Review of Harem: The World Behind the Veil

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A Review of Harem: The World Behind the Veil

by Alev Lytle Croutier

New York: Abbeville Press

Review Copyright © 1989 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator



Anyone who has ever had a fantasy of owning or being a sex slave is likely to respond erotically to the notion of being a sultan or a sultan's pet. For centuries the sultan was the ultimate master, and his harem was the ultimate private brothel. Only in the 20th Century has the reality of this chapter in the book of sex been closed, leaving dominant and submissive people with fantasies they often cannot substantiate.

Now, at last, we have a book by which would-be slaves and masters can gauge their fantasies. And, for better or worse, it seems that harem fantasies are generally very different from what harem reality usually was. Let us take a moment to put the reality in its historical context.

European civilization was irrevocably altered by World War I, but it has been argued that the Great War itself was an expression of change already taking place all over the globe. One harbinger of the world-wide populist movement that ended centuries of monarchy in China, Russia, and much of Europe was the 1909 rebellion by Turkish poets and intellectuals – the original "young Turks" – that overthrew a 600-year-old dynasty, deposed the 35th Ottoman sultan, Abdul Hamid II, and established Turkey's first constitutional government. The two sultans who followed, Mehmed V and Mehmed VI, were the last Turkish sultans; and like vestigial kings and queens in England, Norway, and a few other States, their roles were more ceremonial than powerful. The Ottoman dynasty ended formally in 1922, at the end of Mehmed VI's reign.

During the time of the sultanate, Muslim Turkey was an extremely hierarchical masculinist society whose organization reflected the structure of the sultan's own household. The Koran permitted a man as many as four wives, as long as he treated and satisfied all of them equally, and Turkish law allowed that same man to own any number of male slaves, eunuchs, female slaves, and female servants known as odalisques, depending on his wealth, strength, and ability to maintain his property.

For most citizens the rights of ownership were mere formalities: slaves were too costly to keep and multiple wives led to friction at home. For viziers and pashas in the sultan's court, however, the rights of ownership often proved disastrous: they provoked personal and political ambitions and fears, inspired elaborate plots, schemes, and palace intrigues, brought about innumerable assassinations of heirs, heirs-apparent, and would-be heirs, and led to shifts of allegiance within the power elite. Even when death did not figure prominently in the selection of a new sultan, some princes were so carefully locked away and guarded for years or even decades in almost complete isolation that by the time they came to rule they were totally insane.

Nonetheless, to be sultan was to be seen as virtually a god, and to wield nearly absolute power within one's personal sphere; thus, many men aspired to be sultans, at least in their own little palaces. Money has a way of influencing the nature of power, of course, and so a modest man's harem might consist of two wives living in a single room, their quarters separated by a mere partition, while a rich man's harem could be lavish and opulent beyond the most outrageous European dream.

The grand harem of the real sultan especially was a palatial maze of lounging rooms and bathing rooms overseen by hand-picked wives and eunuchs, populated by young and beautiful slaves and servants who were bathed and shaved and oiled and groomed to compulsive standards, dressed in silks and jewels, and trained to please, and who effectively had no lives beyond the seraglio walls. From the time the West got wind of such luxury it was the possibilities for orgiastic debauchery this sultanic majesty implied that stirred the envy, lust, and greed of foreign mens' imaginations; and from at least the time of Isabella (Mrs. Sir Richard) Burton, in the mid-19th century, to Alev Lytle Croutier, the author of this book, stirred the wishes for an emancipation crusade in the minds of women.

Alev Lytle Croutier's grandmother was raised in a pasha's harem, and was married to the pasha's 40-year-old merchant friend without her consultation when she was 14. Croutier herself was born in Turkey about a half-century later, in 1944, in a house that had been a pasha's harem. She was brought up surrounded by relics and survivors who told stories from their memories of the recently vanished life.

As a consequence, Harem is as much of an insider's book as we may hope to see on its subject in these last years of the 20th Century. It is a beautiful volume, rich with reproductions of Persian and Turkish art, as well as with paintings and photographs that reflect both the realities of harem life and some of the fantasies that reports of harem life provoked in the minds of such Westerners as August Renoir, Edouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Edmund Dulac, and Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, whose 1814 painting, La Grande Odalisque, is among the most famous of all 19th Century European nudes and is used as the dust-jacket illustration for this book.

Croutier, now a producer of documentary films in the United States and elsewhere, has concentrated her literary efforts on the grand harem of the sultan, expanding her discussion as needed to include both lesser harems and all harems in general. In the process, she has augmented her recollections of the tales she heard while growing up with more than a dozen photographs of her family – grandparents, an uncle and aunt, parents – as well as a half-dozen of herself as a child. Her approach gives an unusual depth and resonance to the historical matter she has culled from a wide variety of books and picture archives; it also lends the certainty of personal exposure to her discussions such as those of the harem's meaning and history; of the practice of polygamy; of the trade in black and white slaves; of the training of odalisques; and of the making of eunuchs.

The word "harem" derives from the Arabic word haram, Croutier writes, which means unlawful, protected, or forbidden. The original word has a sacred meaning, which is applied to the areas around the holy cities of Mecca and Medina where only the faithful may enter, and the derivation has a secular meaning, which refers to the separate part in a home reserved for women, children, and servants; to the women who live in such quarters; and to the sexual rights of the master within the cloistered place. The Turkish harems were walled to such an extent that "Intimacies rarely found their way outside the walls; we have very few first-hand accounts of day-to-day life in the harem."

According to Croutier, daily life in the sultan's harem was often dull and hopeless, with nothing but an endless, extravagant ritual of bathing, eating, and mindless play that underscored the child-like status accorded women in Ottoman society. However luxurious their clothes, foods, and surroundings, the women were slaves without any rights at all who might hope to end their days discarded and alone or with each other in the House of Tears, but who more likely could expect to die when they were no longer attractive or useful to the sultan, or when a new sultan took over and installed his own slaves in the palace, or when one of the mad rulers decided to have them tied up in sacks and thrown in the Bosphorus to drown. They occupied themselves with fortune-telling, Cabalism, and magic of various kinds, seeking some end to their deadening languor; they wrote a great deal of poetry and learned to play music; they splashed in the pools when the sultan wanted to watch them disport themselves or when for some other reason they were permitted to do so; occasionally they went on outings to special gardens – heavily veiled, and only after the way had been cleared of men by the sultan's corps of eunuchs; the brave among them tried on pain of death to have clandestine affairs with courtiers or with each other; and to a large extent they grew fat on sugared food and boredom.

One harem passtime was playing outdoors in the walled gardens adjacent to the palace.


Most of the games the odalisques played seem extremely unsophisticated and simpleminded, intended more for small children than grown women – but then, the average age in the harem was seventeen. In a game called "Istanbul Gentleman," for example, one of the women dressed as a man, her eyebrows thickened with kohl, a moustache painted on, a carved watermelon or pumpkin placed on her head as a hat, and a fur coat reversed and slipped on. She sat on a donkey, facing backwards, one hand holding the tail and the other prayer beads made of onion or garlic cloves. Someone kicked the donkey, and off she went, giggling and trying to maintain her balance in a kind of primitive rodeo.


While women were not highly regarded outside their assigned roles, some sultanas proved exceptions to the rule. Early in the Ottoman reign, sultans took to wife various neighboring princesses and queens. As was true throughout the universe of royalty these marriages were exclusively political and diplomatic, intended to secure alliances, fortunes, and territories. However, as the Turks became the dominant power in the region that stretched from Austria in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east, and from the Polish border in the north to and including most of north Africa in the south, they began to fill their harems with prisoners of war. These slaves and odalisques were the sultan's property, and according to Islamic law he did not have to marry them in order to have sexual relations with them. But on occasion a sultan fell in love.

Whether a woman was the sultan's special concubine or someone he formally married, she was considered to be his wife with all the privileges and dangers that attached to the title. Some sultans had numerous wives, some were faithful to one woman; most spent nights with each of their favorite wives in turn and kept a schedule recorded by the chief treasurer in order to establish birth orders and legitimacy of the sultan's children. When a sultan slighted one wife for another, fights among the women sometimes followed. One sultana pushed a favored odalisque off a cliff, for example; another sultana bribed a eunuch to strangle her rival; a third mutilated another wife's face. A few sultanas became experts in political intrigue and with careful maneuvering managed to have their sons succeed to the throne. Though the mothers, like all women, had to stand in the sultan's presence, they usually received favored treatment from the children they were obliged to call "My Lion."

The combination of four supremely deft women and a sequence of supremely daft sultans eventuated in a period one and one-half centuries long (1541 - 1687) that has come to be known as The Reign of Women. During this epoch the sultans preferred lives of retirement with their odalisques to worldly worries, while sultanas Roxalena, Baffa, Ksem, and Turhan actually commanded enormous political power both inside the harem and outside. They formed alliances with foreign governments, influenced wars, and developed trade. Because they could not leave the harem, however, they had to act indirectly through eunuchs, foreign diplomats, and other intermediaries.

Along with women such as these, a few eunuchs rose to positions of extreme power and influence during the middle third of Ottoman prominence. For the most part eunuchs were slaves taken in war and castrated while they were still young boys. Since castration diminished their overt aggression and because they could not impregnate women, eunuchs were often entrusted with tasks and positions the sultans could or would not entrust to other men. The Chief Black Eunuch was the third-highest ranking officer in the Ottoman empire, after the grand vizier and the sultan himself. During the Reign of Women the Chief Black Eunuch was also the most trusted of the sultanas' accomplices. During the 19th Century the eunuchs' power diminished until they were little more than advisors on dress and comportment.

Although she never explains her reasoning, Courtier contends that Turkish power began its slow decline during the Reign of Women and in some manner because the sultanas and the eunuchs had amassed such significant power. In this notion she seems tacitly to accept the most masculinist position possible for the rise and fall of the Turkish Empire, which appears to be exactly contrary to the position she espouses elsewhere in her book. The statement also seems to contradict the evidence.

Theories about the historical ebb and flow of power are delicate intellectual flowers best handled by people who have researched as well as thought about them. Courtier, at her best when writing about life in the harems as she heard it from her relatives and acquaintances, is on shakier ground when she tries to extrapolate from what she knows to a coherent philosophical statement about what she believes. Her penultimate chapter, "Oriental Dream," offers a brief, observant view about the fad of Orientalism that swept across Europe in the 19th and very early 20th Centuries. This would have been a good place to stop.

Instead, she attempts to establish a brave feminist face by taking on movies, television, and even contemporary polygamist substitutes such as Hugh Hefner and James Bond in her concluding sub-chapter, "Movies and Television." Her attempt is ill-advised because she presents her opinions with so little consistency or attention to evidence or detail that the accuracy of her earlier narrative becomes suspect.

Courtier is never a remarkable writer in this book, but she is certainly competent, and she has devoted her skill and knowledge to a subject we might have lost altogether without her. It is unfortunate that she felt, and her editor accepted, the need to make a stereotypically modern political statement where none was needed and where, in fact, the simple story she had already told made her point far more eloquently than any philosophic pose could do. This lovely book could end quite happily with the quotation from Matisse which concludes the last chapter's first sub-chapter about "Twentieth-Century Orientalism":


Look closely at the Odalisques: the sun floods them with its triumphant brightness, taking hold of colors and forms. Now the Oriental decor of the interiors, the array of hangings and rugs, the rich costumes, the sensuality of heavy, drowsy bodies, the blissful torpor in the eyes lying in wait for pleasure, all this splendid display of siesta elevated to the maximum intensity of arabesque and color should not delude us.


Nor should our look at the world behind the veil delude us; rather it should free us from some of our delusions about the nature of the harem. For the most part Alev Lytle Courtier's book does just that.


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