Harem Habibati: Hierarchy of the Imperial Harem

We must keep in mind that equality for women has been struggled for and won to a more advanced degree only by women in the richer countries of America and Europe. But even in the U.S., a woman has yet to be elected President…

– G. Goodwin, “The Private World of Ottoman Women


In ancient Turkish, Persian, Indian and other Asian societies, monogamy was the norm within the lower classes. But among the upper crust and royalty, harems were the rule. Most magnificent of all harems were those of the Ottoman Sultans. Renowned for its immensity and grandeur, the harem of a Sultan was called the Harem-i-Hümayun.

The Imperial Harem.

The harem itself was an institution governed by a strict hierarchy – a hierarchy so extensive and intricately layered, it would take no less than 99 Medieval Monday posts to detail. So, for the sake of brevity, I’ll be presenting the cliff notes!

But before we begin our journey into the fascinating details of harem life – and into the minds and hearts of harem girls – it’s important to understand the labyrinthine arrangement in which these ladies lived.

Those at the top of the hierarchy would not think, feel or have the same experience living in a harem as those at the bottom. And though the Western myth of harems sees undistinguished groups of women lazing nakedly around palace pools, we shall see that in the real harem world, nothing could be further from the truth.

Let’s check out why…

For nearly 400 years during Ottoman rule, the primary palace of ruling Sultans was located in Istanbul, Turkey.

This palace was called the Topkapí.


Here is a wonderful gallery of photos of harem rooms in the Topkapí palace. The rooms are faded and weathered today. But in their heyday, the colors were vibrant, the furniture plush, and incomparable beauty met the eye wherever one looked.


Can you imagine living in such ancient splendor?

Now, the Topkapí was also, in essence, the seat of government ruled by the male Ottoman Sultans. But the Harem-i-Hümayun was the seat of government for Ottoman women.

The hierarchy of the Imperial Harem mirrored that of the Topkapí. There were titles and duties assigned to each woman in the harem, creating levels of power and privilege. Wealth, intelligence, talent, special skills, ambition, and beauty were the criteria used to decide who received which title and performed which duties.

Since men held no positions of power within the harem, who assigned these titles and duties?

The most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire: the Valide Sultan.


The Valide Sultan was the mother of the ruling Sultan, and if you think you know a Mama’s boy – trust me, you really don’t.

You haven’t seen a Mama’s boy until you’ve delved into the relationship between a Sultan and his mother. Sheesh! This Queen Mother had the last word on everything in the empire from government affairs to who her son slept with.

Yes, you heard me right.

The Sultan’s mother chose his booty calls!


We’ll explore the details of this titillating tidbit in a future Harem Habibati post. But for now, suffice it to say that these Queen Mothers were the real rulers of the Ottoman Empire.

Which could explain why it was history’s longest ruling empire!


In her capacity as Valide Sultan, her rule over the harem was equivalent – if not more involved – than the Sultan’s rule over the Empire.

You see, the Imperial Harem contained thousands of individuals – a huge job for anyone, male or female. And so the Valide Sultan had ministers – all female, remember – who formed her cabinet, including a prime minister, chief treasurer, and secretary of state. She also had an enormous staff of overseers who regulated at least 30 types each of kalfas and ustas (managers and workers) for an endless myriad of tasks and duties both within and outside the harem to keep things running smoothly.


Nothing happened in a harem without the Valide Sultan’s orchestration.

Next in the harem hierarchy came the Hasseki Sultan, also called the kadin efendi. She was the First Lady of the harem, and as such carried a title and position socially equivalent to that of ‘wife.’ Why? Because she was the first in the harem to give birth to the Sultan’s first son.

Now, Sultans often killed their sons to keep their sons from killing them first in a grab for the throne. So, I don’t really get the whole pop-out-a-boy-kadinefendi-joy thing. But whatever. Teho, right? (To each his own)

Anyway, harem women who borne the sultan subsequent sons, became lesser kadins. And those who borne daughters became the lowest rank of kadins. Even so, a kadin of any rank was still a high position in the harem hierarchy.

Beneath the kadins, came the ikbal. These ladies were the Sultan’s favorites. Why? Well, that depended on the Sultan: some liked intelligent women with whom they could converse about everything from art and music to political issues.


Other Sultans preferred women with particular talents such as singing or storytelling.


Still other Sultans simply required exquisite beauty – brains & talent optional. Can’t imagine what they did for entertainment. 🙄 But I’d bet money these brains-optional ikbals moved up to kadin pretty quickly!

Next came the gediks. These were girls who caught the Sultan’s eye for one reason or another – but he did not sleep with them. Often, the Valide Sultan would assign these gediks as personal servants to her son. If a gedik was chosen repeatedly by the Sultan to perform certain tasks, she became a gözde – an elevated gedik. Becoming a gözde could signal that she was ikbal-bound.




On the lowest rung of harem hierarchy eagerly perched the cariye, also called odalisques. These were the slave girls of the harem. They were usually women who had been on the selling block in slave markets, or kidnapped in their own countries by pirates who then sold them to Sultans and other rich Ottoman masters. The most exceptionally beautiful or talented of these slave girls would generally be presented to Sultans as gifts to win his favor.

But think you not these women had no chance to rise up the harem hierarchy. In fact, they rose quite often after much labor (more than one type…hel-looo, kadin!). In the Ottoman Empire, there was no stigma attached to being a slave. It was simply a social strata you were in until you worked your way out of it in one way or another.

Now, at the very bottom of the harem was a group of men. Well, almost men. Once men, but no longer fully men. Like, men, but minus the part that makes men men.

Anatomically, I mean.

Oh, hell. I’ll just say it: these guys were in the harem because they had their muff pokers chopped off!


They were harem eunuchs.

And they were the only, um, men…men-esque…men-ish…well, they were the only non-female members of the harem. But we’ll delve into their plumbing in a future post.

So, there you have it. Harem hierarchy in a nutshell. A tiny nutshell. Because Imperial Harems were enormous, and there were dozens and dozens of other positions within the hierarchy – which we’ll get to in future posts.

But now, in subsequent Harem Habibati posts (habibati, by the way, is an Arab term of endearment – roughly translated as ‘Harem Darlings‘), we’re ready to explore how each level lived within the harem…


Which harem title would you vie for?

What do you think of the harem hierarchy?



14 thoughts on “Harem Habibati: Hierarchy of the Imperial Harem

  1. Hi Sylver, I can recommend highly Leslie Peirce’s extremely interesting and complete investigation into the theme in “The Imperial Harem”. ((it’s a bit complicated and English isn’t my first language, but mostly it was the other brothers who offed the one on top, with their mothers as acting agents behind them.) The other problem – one boy per kadin – is a power play. More than one boy to one mother gives the mother too much power. (Look at Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana) and see what happened in her case, as she was the first one to go against the one-on-one tradition.) As a matter of fact, as soon as the kadin had born a boy she was cut off from sex with the sultan. The reasons for that were political, too. Among other things it made sure there were enough sons given the high rate of mortality due to war campaigns.

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  6. Maybe it’s just me – who no longer has a pair – but with the final paragraphs regarding eunuchs and castration I think you might also have tagged this post a Blaque Friday one.

    • You read my mind. 🙂 Prepared a Foreign Eyes Friday post a few weeks back to post in the same week I post about eunuchs. Stay tuned! I’d love to hear your thoughts about it…

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  8. I really enjoy these posts and always look forward to them. I love learning about how cultures have lived in the past. Thank you Sylver for another amazing post!

  9. Sounds good but what about non royal women. My friend is a Christian missionary in Morocco and is primarily a social studies teacher for English speaking high schoolers as his missionary work is very limited by law. His secretary a girl of 20 became interested in Christianity and simply brought home a Bible. Her father broke her arm with a large iron frying pan and naturally is prosecuted in no way. This is one example only but it is indicative of the way women are mistreated in Muslim and African countries.

    • Hi, Carl. I hear what you’re saying, but this post is about Ottoman harems, the last of which was in 1922 at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Yes, there are still a few wealthy Saudis (in Saudi Arabia) who have a version of these ancient harems, but it’s important to make the distinction between those rare cases of harems today and the norm throughout the Middle East – which is marriage as we know it. As well, I feel it’s extremely important not to paint entire nations with one brushstroke which applies only to radical or fringe elements of a nation.

      Yes, there are horrifying instances of abused & murdered women in the Middle East, but these instances occur within radical groups which do not represent the norm – not by a long shot. Can you imagine if foreign nations were to consistently highlight only abused & murdered women in our country (battered wives, rape victims, molested children, serial killer victims, child killer victims, etc.), and foreigners were to visit our country, return to their home countries and tell only stories of the battered wives, rape victims, molested children, etc. they encountered here the U.S. – thereby painting that as the most prevalent norm across our entire nation?

      And what if our many battered wives, rape victims and molested children crossed borders to escape their abusers because our court system offered them little protection or too-late justice? And the news media in those foreign countries chose to broadcast every day that the U.S. is a nation which abuses & kills its women, rapes & murders its children, etc. without ever balancing that view with the positives about our nation? Well, the people in that foreign country – people who had never even been here – would be terrified of us. They would have a horrific, warped view of Americans.

      But this is exactly what our media does here in our Western countries – we construct a one-sided, warped image of an entire hemisphere. Add to that, Western travelers who have negative experiences in Middle Eastern countries, then return home to speak only of the horrifying things they saw. Well, what are we to think? If our news says so, and our travelers say so, then what they say must be true across the entire Middle East, right? Wrong! The horrifying tales are true in the instances in which they happened, among the specific people to whom it happened – but that does not make it true for the entire continent, or religion.

      I believe we really have to be careful about this type of selective labeling. It’s one of the reasons I blog about these controversial issues. I’ve been to these countries, and I’ve seen the bad and the good. Unfortunately, Western countries/people focus only on the bad about Middle Eastern countries – blowing it wildly out of proportion, and labeling the entire nation or religion as bad overall.

      I’m sometimes accused of focusing only on the good, and to that I say, “Absolutely!” Because our Western laser focus on the bad Middle East is already out there, everywhere, endlessly, and growing exponentially as our media continues – for reasons of politics, and exceptionalism – to instill fear, contempt and loathing in us about nations we know very little about beyond the violence of radical & fringe groups within those nations.

      Nothing & no one is ALL bad. And since very few in this country present the good side of these nations, I choose to do so in order to balance a warped view – a warped view which keeps fear & hatred alive, ‘otherizes’ Muslims, and does nothing to foster understanding or work toward peace.

      I think, Carl, that you believe, as I do, that talking about issues is key. Because in talking about things, you learn about them. And the more you learn, the less one-sided things become. Minds open, knowledge pours in, understanding dawns. This is why I love that you express your views here – I always learn something, and knowledge is golden to me. As a history professor, you probably already know everything I’ve said here & probably teach it to your students. But I don’t have any teaching degrees (I wish!). So, this blog is where I feel I can try to foster understanding in my own tiny way in an effort to work toward peace. 🙂

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