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‘The Harem’ by Gustave Boulanger

In a Forbidden Place: Hidden Lives in a Harem


The term harem comes from the Arabic haram meaning forbidden place. This defines the sphere of women in a polygynous household and makes reference to their enclosed quarters being forbidden to men.

In the Middle East and South Asia

The word first appeared in the Middle East, where harems were composed of sultans, mother, sister, wives, children, and concubines. The South Asian equivalent of the harem is the zenana.

As the harem had a secluded nature, there are no exact sources which can present the truth of harem life. Instead, there are only imaginative representations available about what happened within the harem.

‘The Reception’ (1873) by John Frederick Lewis.

‘The Reception’ (1873) by John Frederick Lewis. (Public Domain)

In Islam, female seclusion was emphasized and any unlawful breaking into that privacy was regarded as “haram” meaning “forbidden”. A Muslim harem did include the women with whom the head of the household had intimate relations, but it also included children and other female relatives.

The harem also referred to the women’s quarters as opposed to the men’s selamlik. The zenana, meaning “pertaining to women”, was the part of the household belonging to women in a Hindu or Muslim family of South Asia. The term “harem” is used, in general, for Muslim households only. However, the word can also refer to other ancient Oriental communities in which polygamy was allowed.

The Ottoman Harem

During the Ottoman Empire, the role of the harem was that of the royal upbringing of the future wives of noble and royal men. These women were specifically educated in order to appear in public as royal wives.

Portrait of Roxelana (Hurrem Sultan) titled ‘Rossa Solymannı Vxor.’

‘Harem Woman with Ostrich Fan’ (1892) by Louis-Robert de Cuvillon. (Public Domain)

The imperial harem of the Ottoman sultan was also called “seraglio” in the West. It housed several dozen women which included wives, the sultan’s mother and daughters, other female relatives, eunuchs, and slaves. The slave servant girls were meant to see to the needs of the aforementioned women.

In later periods, the sons of the sultan also lived in the harem until they reached the age of 12. Starting from this age, they were only allowed to appear in public and in the administrative areas of the palace.

In a way, the Topkapi Harem was the private living chambers of the sultan and his family from within the entire palace complex. There were some women of the Ottoman harem who had very important political roles in the history of the empire as well. These women included the wives, mothers, and sisters of the sultan who had his ear. For this reason, it was said that the Ottoman Empire was ruled from the harem.

A very good example of this situation in action is the case of Hurrem Sultan. She was the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and the mother of Selim the Second. Today, she is regarded as the most powerful woman in Ottoman history.

Portrait of Roxelana (Hurrem Sultan) titled ‘Rossa Solymannı Vxor.’

Portrait of Roxelana (Hurrem Sultan) titled ‘Rossa Solymannı Vxor.’ (Public Domain)

There were also examples of Sultans who did not respect the women in the harem. For example, Sultan Ibrahim the Mad ruled over the Ottoman Empire from the year 1640 until 1648. He is said to have drowned over 280 of the concubines from his harem in the Bosphorus. Turhan Hatice, a Ukrainian girl captured during one of the raids of the Tatars who was sold into slavery, was one of the few concubines who survived the mad sultan’s reign.

Other Features of the Harem

The harem was not a place only for women. Children were also born and grew up inside the harem. Harems also had markets, bazaars, playgrounds, kitchens, laundries, baths, and schools. Harems had their hierarchies too. They were led by the wives and female relatives of the sultan and the concubines were below them in status. Apart from wives and concubines, harems included the sultan’s mother, step mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters, step sisters, daughters, other female relatives, ladies in waiting, maids, servants, cooks, guards, and other women officials.

‘Harem Fountain’ (1875) by Frederick Arthur Bridgman.

‘Harem Fountain’ (1875) by Frederick Arthur Bridgman. (Public Domain)

Other Rulers with Concubines and Consorts

Outside Islamic culture, Egyptian pharaohs used to make a demand on provincial governors for many beautiful servant girls. Montezuma the Second, the Aztec ruler from Mexico, had 4000 concubines. In the Aztec society, every member of the nobility had to have as many consorts as he could afford.

King Kashyapa of Sigirya in Sri Lanka had 500 women in his harem. At that time, it was considered a great honor to be part of the king’s harem. An institution similar to the harem existed in the Edo Period of Japanese history among the Ooku as well.

Fresco of ladies of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka. c. 477 - 495 AD.

Fresco of ladies of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka. c. 477 - 495 AD. (Bernard Gagnon/CC BY SA 3.0)

The English translation for the Chinese term “hougong” is also the term “harem”. “Hougong” comes from “hou-kung” literally meaning “the palace behind”. This term makes reference to the part of the palace which was reserved for the Chinese emperor’s consorts, concubines, female servants, and eunuchs. These were the private apartments and chambers of the emperor where he kept his women and he led his private life. In 1421, the Yongle Emperor ordered 2800 concubines for his harem. Similar to the institution in other cultures, a large harem was once a way for the emperor to display his wealth and power.

Top Image: ‘The Harem’ by Gustave Boulanger Source: Public Domain

By Valda Roric


Valda Roric – “Wonders of History and Mythology”

Valda Roric – “From History to Mystery”

Alev Lytle Croutier – “Harem: The World Behind the Veil”

George Junne – “The Black Eunuchs of the Ottoman Empire: Networks of Power in the Court of the Sultan”

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Valda Roric

Author of “Loki – The Trickster Unleashed” and “Supernatural in the Land of Count Dracula”, Valda Roric has always been fascinated by the supernatural. Interested in the topic, she has studied many aspects of the enigmatic. Always attempting to find... Read More

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