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Harem: All the Sultan's Women

Harem windows in Topkapi palace - flickr-hazy jenius
Harem windows in Topkapi palace in Istanbul. Photo: flickr/hazy jenius

In recent years Jason Goodwin has been making his name with a series of thrillers about a nineteenth century Ottoman detective and eunuch called Yashim. Before that, in 1998 however, he published a very interesting history of the Ottoman Empire. Here we have featured Caroline Finkel's work on the subject. It is a huge and detailed book but if you are looking for something more lyrical, more literary and, well, more fun then try Goodwin's history. He relies heavily on the accounts of westerners through the ages, such as Ogier Ghislen de Busbecq, whom we have featured here. More than a century later, in this extract from 1688, the French ambassador reported that the "most important occupation of the Sultan's treasurer was to look for new slave girls and to dress them."

In Mehmet IV's harem apartments, he wrote, "the number of women reached four thousand, including those in his mother's as well as his lover's service. Although the plague often devastated such a multitude, their number never fell below two thousand, owing to the careful and continuous recruitment of replacements. All these women were slave girls and even the lowest-ranking ones cost some four or five hundred thalers. They wore the most expensive clothes, belts and fasteners studded with gems, earrings and several strings of pearls. Each mistress of the sultan had the power to free and to give in marriage any slave girls who were in her service or who aroused her jealousy. When these freed women left the palace they took with them all the precious stones and money they had managed to accumulate there." Thomas Dallam allegedly glimpsed them through a little grate in a wall in 1599, believing they were boys until he noticed their plaits, and "britchis of scamatie, a fine clothe made of cotton woll, as whyte as snow and as fine as lane; for I could desarne the skin of their thies throughe it". His terrified guide "made a wrye mouth, and stamped with his foute to make me give over looking; the which I was verrie loth to dow, for that sights did please me wondrous well."

The women could hope either to get on, by producing an heir, or to get out. A woman's chances of bedding the Sultan, though, were extremely remote. Merely to catch the Sultan's fancy was hard enough, for the majority of sultans were essentially family men, and many jealousies had to be allayed, and friendships forged before a girl was allowed to catch his eye. The most important woman in the harem was the Sultan's mother, who was allowed to call him by a name other than Padishah – Aslanim, "My Little Lion". She, of course, strove to keep his attentions focused on her protégées; and the machination of these women to promote their own sons to the sultanate, the struggle of the queen mother and her daughters-in-law with the mothers of rival princes, and between lowly newcomers anxious to ingratiate themselves, made the atmosphere of the harem one of poisoned indolence in which pseudo-tasks were eagerly pursued and everyone sought something to do, some rank – to wash the Sultan's underwear, or to care for the clothes and jewellery of the more favoured women. Hardly surprising then, that sultans turned a bit cracked. Sultan Ibrahim, apparently, rode his girls like horses through rooms lined in fur from ceiling to floor.

Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. Jason Goodwin. 1998.
[pp.  214-215 / Henry Holt]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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  1. Istanbul: Pamuk's City
  2. Istanbul: Swimming across the Bosphorus
  3. Salonika and the Jews
  4. Salonica: Slaves and Trade
  5. Thessalonika: 1923
  6. Ohrid: Rise and Fall
  7. Tornado of Dust - 1944
  8. Awake Romania - 1989
  9. Novi Sad: Nest of the Serbian nation
  10. Nis: War Capital, 1915
  11. Belgrade and the Selenites
  12. 1996: Serbia Calling
  13. Belgrade Train Station - 1964
  14. Srebrenica: Vengeance
  15. Srebrenica: Blood
  16. Srebrenica: July 1995
  17. Mealtime - Interwar years in Travnik
  18. Dayton: The Napkin Shuttle
  19. London Buses in Sarajevo
  20. The Museum and Bosnian Identity
  21. Foča: The Bosniak
  22. Kosovo: The Swiss Front
  23. Mitrovica: 1908
  24. Pristina: Kosovo like Namibia?
  25. City without traffic - Pristina 1966
  26. Durham in Pristina - 1908
  27. Tirana: 1962
  28. Zog's Tirana
  29. The Kotor - Constantinople Express
  30. Kotor and the Montenegrins
  31. The Rabbi of Stolac
  32. Dubrovnik: England, Wine and Wool
  33. Cetinje: Nikola Under the Elm
  34. Cetinje: 1858
  35. Dalmatia: Ships & Grapes
  36. Prophet of Yugoslavism
  37. The head of the world
  38. 1919: Mushrooms and Lies
  39. Sofia: Bulgaria's Jews during WWII
  40. Zamfirovo: Rural livelihoods in the mid-1990s
  41. Kosovo
  42. Romania: 1914
  43. Istanbul: Food and the frugal Turks
  44. Micklagard: Surprising, cosmopolitan Constantinople
  45. Sukhumi: The history of the region became ashes
  46. Black Sea: The coming of steam and rail
  47. Mestrovic: Motherhood and the Victor
  48. Rizvanovici, Bosnia: Gnashing
  49. Down the Danube with Magris: Ruse
  50. From Pristina to Tskhinvali
  51. Serbia, Historians and Hitler's War
  52. Balkan Strongmen: Bulgaria's Zhivkov
  53. Sarajevo: The Siege Within
  54. Turkey: Osman's Dream
  55. Durres 1961: Beijing on Sea
  56. Cetinje: Eggs for the Ladies
  57. Bosnia: Land of Immigrants
  58. Ottoman Croatia
  59. Harem: All the Sultan's Women
  60. Sibiu: Regime Change, European Style
  61. 1929: The Balkans and the Great Crash
  62. Rumeli and how the Balkans became the Balkans
  63. 1948: Stalin, Kosovo and Swallowing Albania
  64. Transforming Turkey: the 1950s
  65. McMafia and the Balkans
  66. 1916: Serbia in Corfu
  67. Princes Amongst Men
  68. Limp Shevardnadze
  69. Knin: War and Suburbia
  70. In the Mountains of Poetry
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