wife and queen.

Other women in the harem can leave the harem later on. By having them married off to other male relatives, political allies or to lesser nobles.

Eunuchs Protecting the Harem

Access to the outside world is limited, eunuchs fiercely guarded the harems. What are eunuchs?

The term isn’t often used in modern times, but eunuchs have been re-inculcated into pop culture by way of Game of Thrones.

Because eunuchs guard the harem, they had to be castrated. There are two types of castration, partial or full castration. Full castration included the severing of one’s entire genitalia. Partial castration is when only the testicles are crushed or removed. Many of the eunuchs are castrated using the second type, because full castration is too dangerous and often lead to deaths.

There are many accounts of eunuchs having relations with the women. In fact, eunuchs are popular lovers for women because they don’t have to worry about getting pregnant.

I would rather live in a harem…

It would sound controversial now, but if I had a choice, I would live in a harem if I were a woman born during that time. Given the odds of life, I would choose to be in an Ottoman harem than to live in another European empire for survival’s sake.

WHY? There are many reasons for why a woman’s life in the harem is probably better than most women born during that time:

  • Harems provided economic safety and security
  • Women in harems are provided material comforts: the best food, clothes, music, art, and even education
  • Essentially, harems were like an all-female university. Women were taught how to read and write, they were taught various subjects such as language, religion, philosophy, music, etiquette, embroidery
  • Generally women in harems are safe from war and disease
  • Harems provide women more social mobility

We don’t want to romanticize the harem. It isn’t the ideal place, and most women there live their life bored and lonely. For most of their life they would be living in seclusion, based on the Islam concept of how “a man’s right to keep women concealed—invisible to other men.” Women are possessions owned by men.

Were there Egalitarian Societies in Ancient Societies?

If not a concubine in a harem… were there other places that were better for a woman?

There were, but they were exceptionally rare. Women are beneath men for most of history: even most of ‘civilized’ European empires and the democratic Ancient Athens. Some of the more egalitarian societies include:

  1. Ancient Persia – no slavery
  2. Etruscans – a meritocracy, egalitarian society
  3. Egypt – women can divorce and rule

The more nomadic a society, the more egalitarian or gender equal it is. The more advanced the agricultural society, the more rigid the social classes.

In a nomadic society, everyone has to contribute accordingly–to gather berries, to hunt, etc. In contrast to an agricultural society where the community can now support a large population due to production surplus.

The more advanced the agricultural society, the more it evolves towards patriarchy. Agriculture has designed women to focus on childcare, while men are tasked to lead.

Women can reproduce more often, having more support in food and resources. Mothers can now support having several children through cow’s or goat’s milk, versus before they have to space their children every 5 years due to the slow lactation periods.

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