Mysteries of the Harem

Harem (Turkish, from Arabic حرم ḥaram' forbidden place; sacrosanct, sanctum', related to حريم ḥarīm 'a sacred inviolable place; female members of the family' and حرام ḥarām, 'forbidden; sacred') refers to the sphere of women in what is usually a polygynous household and their enclosed quarters which are forbidden to men. It originated in the Near East and came to the Western world via the Ottoman Empire.

The word has been recorded in the English language since 1634, via Turkish harem, from Arabic ḥaram 'forbidden', originally implying 'women's quarters', literally 'something forbidden or kept safe', from the root of ḥarama 'to be forbidden; to exclude'. The triliteral Ḥ-R-M is common to Arabic words denoting forbidden. The word is a cognate of Hebrew ḥerem, rendered in Greek as anathema when it applies to excommunication pronounced by the Jewish Sanhedrin court; all these words mean that an object is "sacred" or "accursed".

The 'harem' does not refer to a sanctuary for the wives of a polygynous person. It is simply a resting quarters for women. Female seclusion in Islam is emphasized to the extent that any unlawful breaking into that privacy is ḥarām "forbidden". A Muslim harem does not necessarily consist solely of women with whom the head of the household has sexual relations (wives and concubines), but also their young offspring, other female relatives, etc.; and it may either be a palatial complex, as in Romantic tales, in which case it includes staff (women and eunuchs), or simply their quarters, in the Ottoman tradition separated from the men's selamlık.The zenana was a comparable institution.

It is being more commonly acknowledged today that the purpose of harems during the Ottoman Empire was for the royal upbringing of the future wives of noble and royal men. These women would be educated so that they were ready to appear in public as a royal wife.

Harem Life
The women of the harem passed their days simply, and in a routine. As acemis, they rose early to begin work with their mistresses, and normally worked all day, being fed at midday, before entertaining themselves with their cliques and friends at night, after a sumptuous dinner. After graduating their school, the girls were free. They rose in the morning and spent their days in pleasure. Whether soaking and swimming in the baths while conversing with their friends, walking in the gardens and having picnics, or entertaining themselves with music and other idless luxuries, the women lived an easy life. They had few responsibilities, most of them feel to acemis or personal servants.

he more important women had a somewhat different life. The mistresses had to work to keep the harem in order. The Mistress of the Robes worked to clothe the girls, the Mistress of the Sherbets and the Chief Coffee-Maker worked to feed the women little snacks, and the Mistress of the Household worked very hard to manage all the needs of the women, such as money for clothes, food, housing, and gardening. The Valide Sultana was a very busy woman. Although she was confided and kept hidden from the empire, she advised her son in all affairs and had a firm grasp on his control. She was rarely seen by the ordinary harem girls, as she had her own apartments with the kadins and children, but she had just a smuch power of the harem as she did over her son. She played a very ambitious role, and in a way, was the true ruler of the house and the empire.

The women were treated to special occasions often. Exclusively, there were garden parties on the harem gardens and parks for the kadins, the sultanas, and the children. They were entertained and they feasted, but the ordindary harem girls were forbidden from these small celebrations, under threats of death. Normal harem girls rarely saw celebrations, but there were some occasions, such as when the padishah would review his harem girls, every single one, in the Hunkar Sofasi, Hall of the Sultan. Ever girl would be presented individually (and often the padishah would choose a favorite from among them), and then the harem would feast and be entertained on the private balconies of the padishah's rooms, overlooking the harbors of Istanbul and the life these women would never be a part of.

The harem clothing reflected normal Turkish women wear, accept it was more refined. The women wore long kaftans, robes, normally decorated with beautiful designs. In the winter, those who could afford it wore fur kaftans. Sometimes the acemis or women strolling outside would ear very loose robes called a ferace. The women wore upon their feet slippers or shoes, basmak. They wore their hair pleated, sometimes extravegantly, and the more important women wore their hair in a headress called a hotoz. All the women wore yemeni, head coverings with little ornaments. The women were drenched in diamonds and jewels, if they could afford it with their monthly allowances. The wore large strands of pearls, emerald earrings, rings, rubies, diamonds, pearls in their hair, and countless jewels strewn into their clothes and shoes. The sultanas and kadins were covered from head to toe in jewels, even the heels of their shoes were furbished with expensive gems.

Tragedy frequently struck the harem. The women were often too young to die, but there were some cases, like the tasters. These girls, who had been educated in the harem schools under a mistress to be a taster for a kadin or a sultana, tasted every drink, snack, meal, or anything else the woman they served would eat to make sure there was no poison. They took pride in their self-sacrifice and had much dignity. Sometimes a taster would die from poison, foaming and writhing on the floors. They were taken to the Mistress of the Maladies, but nobody would ever hear of her fate. If the girl did survive most of the time her liver or another organ would be destroyed and she would be of no service so she was sent home. However, there were many deaths, which was very ominous and left many feeling unsafe in their golden cage. There was one devastating tragedy under Padishah Ibrahim I (1615-1648). When her heard rumors from his lover, Sechir Para (Sugar Cube), that one of his concubines was sporting with a man outside of the palace, he raged for days and had his chief eunuch torture a few of the harem girls to discover the identity of the mysterious girl. None of them spoke and so Ibrahim tied up every single one of his 280 harem women to weighted sacks and had them thrown into the Bosporus River in Istanbul. Only one girl survived (other than the sultana, kadins, and Sechir Para, who were spared) because her sack was not sufficiently tied and she was saved by a French ship. The Valide Sultana became jealous of Sechir Para's power after the drownings and had Sechir Para strangled. Ibrahim was told that she had died of a mysterious illness.

The harem moved with the entire court and household twice a year, they would live at Topkapi normally during the fall and winter. Sometimes the harem would stay in Topkapi the year round, like when the padishah, Ahmed III, was constructing his palace Sadabad on the Sweet Waters of Asia, the inlet of the Istanbul harbor where two streams met with the Golden Horn.

When a padishah died, his entire harem was moved into the infamous Palace of Tears. Originally built as one of the Padishah's Istanbul houses, the palace was given to the women of the harem that was discarded to make way for the new padishah's harem. This was a sad and lonesome place. No man ever entered the building, nor were there many visitors. The women were forbidden to leave and spent the rest of their lives in the dark and morbid atmosphere. Even the Valide Sultana, once a very powerful woman, was now discarded to make way for the new woman to take her position. The women spent the rest of their days here, a sad end to an imprisoned life.

The end of the harem at Topkapi came in the 19th century when the padishahs decided to move into the Yildiz Palace. About 100 years later, the Ottoman Empire fell after World War I and the Republic of Turkey was established. The President, Kemal Ataturk, brought sweeping changes, including forbidding men to marry more than once and forbidding women to be kept imprisoned in their homes and being protected by veils. The days of the harems had died. All the women, including those in the Palace of Tears, were let free, back to the lives they had before they entered the harem. They found this hard, as their lifestyle was that of the harem. Most returned to their villages hoping to find their families. Others began new lives. Today the harem in Topkapi is empty, besides tourists who flock every year to the palace, the #1 destination in Istanbul. The harem is at the top of everyone's list and if you come at the right time, when the tourists have died down, and listen closely, the walls will tell their stories of a long ago world.

The word harem is strictly applicable to Muslim households only, but the system was common, more or less, to most Oriental communities, especially where polygyny was permitted.

The Imperial Harem of the Ottoman sultan, which was also called seraglio in the West, typically housed several dozen women, including wives. It also housed the Sultan's mother, daughters and other female relatives, as well as eunuchsand slave servant girls to serve the aforementioned women. During the later periods, the sons of the Sultan also lived in the Harem until they were 16 years old, when it was considered appropriate for them to appear in the public and administrative areas of the palace.

The Topkapı Harem was, in some senses, merely the private living quarters of the Sultan and his family, within the palace complex. Some women of Ottoman harem, especially wives, mothers and sisters of sultans played very important political roles in Ottoman history, and in times it was said that the empire was ruled from harem. Hürrem Sultan (wife of Süleyman The Magnificent, mother of Selim II) and Kösem Sultan (mother of Murad IV) were the two most powerful women in Ottoman history.

It is claimed that harems existed in Persia under the Ancient Achaemenids and later Iranian dynasties (theSassanid Chosroes II reportedly had a harem of 3000 wives, as well as 12,000 other women) and lasted well into the Qajar Dynasty. The women of the Persian royal harem played important though under-reported roles in Iranian history, especially during the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. However, this claim is disputed by some Persian historians.

Ancient Egyptian pharaohs are said to have made a "constant demand" of provincial governors for more beautiful servant girls. In Mexico, Aztec ruler Montezuma II, who met Cortes, kept 4,000 concubines; every member of the Aztecnobility was supposed to have had as many consorts as he could afford.

Harem is also the usual English translation of the Chinese language term hougong, 後宮 "the palaces behind."Hougong are large palaces for the Chinese emperor's consorts, concubines, female attendants and eunuchs. The women who lived in an emperor's hougong sometimes numbered in the thousands.

A similar institution existed with the Ōoku during the Edo period in Japan.

Western Culture's Obsession with Harem 

 The institution of the harem exerted a certain fascination on the European imagination, especially during the Age of Romanticism (see also Orientalism), due in part to the writings of the adventurer Richard Francis Burton. Many Westerners imagined a harem as a brothel consisting of many sensual young women lying around pools with oiled bodies, with the sole purpose of pleasing the powerful man to whom they had given themselves. Much of this is recorded in art from that period, usually portraying groups of attractive women lounging nude by spas and pools.

A centuries-old theme in Western culture is the depiction of European women forcibly taken into Oriental harems - evident for example in the Mozart opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail ("The Abduction from the Serraglio") concerning the attempt of the hero Belmonte to rescue his beloved Konstanze from the serraglio/harem of the Pasha Selim; or in Voltaire's Candide, in chapter 12 of which the old woman relates her experiences of being sold into harems across the Ottoman Empire.

The same theme was and still is repeated in numerous historical novels and thrillers. For example,Angélique and the Sultan, part of the bestselling French Angélique series by Sergeanne Golon, in which a 17th century French noblewoman is captured by pirates, and sold into the harem of the King of Morocco.

In Leonid Solovyov's well-known Russian novel "Tale of Hodja Nasreddin" (translated to English as "The Beggar in the Harem: Impudent Adventures in Old Bukhara"), a central plot element is the protagonist's efforts to rescue his beloved from the Harem of the Emir of Bukhara - an element not present in the original tales of the Middle Eastern folk hero Nasreddin, on which the novel was loosely based.

H. Beam Piper used the theme in a science fiction context, portraying a gang which kidnaps girls from a Western-dominated, technologically advanced timeline and sells them to a Sultan's harem in an Asian-dominated timeline ..Much of the plot of "The Janissary Tree" - 2006 historical crime novel by Jason Goodwin, set in Istanbul in 1836 - takes place in the Sultan's harem, with the main protagonist being the eunuch detective Yashim. The book in many ways seeks to overturn the above stereotypes and rooted conventions. For example, in one scene the Sultan groans inwardly when a new concubine is brought to his bed, since he does not feel sexual at all and would much rather send her away and curl up with a book. He does not, however, have that option; were he to reject the concubine, "she would spend the whole night crying bitterly, by the morning the whole palace will hear that the Sultan has become impotent, by noon all Istanbul will know it, and within a week the rumour will reach the entire empire."

Much information on harems for this page was taken from wikipedia.


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