Lecture & Publication prepared for IQSA Conference 2004: "Harem: Perception & Reality of Life in Ottoman and Qajar Courts".

Ottoman Legacy

Structure of the Ottoman Harem and Personal Recollections of Life in the Harem of Sultan Abdülhamid II

Copyright 2004 by Nadine Sultana d'Osman Han (Kadjar)

Perceptions of harems as well as the realities of life in the harem change and have changed over time and with different cultural contexts.

Contrary to prevailing opinion, the harem at the time of the Ottomans was not a place of unbridled desire nor a prison for helpless women guarded by fierce eunuchs for the pleasure of lascivious sultans. As with many institutions that are foreign to the experience of the West and different from its own traditions, the harem in Islamic culture has posed a twin problem of simultaneous fascination and attraction and criticism and derision for the Western mind. These positions stem largely from a misunderstanding of the reality of the harem on the one hand, and the very real impossibility of a closer scrutiny on the other, both because of the nature of the institution itself and because of the religious, cultural and political context to which the harem belonged.

Misunderstandings about the harem abound not only in terms of what the institution represented under Islamic rule, but also, when considering the harem of the ruler, what the relative position of power of its occupants with respect to the ruler of the land itself was. Further confusion persists on the meaning of the harem itself and on the identity of the actual occupants, who constituted, in fact, the household of the ruler, and thus included more than wives and concubines.

Sometimes misconceptions about the harem took novel and unexpected turns — as exemplified by the comments of Luigi Olivero, an Italian visitor to the Turkish realms — when one learns of the prejudices of the Western observers themselves in their attempt to make sense of what they see in this foreign yet fascinating institution of the harem.

In his book Turkey without Harem, Luigi Olivero states:
The emancipation of women is the most monstrous, senseless, self injuring conception of the mind of man that sociology has ever seen. It is an abdication of the absolute superiority by nature and that our forefathers, nearer than us to the nature they worshipped, respected and caused to be upheld through century after century.

The Harem of the Mussulmans was the pagan sanctuary of this marvelous wisdom…. It was an institution that permitted man, in addition to maintaining his superiority over woman, a creature intellectually and biologically of the lower level, a human sub-production from every point of view, to restrict woman to her primary duty of furthering the demographic quota ….

The Harem system almost entirely banished adultery. You will surely agree that a man, provided with a dozen wives, will not be likely to look on other women with desire, while he himself could never be deceived by the wives of his own harem, securely imprisoned as they were behind massive doors, the golden key to which was the sacred responsibility of the ever vigilant head-wife; and a further restraint the whip… of the eunuch guardian. Hence the Harem encouraged morals, it was an ally of morality, and no woman ever thought of making a scene through jealousy where her husband was concerned, for he was all the more respected by his wives as he added to their numbers.

Had it (the Harem) kept woman immured within the pleasant walls of the Harem, encouraging her to labour therein with an enthusiasm mounting even to a frenzy of endeavour. Such a frenzy; thus condoned, would have made every home a factory some larger than others, devoted to the true interests of man and civilization; a hive of industry of which the "Queen Bee" would have been the male".

This assessment is both interesting and revealing, in that it differs from the many others who either treat the harem with disdain or with misplaced fascination. Here we have a strange mix of approbation and accommodation combined with an exaggerated Western notion that the definition of the word "harem" means the uncontested male superiority enjoyed by the Orient and the East.

While individual rulers may have indeed dealt arbitrarily with some occupants of their harems and while some may have had visions of themselves as ‘queen bees’ of their hive, the realities of the actual harems, particularly those of the Ottomans that are the subject of my lecture were quite different from the positive and negative fantasies of the outside observer. Let us take a look at those realities for a moment together.

Physical and Political Dimensions of the Harem in Ottoman Palaces

The physical location called the Harem consisted of the apartments within the palaces of the Ottoman Sultans or the mansions of the wealthy reserved principally to the women and the children of the household, affording them an undisturbed space for their daily routines and their family life.

The harem could be several rooms or apartments within a main building or a series of separated buildings with many open courtyards surrounded by gardens and high walls. Thus, the harem was not a single unified building, but a community in which women enjoyed privacy. Its size and the number of its buildings depended on the population of the harem and the wealth of their titular master.

The Harem of the Ottoman Sultans was a self-contained community of hundreds of women whose influence had, more often than one might realize, far reaching effects on the politics of the outside world. Its occupants were the mothers of the Sultans, spouses and favorites, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, nieces and many other relatives, as well as their children, staffs and servants.

The Harem of Ottoman Sultans was a powerful government within the government, and thus had a structure not unlike that of the Sultan with respect to the outside world. The harem was a world of political power behind its wall of seclusion, with regulations as strict as those of any government.

In keeping with ancient tradition, it was the mother of the Sultan, titled "Valide Sultana or Sultan", who ruled with full and exclusive authority over the Harem. Even her son, the Sultan, mindful of the Prophet's teachings that "Heaven lies under the feet of Mothers", would respect his Mother's authority within all aspects of the Harem.

Respect for mothers is a feature of all ancient societies and of particular importance to Ottomans and Qajars alike when it came to the position of the mother of the ruler in the hierarchy of the household. But respect for mothers is not peculiar to these traditions, and has an ancient and hallowed pedigree as this passage from an Egyptian record, the Boulak Papyrus, shows, in which the child is admonished to show both respect and affection to his Mother:

"Thou shalt never forget thy mother…. For she carried thee long beneath her breast as a heavy burden, and after thy months were accomplished she bore thee. Three long years she carried thee upon her shoulder, and gave thee her breast to thy mouth. She nurtured thee, and took no offense from thy uncleanliness. And when thou didst enter school, and was instructed in the writings, daily she stood by the master with bread and beer from the house".

The Valide Sultana was assisted in the Harem by the Chief Black Eunuch, who in theory was responsible for the women in the Harem, but in fact was performing the role of Prime Minister for the Valide Sultana, communicating her wishes to the Sultan. The Chief Black Eunuch enjoyed immense status and was a much respected liaison between the Harem and the outside world. Upon consultation with the Valide Sultana, the Chief Black Eunuch could appoint various people to high positions both in the Palace and outside.  

The Valide Sultana had a large staff, often more than 100 women of various ages, who performed in a complex hierarchy. The actual running of the Harem was under the shared responsibility of two women, the "Head Housekeeper" with the title of Kahya and the "Head Treasurer" with the title Haznedar Usta. The financial matters of the Harem were a great responsibility, for all women from the Princesses to the lowest slaves were entitled to monetary allowances as well as material possessions. These assets were in proportion to their rank. All had full control over their finances. Thus, the Haznedar Usta was acting for them as a sort of banker and investor-consultant. In this, she was also assisted by a second and third Haznedar.

Then came the senior maids called Kalfas, about a dozen of them, who were divided into four ranks. These Kalfas were: First Secretary, First seal-bearer, First Mistress of Robes and so forth. They were assisted by lesser servants called Halayiks, whose ages ranged from twelve and older. Usually each Kalfa had six Halayiks. These girls took the title of the Kalfas they served. For instance the Halayik girls serving the First Secretary would be known as lesser-secretaries. These positions were of high esteem and would be occupied by the women who had gradually advanced in all parts of the Harem's training, but who did not have a chance to become a wife (Kadin) or favorite of the Sultan.

When slaves, called Cariye (meaning those who serve), were brought to the Harem (all of them non-moslem and non-Turkish girls of about 7 years), the more attractive ones were taught to sing, play instruments and dance, in addition to other disciplines that included Turkish, the Koran, the etiquette of the Court, reading and writing and, even if they wished, the learning of foreign languages. Various crafts were also instructed. All the Ottoman Palace Harems had schools for the instruction of skills and literacy. Each girl was placed under a Kalfa or other senior maids, who acted as surrogate mothers; thus strong bonds of affection developed between them. After a very strict education and graduation, these girls were auditioned by the Valide Sultana and only then chosen to be presented to the Sultan, should he wish to be entertained.

The most important women after the Valide Sultana were the Kadins or Kadinefendis, the wives of the Sultan. While the Kadins were not legally married to the Sultan, they were very much revered and considered as official wives. They had their own quarters, ladies-in-waiting, slaves, jewels, dresses, and allowances that were in proportion to the honor and importance of their new position.

The Sultan usually had four Kadins, women who had borne the Sultan a son. In addition to the regular staff, the Sultan and each of his wives had four Kalfas, who would attend to their immediate needs. Sometimes these servant women who attended to the bathing and dressing of the Sultan were called Gedikli.

The Ikbals were favorites that the Sultan occasionally honored. However, if one of them gave birth to a child she would be raised to the title Haseki and rewarded appropriately with her own quarters and her own attendants. If the child happened to be a son, she would join the rank of the Kadins. Each Kadin wished to move up in rank, but the ultimate aim was not to be the First Kadin but rather to be the next Valide Sultana. This ambition triggered intrigues, gossip and murders within the Harem, as well as within the government. To attain their goals, these ladies of the Harem would also seek help from the princesses married mostly to grand vizirs or other high government officials. These men never went against their wives' wishes, knowing too well how fatal Harem gossip could be. The ultimate goal of an ambitious and capable Valide Sultana was to rule the whole Empire through a very young, or malleable son. This aim was achieved now and then, sometimes with devastating results, as the story of Roxelana (Hurrem), the favorite of Sultan Suleyman the Lawgiver (the Magnificent) well illustrates.

The Ottoman Harem was a world of opportunity for women of that era, assuring financial security and, to some, great power. Those who did not become wives or favorites of the Sultan, held various positions following their abilities, not only in the Harem of the Sultan but also at the Palace of his daughters and sisters. In addition, the Sultan married some of these favorites or Cariyes to his government officials, a great honor for these men due to the fact that these girls were exceptionally well brought up, educated and given substantial trousseaus or dowries. Even after marriage, they could visit the Palace Harem as often as they wished, and ask for favors for their husbands that were usually granted.

The wives and favorites of the Imperial Princes were also chosen from the Sultan's Harem. Not the least of the privileges of the slaves at the Ottoman Court was that any slave servant in the Harem could ask for her freedom after seven years of service. They were emancipated, given a sum of money and a house. Very few took advantage of this opportunity, preferring the security and stability within the Harem.

Apart from the Valide Sultana, only the daughters and sisters of the Sultan were given the title of Sultana. They were allowed much more freedom than the other members of the Harem and they were permitted to go out in the city in their carriages attended by their guard of eunuchs. Their marriages were celebrated with grand festivities and as a gift the Sultan would present them with a palace named after them. These princesses who were all well educated in music, art, literature, languages and, naturally, the Koran, entertained lavishly for the wives of the ambassadors and foreign dignitaries; and they also visited them in return. The Sultanas could also receive their brothers, cousins or nephews.

Strict rules had to be followed by husbands of imperial princesses. The husband of a Sultana could not indulge in infidelity. He was not permitted to have favorites or other wives. The Harem in the household of an Ottoman Sultana was strictly her personal quarters along with her attendants, separate from her husband's apartments. No favorites were maintained in a Sultana's Harem for her husband, who had to remain monogamous or face dire consequences, even death.

Given that the Palace Harem of the Sultan was indeed the private section of his household, naturally all his children, both girls and boys, lived there. The sons of the Sultan could remain in the Harem of their mother until ten or eleven years of age. A special school existed in the Harem for the sons of the Sultan, where the Princes could start their first lessons around the age of five by a tutor called Hoca, appointed by the Sultan. The Hoca, guarded closely by the black eunuchs, came daily to the Harem. The Chief Eunuch, whose apartment was located directly under the school, supervised the education of the princes.

At the age of ten, the Crown Prince (Sehzâde) would be given a complete household, including a Chief Eunuch of his own called Lala Pasha. The Sehzâde's apartment was usually located within the Palace, and he continued his studies at the Palace Harem school under the finest Ulemas (scholars). In earlier times, after this formal schooling, the Crown Prince would be sent with his entourage as governor to the province of Manisa and be further trained in statesmanship.

The Harem of the Sultan also had its own infirmary headed by a capable Head-Nurse (a Kalfa-Nine) and mid-wives. For serious illnesses, a doctor from the Palace would be allowed, accompanied by two rows of black eunuchs who would then leave while the doctor consulted his patient. The discretion of the examination of the patient by the doctor was left to his best judgment as required by the ailment. The infirmary was a unit by itself for the sick, the nurses and its staff. It even had its own laundry facilities and kitchen, as it was observed that the sick needed a special diet, and special cleanliness. The infirmary buildings opened around a courtyard for fresh air. Should a Princess or Kadin fall ill, she would be attended by the personal Chief Doctor of the Sultan, in her own apartment.

The Harem proper did not have a kitchen except for making tea and small sweets. All meals were prepared at the enormous Palace kitchens by men attached to the palace. Meals were brought on trays, covered in winter with heavy cloths of different colors, depending to whom they were to be delivered : Sultanas, Kadins, Kalfas, or others.

The men who brought these trays were called Tablakiars and placed their heavily laden trays on long tables set for that purpose in the marble-floored hallway of the harem. When the tablakiars left, a black eunuch would go and notify the servant girl-in-charge. Each tray was carried by three girls who followed their immediate superior to the apartments of the princesses or princes for whom these trays were destined. The trays were received by the Kalfas who supervised the services to their mistresses or masters. Trays destined for the Kalfas and others were delivered by girls of lower status and supervised by girls called kilardjis.

The Ottoman Harem had a very complex protocol that required numerous staff with very specific duties. Even the girls who performed in the Sultana's orchestra had other duties, administrative or domestic, to perform. These girls were professional musicians and well the equals of their male counterparts who formed the Sultan's or the princes' orchestras.

The Kadins and Ikbals were not idle either. They supervised the education provided to their children, plotted for their son' s ascension to the throne, and made thus a point to be well informed of the politics of the outside world, as well as seeking diplomatic allies among powerful government officials. They educated themselves by reading the Koran, the newspapers, literature and history books, played music or embroidered and entertained female visitors. They took trips in their carriages or enjoyed the Bosphorus in their luxurious small boats called caique. They also played many society games.

Naturally, the Sultanas and the ladies of high rank had more freedom than the working staff of the Harem. They could go shopping outside whenever they wished, guarded for their protection by black eunuchs who acted as bodyguards. If the Princesses wished to do their shopping outside instead of sending an attendant to do their purchases, they would arrange to meet the merchants in one of the mosques such as the Nouri-Osmanie that had, like all mosques, rooms reserved for the Sultan and the imperial family.

The princesses were allowed to go to the Bazaar, but they did not feel this to be appropriate, thus they had merchants notified that they wished to see their merchandises in more private locations such as the mosque mentioned above. The Kalfas were also allowed to go to the Bazaar if they wished. Now and then, outings were also organized for all the servant girls in the Harem, while a few were always privileged to accompany their sultanas on picnics and other excursions.

The wives or the favorites of an imperial prince could not socialize or be presented to another prince unless they had been invited by a Sultana to her Palace where other princes might be present. The wives and favorites of the Sultan usually did not see the eunuchs except the Chief Eunuch and the Moussahib eunuchs who were on duty 24 hours if called upon. The Moussahibs were well read and well informed. They performed always as a pair as a sort of liaison between the Sultan and the Palace, including the Harem. The other eunuchs who entered the Harem of the spouses of the Sultan were the Baltacilar (porters). They helped with the luggage when the ladies went to a summer palace. They also carried the wood for the fireplaces, and did other heavy lifting. Again, these restrictions did not apply to the Sultanas. They could see any eunuchs they had need to see.

Only black eunuchs were employed for the women of the harem. Most of them came from Ethiopia and all were already castrated when they entered the Harem. In addition to black eunuchs, white eunuchs were at the service of the Sultan and the princes. These white eunuchs were castrated by their own free-will as a means to attain coveted high positions within the palace and even the opportunity to become a Minister or Vizir. At no time did the Ottomans perform castration by force. Furthermore, all of the eunuchs had access to various degrees of education.

In fact, even the lowest of the palace slaves, men or women, were taught to read and write, and within the hierarchy of the harem, based on their talents and intelligence, were able to ascend to positions of power and respect. The eunuchs too had numerous ranks with specific duties. They acted very much like the body-guards of any King or President, or the police force for the security of a city's citizens.

Though the Harem came about as a result of the law of seclusion in Islamic societies, its longevity must be ascribed to more than the habit of separation of sexes in the public arena. The harem certainly represents an aspect of power, both that of its male governor and that of its female occupants as I have tried to show in my presentation. But beyond that I believe the institution of the harem survived for as long as it did because it met the expectation of the women within it, and gave the women within it the opportunity to govern themselves.

In the societies under discussion, women needed protection not only for their financial security but also from physical harm in a turbulent world. The harem provided that protection for the women within it. It also provided them with the companionship of other women. Women in royal circles and urban settings tended to be more isolated than the women in the fields who were able to work outside and in groups. Thus, the harem was able to fill this much needed gap.

In support of this thesis I would like to call attention to a recent study titled "Friendship Among Women" conducted at UCLA by Drs. Berkowitz, Klein and Taylor. Their findings explain in part why the harem as a concept was not rejected by women.

Dr. Berkowitz suggests that friendship among women is primordial for the well-being of women. Apparently, when humans experience stress, stress triggers an hormonal response that prompts the body to either stand and fight or flee as fast as possible, the fight or flight response. Over time this mechanism has been modified and our responses to stress have changed. Dr. Berkowitz and her colleagues discovered that women and men respond differently to stress. Their studies show that stressed men tend to seek solitude in contrast to women who seek companionship.

In women, stressful factors generate a brain chemical called "oxytocin" that counters stress and produces a calming effect that encourages women to care for children and to seek companionship of other women. This interaction results in the release of more "oxytocins". In turn, these feminine social ties lower blood pressure, heart rate, and reduce other risks of disease. In short, it means that feminine gatherings are essential to a woman's well-being, giving her strength and vitality. Solitude is the worst enemy of a woman, as much as smoking or obesity.

Thus, the harem may have originated from women's unconscious need to be among themselves, tending to children without masculine presence, and in control of the family unit. Since our response to stress does have significant implications for our health, it may well be that these unconscious survival mechanisms dictated the existence of laws and institutions resulting in the Harem, just as they still dictate the existence of laws and corresponding institutions today.

A Personal Journey

I would like to conclude on a personal note with a recollection of my grand-mother's journey to the harem of my grand-father, Sultan Abdülhamid II, and the memories of my father from his early childhood in the harem of the last great Ottoman Sultan.

My Grandmother

My grandmother, little name "Sendokht" (renamed "Seniha", "Safi-Naz") Zell-os-Soltaneh, a Kadjar princess, and one of the daughters of the Prince-Governor Masud Mirza Zell-os-Soltan of Persia, came as a prospective bride (for political reasons) to the Ottoman Court. Due to her high rank, the princess, who was at the time about 4 years old, was not entrusted to the Palace Harem's Kalfas as was customary for all prospective wives of the Sultan, but to Seniha Sultan, a half-sister of the Sultan, and herself an Imperial Princess. Thus, Seniha Sultan became the surrogate mother of "Sendokht" Zell-os-Soltaneh, and took her into her own harem. There, "Sendokht" Zell-os Soltaneh, was renamed "Seniha" Zill-i-Sultan.

The Harem

The harem of an Imperial Princess means her own private home. Here, even her husband (in this case Damat Mahmut Bey Pasha) had to ask the Princess for permission to enter. But as has been pointed out, the Harem of an Imperial Princess did not house concubines. Adultery (or multiple wives and favorites) was not permitted to the husband of an Imperial Princess. For this reason, Ottoman Imperial Princesses generally did not marry their cousins as was customary in certain other royal families, such as the Kadjar. Exceptions occurred, such as Damat Mahmut Bey Pasha, an Ottoman Prince by his mother, the Imperial Princess Saliha, a daughter of Sultan Mahmut II. Yet, regardless of rank, a husband of an Imperial Princess was bound by the law of monogamy. In addition, in contrast to the customs of other courts, such as the Kadjar, Ottoman Imperial Princesses could transmit the title of Prince (Sultanzâde) or Princess (Hanum Sultan) to their children.

Her Childhood

My grandmother Seniha Zell os-Soltaneh had a happy childhood at the Palace of Seniha Sultan, located at Kuruchesme in the district of Bebek along the Bosphorus. Most summer palaces were located in that area of Istanbul. The Kadjar child, like all Ottoman imperial princesses, was allocated her own apartment (with her own staff) within the palace of Seniha Sultan. Among her staff was her wet-nurse from Persia, named Araknaz, after the hometown of the princess, and other Persian attendants who had accompanied her in her new life. As my father recalled, Seniha Sultan was a particularly gentle soul, very energetic, and exceptionally talented, both in academics and sports. Although it was not customary for princesses, especially in the latter period of the Ottoman Empire, Seniha Sultan was an outstanding equestrian and taught equestrian skills to my grand-mother, who was a natural. Zell-os Soltaneh had already been introduced to riding by her Father the Prince-Governor Masud Zell-os Soltan, who took her with him riding when he was visiting her mother, the daughter of a powerful and extremely wealthy Sufi Sheihk from Sultan Abad (today Arak).


Seniha Zell-os-Soltaneh was very fond of animals and particularly birds. Nothing could delight her more as she grew older, than the wonderful birds at Yildiz park, the official palace park of Sultan Abdülhamid. Yildiz was built like a fairy-tale village, with gracious small palaces in a park like setting having unsurpassed natural beauty with ponds, mini-lakes, trails, a safari of exotic animals, blended together by the palace gardeners in a perfect setting overlooking the Bosphorus.

The Princess' Education

The education of the Princess was quite extensive. She learned to read and write Ottoman, Persian and French. She learned the Koran, mathematics, history and geography, in addition to the arts. Seniha Sultan was an excellent pianist, and she saw to it that my grand-mother mastered music as well. Most of the Ottoman Imperial children played an instrument, particularly the piano. However, princesses were not encouraged to sing or to dance. It was not considered proper. On the other hand, it was a prerogative for gifted children who came to the Court to become concubines and servants of both the Sultan and the Imperial Family's Harems to learn to sing as well as to dance, in addition to mastering a musical instrument. Some became excellent actors and presented their skills in theatrical performances in the Harems. The childhood of my grand-mother was far from being oppressive and confined. The Princess enjoyed canoeing on the Bosphorus, as well as outings by coach. In these, she was always accompanied by servants and usually by other Princesses.


Once married to Sultan Abdülhamid II, around 1907-1908 at age 13 or 14 (marriage under 16 years old did not occur often in the Ottoman Court), the Princess was allotted a winter residence at Yildiz. While her erstwhile freedom was more limited now, she was granted the same privileges as other Princesses. She still rode her horses and enjoyed her summers at the Palace of Kuruchesme. She continued to keep a very strong relationship with Seniha Sultan. The etiquette of the Court did not permit unscheduled visits. Later on, in 1909 when she became the mother of my father, Prince Selim bin Hamid Han, my father recalled that his contacts with his mother were few and far in-between as the princess always took her meal alone in her own apartment while he took his in his own, surrounded by his own nanny and attendants.

Interpersonal relationships

While filial relationship could be deep, an outward show of emotions was not approved of at the Ottoman Court. It would have been unthinkable for a child to burst into the room of his/her mother without being invited. Respect and a quiet demeanor were observed at all times. Courtesy and muted conversations were de rigueur at the Court as well as in the Harem. Boisterous manners had no place at the Ottoman Court. This discipline in quietness and orderly lifestyle has often been compared rightly with the atmosphere that reigned in monasteries and convents. Far from being oppressive, this discipline in the Harem as well as in the Court made for congenial living when so many lived under what we might call one roof. This same quietness of manner was inherent in the Ottoman armies, and was a source of wonder to foreign armies. The meaning of civilized might well be found in the model set by the Ottoman Harems, where disagreements could be handled without the need to raise one's voice.



"Daughter of Persia: A Woman's Journey From Her Father's Harem Through The Islamic Revolution" by Sattareh Farman Farmaian with Dona Munker. Anchor Book/Doubleday, New York, 1993.

"Le Harem Imperial Au XIXe Siecle" by Leila Hanoum. Historiques Editions Complexes, Brussels, Belgium, 1991.

"The Legacy of Sultan Abdülhamid II: Memoirs and Biography of HIH Sultan Selim bin Hamid Han" by Nadine Sultana d'Osman Han. Sultana Publishing, New Mexico, 2001.


As quoted in a lecture given by Humeyra Hanum Sultana to the NATO Officers Wives Club, in Izmir, Turkey, 1967, published as ìWomen of the Harem,î p. 16.

Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, 2nd ed., Simon and Schuster, New York, 1935, p. 165.

Zeynep M. Durukan, The Harem of the Topkapi Palace, Hilal Matbaacilik, Istanbul, 1979.