Harems: Fact or Fiction, Joy or Jail?

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Harems: Fact or Fiction, Joy or Jail?

Copyright 1998 Kathryn Grosz. Nothing in these articles in whole or in part may be duplicated in any way.

A wonderful book about harems has been published. It is Harem - The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier published by Abbeville Press. The book is interesting, exciting, and a feast for the visually oriented. It contains an amazing number of paintings, photos, and drawings of life in the harem. A picture is worth more than one thousand words in this book! The author discusses mostly the Serglio, a rather rich home of the Ottoman sultans. Harems were well entrenched from at least 1299 to 1922. I have highlighted below a small part of the interesting and varied information that the author imparts. I bought my copy of the book at Kepler's in Palo Alto, California. It should be available at many book stores.

General Information

"In ancient Rome, familia, meant a man's field, property, money, and slaves, all of which were passes on to his sons. Women became part of the man's familia, property. And polygamy was established as an important part of an economic system in which a man needed many hands in order to maintain his livelihood." The word harem often refers in Arabic, to the separate part of the house where servants, women, and children live in seclusion. The harem were staffed by odalisques (servant girls) and by eunuchs (castrated male servants). Over time it became quit common for the sultan to marry the odalisques, many of whom were originally slaves.

The Women

The women of the harem came from all over Asia, Africa, and sometimes Europe. Royal motherhood provided great power and wealth as well as insecurity and the constant fear assassination of either the mother or the son. If the son became sultan, his mother was elevated to the position of valide sultana. She ran the harem and was the most powerful woman in the empire.

Life in the harem was one of luxury and ease. However, "Many of the women in the harem died young. There are endless stories of brutal murders and poisoning." The average age in the harem was only seventeen. The most common vocation practiced by the women was poetry.

The color and design of clothing designated the rank of a woman. Clothing was elaborate and beautiful, often made of satins, colored cloths, velvets and silks adorned with gold and silver brocades as well as jewels. The sultan never saw a woman wearing the same dress more than once. On the rare occasions that the women went outside the harem. they wore drab tunics from shoulders to feet concealing everything and, of course, including a veil.

Daily Life

There were beautiful gardens and pools to relax in. Of course, always guarded by the eunuchs. The Seraglio harem had the "Elephant House" filled with lions, tigers, leopards, elephants, birds, monkeys, and many other animals.

The women developed secret codes to communicate. For example, a flower bouquet could actually be a message from an illicit lover, each flower part of the secret code. The color of handkerchiefs also relayed messages.

Opium was used both in rituals and for everyday use. Many ate the opium, rather than smoke it, because the effect lasted longer.

The most luxurious pastime was the bath. The sultan, his mother, and wives had private baths at the Seraglio while the other women shared a bathhouse. It was a time to talk and eat and relax.

There were also public baths for the women of smaller harems. "For some, the pilgrimage afforded sufficient freedom to arrange clandestine meetings. For all, the public baths were a center for gossip and a wellspring of invented scandal. They were the women's private clubs." Women spent hours being steamed, scrubbed, massaged, scraped, and pumiced.

It was a sin to have hair on one's private parts. Hair was removed from the legs, underarms, genitals, and even the nostrils and ears. According to Croutier, "While washing and massaging one another, while scrutinizing closely for the first signs of emerging hair, the women often became lovers as well as friends."

Food was an amazing ritual too. The Seraglio had twenty kitchens and 150 cooks. They ate lots of confections and sherbets. The sherbet production is fascinating. It required snow from ice pits on Mount Olympus that was wrapped in flannel and brought 70 miles to the Seraglio on mules. There were feasts of rich foods and deserts. After eating, the women drank Turkish coffee and smoked cigarettes or waterpipes.


The sultan was not required to marry the odalisques, they were his property. A sultan's concubines were considered his wives and he usually had four to eight. Croutier states that "It is a common fantasy to imagine sultans actually having sexual relations with hundred of women in heir harem. In some cases, this might have been true." But, several sultans had only one wife.

"Most sultans spent nights with different ... women in turn, and to prevent disputes among them, they kept a schedule." "A sultan's failure to favor each wife with equal enthusism stirred up a great deal of anxiety, insecurity -- and malevolence." This often lead to death or other violence. "There were alliances, cliques, and a perpetual silent war."


Eunuchs, castrated males, have been in existence since the ninth century B.C. and could be found from Persia to China. They have been slaves and priests. The Catholic Church even castrated boys to preserve their soprano voices for the papal choir until 1878. The eunuchs in Turkey were not Turkish because Islam forbid castration. (smart!) They got white eunuchs from conquered Christian areas and black eunuchs from Egypt, Abyssinia, and the Sudan.

Many boys died from the castration. The desert sand was considered to help healing. Often newly castrated boys were buried up to their necks in the sand until they healed. They brought enormous profit to traders.

Some castrations included removal of both the penis and testicles, some removed only the testicles, others crushed and permanently damaged them. If you want to know more, read the book. The result is lack of body hair, falsetto voice, flabbiness, and obesity.

The good news about eunuchs is those with only the testicles removed could have erections and enjoy sex. Some had passionate affairs with harem women. They had an absolute edge on the birth control problem and they were often highly skilled at the art of oral sex. Women "who married after having made love to eunuchs were often dissatisfied with their husbands performance."

There were as many as six to eight hundred eunuchs at the Seraglio at the height of the Ottoman Empire. The Chief Black Eunuch was very powerful, greatly feared, and the most bribed official. He was responsible for protection of the women, arranging royal ceremonial events, taking girls to the executioner and many other things. When the harems were outlawed in the early 1900's the eunuchs disappeared.

Ordinary Harems

Women were segregated in almost every Moslem household in the Ottoman Empire. Men could have up to four legal wives and was expected to keep them in equal circumstances and with equal affection. In addition, he could buy and keep slaves with whom he could be sexual.

Alev Lytle Croutier's book, Harem - The World Behind the Veil, is truly incredible. The information provided here is a mere sample.

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