The Seraglio, World of Women

Sometimes research for a novel takes a fiction writer in unexpected directions. When a complicated plot combinghair1800beypoint led me to place a character in the Ottoman Seraglio as a teacher I had to wonder just how far fetched that idea might be.

“Seraglio” I discovered refers to the Sultan’s household, his home, the private quarters. “Harem” is the name for the women in his household, of which there were many: wives, concubines, sisters, daughters, and, most importantly, his mother. The Seraglio of the Topkapi palace was a massive complex of apartments, baths, and courtyards, a maze of over 300 ornate rooms and tiled passageways. Home to hundreds of women, it required a complex administrative structure.

The most powerful figure in the Seraglio (after the Sultan) was the Valide Sultan, usually the Sultan’s mother. If his mother was deceased or otherwise not available, another senior female family member filled the position. She ruled and administered the household, its many servants, its supply needs,

Apartments of the Valide Sultan, Topkapi Palace Comlex

Apartments of the Valide Sultan, Topkapi Palace Comlex

and its security. There was a time in history when she ruled the empire from the shadows.

The chief eunuch held much power in the household, the key

The Chief Black Eunuch,artist unknown 1809

The Chief Black Eunuch,artist unknown 1809

link between the Sultan and the Valide Sultan, since the only men allowed in were the eunuchs. The chief Black Eunuch was the most powerful, having military duties. He would control security. The chief White Eunuch held administrative power.

The women lived in a strict hierarchy that determined living conditions and privileges. There were essentially four ranks.

  1. Kalfa –servant girl.
  2. Iqbal – sometimes called an odalisque, a concubine, a woman who may have caught the Sultan’s eye but has no children. She may be bedded once and never see him again.
  3. Haseki – a woman rewarded with her own quarters once she has given birth.
  4. Kadin – a woman who has given him a son. A Kadin had the status equivalent to legal wife. By tradition there could be only four.

Of course, over all of them was the Valide Sultan.

Harem Newsreader, Ettore Simonetti, bef 1909

Harem Newsreader, Ettore Simonetti, bef 1909

While there were severe restrictions, they lived in a gilded cage, and they were all under the ultimate power of the sultan, the Seraglio was to a great degree a world of women managed by women. In that world, learning was greatly prized and women in the Seraglio were highly educated. They learned to read and write Ottoman, Persian and French. They learned the Koran, mathematics, history and geography, and the arts.

Was there sex in the Seraglio? Of course. Coerced? Maybe. Stay in the Seraglio wasn’t always voluntary. However, one suspects that the lurid paintings of naked women being ogled by a group of turbaned men are a Western invention. The Victorian men who painted them, who weren’t permitted inside the Seraglio, had vivid imaginations. There were worse fates for a woman in the Ottoman Empire and in England during the same time period, come to that.

In Dangerous Weakness, an Ottoman official, the nephew of the Valide Sultan, owes the heroine a favor. When she appeals to him for protection, he arranges for her to be taken in as a servant. Posing as a widow to cover her pregnancy she becomes a respected teacher. Possible? Perhaps not, but feasible enough for fiction? I think so.

What do you think?

For more about the Seraglio see:

Structure of the Ottoman Harem and Personal Recollections by Nadine Sultana d’Osman Han
All About Turkey
Exhibition on the Seraglio, Hurriyet Daily News
What Really Went On In the Harem, The Telegraph Travel Section
 Mothers of Empire, the Valide Sultan, Hurriyet Daily Newsabot


About Dangerous Weakness


If only the Marquess of Glenaire could manage an independent woman as easily as he manages the affairs DANGEROUS WEAKNESS2 (5)of England for the Foreign Office. Given enough information, he can fix anything, but Lily Thornton insists on managing her own affairs, even when her personal problems draw her dangerously close to revolution in the floundering Ottoman Empire. How far will she go to prove she doesn’t need an overbearing man managing her life? How far will Richard go to protect her when he discovers her problems might be his own? He might just chase her across the pirate-infested Mediterranean

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