“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…
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-kadin–efendi-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?