Harems are good business, as the Turkish Culture Minister knows; not only do they make a fair amount of the money needed for the Topkapi Palace’s upkeep from the harem tours, but nearly every summer, as part of the Istanbul Festival, they put on a production of Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail in the harem courtyard. Tickets sell out fast. Harem is really an Arabic word; the Turks call this place the Darissade (and, as you may have guessed, seraglio is a corruption of the Turkish saray, or palace). It isn’t a barbarous oriental innovation; Turks and Arabs both learned the joys of confining women from the Greeks, who from their beginnings right up to the end of Byzantium were possibly the champion male chauvinists of all time.
Ottoman sultans led normal private lives up to the time of Yildirim Beyazit. When he and his family were captured by Tamerlane, the sultan’s wife was forced to serve dinner naked to the conqueror and his generals. After this ultimate humiliation, no sultan ever legally married again- save only Süleyman the Magnificent, besotted with his Roxelana. The others had their collections of concubines, though they were only shut up in a harem after the conquest of Constantinople. When Roxelana brought the harem inside the palace, she intended only in getting closer to Süleyman and increasing her influence over affairs of state, but over the next two centuries, the harem became established, gradually building up its famous institutions and peculiarities. The cast of characters included the girls, or ‘odalisques’ as many as 800 of them, who lived in drab dormitories. The ‘Favourites’, including the ‘First Four Women’ (the first to give birth to sons) merited luxurious apartments. To watch over the girls, and more often after themselves, there were the Black Eunuchs. These ugly creatures (the sultan’s slavemaster picked out the uglest, to avoid any chance of arousing the girls) were usually given names like ‘Hyacinth’ or ‘Daisy.’ With the silver tubes that assisted them in trips to the WC perched nattily in their tall turbans, the Black Eunuchs became, in the latter days, a power unto themselves. Their chief, the Kizlar Agasi or ‘lord of the Girls’ was, after the Aga of the Janissaries, the most useful ally any scheming lady could have. (The White Eunuchs, by contrast, looked after the Salalik, the sultan’s quarters, and the education of the pages brought in by the devsirme, or ‘boy tribute’.) The only other men allowed in the harem were the ‘Tressed Halberdiers’, whose job was to bring in the firewood. They had to wear their long hair in coils, hanging over their faces so they would be less likely to catch a glimpse of the women.
Sultans prefer blondes. Many of the women were slender, fair Circassians, Slavs, Armenians or Georgians. All of them, of course, were slaves, and despite of the little courtesies of harem life, it is not likely that many of them ever had any illusions about their true status. The vast majority of them led wretchedly dull lives here, chaste as any nuns, except for the few who happened to catch the sultan’s fancy. Even these were left with a thank-you, a small present and the fervent hope that they might have conceived a male child. It is pretty certain that they did not get up to any high jinks; the eunuchs installed old women to sleep next to their beds, to keep an eye on them at night, and, as an astonished Venetian ambassador once noted in his memoirs, care was taken even to ensure that all the cucumbers were sliced.
© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls