5 Medieval Facts of Ottomans: The Harem Home

1.  The Ottoman empire reigned supreme from 1299 to 1923.


It began as a tiny Turkish state, expanding into the largest and longest lasting empire in history, spanning 3 continents encompassing the Caucasus and Northern Africa, most of Western Asia, Eastern and Southeastern Europe, and the Balkans.


The empire was at the center of interactions between the Eastern & Western worlds for 7 centuries.


2.  Harems were central to Ottoman lifestyle.

Contrary to Western interpretation of the word, ‘harem’ is actually a term of respect. It means ‘sacred,’ and defines the inner sanctum of a household or establishment.


Following a religious belief in a separation of the sexes, Ottoman homes were split into 2 areas – the ‘selamlik’, where the man of the house entertained male guests, and the ‘haremlik,’ where the man of the house lived his daily life with his family.


3.  Within the haremlik, there were also designated rooms for the women of the household, which the man of the house did not enter. In fact, even within the outer haremlik, a husband would turn away if one of the household women had placed her slippers at the entrance door.


This signaled a need for privacy or the presence of other female visitors within the haremlik. Upon seeing the slippers, a husband would retreat back to the selamlik until they were removed.



…can someone please tell me WHY women worldwide are not using this brilliant ‘Do Not Disturb’ technology?


The women of the household did not ever venture into the selamlik, and of course male visitors never entered the haremlik. The exception to this rule were male relatives of the women of the household; fathers, uncles, brothers and sons were permitted into the haremlik.


4.  In the beginning of the 20th century, the Western world – intrigued by Ottoman separation of the sexes – began to create separate areas in travel stations for women. Ladies’ waiting rooms were constructed in train stations, and railway trains designated women-only compartments, as did steamers and tramcars.



5.  The haremlik, though sacred and protected, was also the most social area of the home. Visitors were always welcome to drop by – provided they had the proper anatomy.

Female friends and relatives, entertainers such as musicians, singers, actors, poets, etc. could always be found livening up the haremlik. Women of every status, from wealthy to slave…of every race…of every religion, from Christian to Jewish to Buddist…every woman was a welcome visitor to the haremlik.


Except when male relatives were present.

Though all were welcome as visitors to the haremlik, class distinctions were observed. Author Emine Foat Tugay, in his book “Three Centuries: Family Chronicles of Turkey and Egypt,” details these distinctions:

Whatever their status, everyone was well received according to the old Ottoman tradition…a truly democratic system in the only genuine meaning of the word since persons of every class had access to and were made welcome by the highest in the land.

Good manners among all classes were the rule. A woman of inferior rank would never presume to sit close to the mistress of the house, but when asked to be seated, would of her own accord choose a chair placed at some distance from her hostess.

Women of humbler condition sat near the door on stiff cushions placed on the floor for that purpose...”


Wow, check that out. Our democracy is just like that of the Ottomans!

Only instead of smiling hostess offering “stiff“cushions on the floor for the lower classes, we have smiling billionaire politicians offering to cut unemployment benefits after we’re pink-slipped.



Which medieval fact could you live with?

Which could you live without?

(If I don’t respond to your comments right away, it’s because I’m out shopping for slippers to place in my doorway!)



Meet the women inside a royal harem!

Harem Habibati 



Medieval Monday


See all 5 Medieval Facts of Life posts!


12 thoughts on “5 Medieval Facts of Ottomans: The Harem Home

  1. Pingback: Harem Habibati: Queen Mama III | Sylver Blaque

  2. Pingback: Harem Habibati: Queen Mama II | Sylver Blaque

  3. I just returned from taking my four puppies to the dog park. Sadly, I stepped in some dog poop because some companion-person was neglectful in taking care of their responsibility. I returned home and washed my slippers off and are allowing them to air dry at my front door – but I am expecting no visitors of either sex as a result.

    (Does this post suggest that Imelda Marcos was an agoraphobe?)

    This was very interesting and nicely written. Thank you.

  4. The way the post World War 1 French and British colonial/imperialists chopped up the Ottoman Empire is the foundation for much of the problems there today. They merely drew lines with little or no regard to religion and ethnicity. As an example there is no such thing as the Iraqi people or the Palestinian people as they as they are different people from same geographic areas.

    • I’m glad you pointed this out, Carl! The Western world today still does not recognize the differentiation between Persians & Arabs – still grouping them into an erroneous monolith as did European colonists. Education for the West about the importance of ethnic diversity in the East is a key preface to our faulty foreign policy if we are to improve relations with the so-called “Middle East.”

      Can you imagine the reaction, here, if those in Asia were to indiscriminately label all sovereign states and dependent territories as a monolithic “America?” 😯


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