A harem is, on a basic level, a place where women are kept to prevent them from interacting with the wider world. The idea has existed across a wide variety of times and cultures, from the Ancient Persians to the Byzantines. However, the figure most closely associated with the harem in the popular imagination has to be the Ottoman Sultan, who often kept hundreds of wives and concubines secluded within the palace walls. But when we focus on the Sultan, we forget about the women themselves. So, what was life really like for a woman living in the Sultan’s harem?
To understand what life in a harem was like, we need to look at the history of the idea. We need to understand what purpose it was supposed to serve and why it was so entrenched in the culture of the Ottoman Empire’s elite. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that the Ottomans didn’t invent the harem. The practice of secluding wives and female relatives away from the public gaze goes back much farther and has been a feature of many cultures, all the way back to the ancient Assyrians. And while we think of a harem as containing multiple wives and concubines, this wasn’t always the case.
It’s important to remember that all of these cultures were very patriarchal. Women were largely viewed as the property of their husbands. And women were also status symbols. The idea that a woman shouldn’t be seen in public was common in these societies, but most women had to work, which required leaving the house. For rulers, having a harem served two purposes: 1) It prevented women from behaving “immodestly,” which would have affected her husband’s reputation, and 2) It proved that he was so rich that he could afford to keep his wife in the house.
The practice of keeping a harem was introduced to the Turkish people who later founded the Ottoman Empire by Arab Caliphates, who introduced Islam to them as well. Islam places a high value on sexual purity and modesty, which meant that the practice of keeping wives and relatives separate from the rest of society had a religious justification for the Ottomans. Under the Ottomans, the harem evolved from being a place to keep women in seclusion to function almost as a royal household. In addition to wives and concubines, the Sultans often raised their male children until the age of 12 in the harem.
While we think of the Harem as a place where the Sultan kept an ever-growing stable of women to satisfy his baser urges, the truth is much more complex. The harem of a Sultan served a variety of functions and the women who lived there often ended up wielding significant power in their own right. But it would be a mistake to imagine the harem as a source of female empowerment, just as it would be a mistake to imagine it as the personal brothel of the Sultan. So, what was daily life in the harem really like?