Nothing evoked more mystery and romance to Europeans in the nineteenth century than the veiled women of the sultan’s harem.
Harems started as a way for Ottoman warriors to “protect” their women when away from home for long periodsthe system was then adopted by the Sultanate.
The reality of living in a harem was in fact very different to most peoples perceptions. In the Turkish harem founded by Muhammed II in 1454 (and still operating until1909) there were indeed hundreds of women, but the majority of women slept in dormitories on simple cots with one older woman matron for each ten young ones. They were guarded over by black eunuchs specifically chosen for their ugliness. Totally oblivious to the constant changes in fashion, they generally wore clothes that covered them from head to toe, with loose fitting “harem pants” of thin but not diaphanous material, with four or five inch platform slippers.
Only in the nineteenth century were girls given some form of education and prior to that they only learned certain skills such as embroidery and coffee making. The seraglio was a city unto itself with strict rules for everything from eating to bathing to what clothes to wear. This walled off community was ruled by the sultan`s mother and the mother of the sultan`s first son. The rest of the women were subservient.
As Paul Rycaut, the British diplomat and historian, described in The State of the Ottoman Empire (1668)
“When the Grand Signior (sultan) is pleased to call for some of the young ladies to the Garden of Love the cry Helvet is raised, and bells ring through the seraglio, at which signal people withdraw from the areas and eunuchs are posted at every entrance and pathway, it being Death at that time for anyone to linger near the garden. Here, in this beautiful landscape, the damsels dance and sing, hoping to make themselves mistress of the Grand Signors passing affection, then, abandoning all modesty to this end, let themselves loose to all kinds of lascivious gestures and wanton carriage.”
If one of the harem girls caught the sultan’s eye, tradition has it that he would toss his handkerchief to her. She would then be bathed, perfumed, shampooed; every hair would be scrupulously removed as sultans followed Near Eastern tastes regarding body hair, preferring their women to look prepubescent.
That night she would be escorted to the sultan`s giant bed, where tradition meant that she would lift the covers at the foot of the bed, and then crawl reverentially forward up along the sultans body. In the morning, the young woman was entitled to all the jewels and money in the sultans’ pockets, and could expect another gift later in the day.
If the concubine produced a son, she would have served her purpose and, would be granted a private room, thus escaping the dormitory or the cell-like rooms. Some who failed to attract the attention of the Sultan were married off to civil servants, whilst others would be relegated to the Eski Saray, the Old Palace where they would live out the remainder of their lives alone and forgotten.
Given these ground rules, most of the women were desperate to become Gozode (girls in the sultans eye), and as a result most were sexually frustrated. Caught so much as even kissing another man, even a eunuch, meant instant death, tied in a weighted sack and tossed in the Bosphorus. When women fell ill, doctors examined them through bed curtains, with the absolute minimum of flesh exposed.
NM Penzer describes the process in The Harem (1930)
She lies there closely covered from head to toe with blankets, and holds her arm only, so that the doctor may touch and feel her pulse. After he has given orders about what should be done and then takes his leave.
Boredom, rigorous discipline, rivalry and even murder all characterised life under the rule of the harem. The thought of them being Turkish versions of Hugh Hefner`s Playboy mansion could not have been further from the truth.