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Life in an Islamic Harem

An Air Warrior and devotee of Lord Krishna has published over 120 short stories and 15 books on fiction and 4 on military history.



Harem is a word that conjures up sensuality and a dream, especially if one has read books like "Night in a Moorish Harem."This tale of a sailor who lands in a Moorish harem and spends a couple of nights of great revelry with the inmates who are all women. The fact is that life was not as rosy as depicted in this novel, but all the same, it was not bad. Some time back even the wife of the Turkish president Erdogan eulogized the virtue of a harem in a speech and set up the hackles of many rights activists.

The origin of the Harem can be traced to the Muslim world and Turkey in particular. With Islam wanting a strict differentiation between men and women, the solution was to have a separate place for the wives to stay. Many sultans and Sheiks, however, did transgress the injunction of 4 wives and normally had dozens of girls and women in their harem. The harem came down to India with the advent of Muslim rule. Akbar the so-called "great" had over 500 in his harem.

Credit or whatever you call it, for the creation of the harem, must go to the Ottoman rulers. According to Ottoman tradition, the harem was forbidden to strangers. Nobody other than the emperor and his son could enter the secluded place. Th emperor's mother who was known as the "valide sultan" (equivalent to queen mother) was the de-facto controller of the harem.

Some foreign travelers tried to unravel the secrets of the harem, but they were handicapped as they were never allowed inside. They ended up by describing the harem with the help of their visionary images and whatever information they could glean by word of mouth. This is the chief reason, why there are differences between orientalist paintings and the historical accounts of the imperial palace. The harem remained part of the Islamic world for close to 1000 years and it took a visionary like Kemel Mustapha "Ataturk" who abolished the caliphate and polygamy in Turkey, to put an end to it.


The harem

The harem was a heavily fortified place and only the ruler or owner could access the place. To ensure that women inmates of the harem never had intimate relations with any male, the place was guarded by emasculated guards or slaves who had been castrated. These were normally African Negroes, and they killed anyone who approached the harem.

Life inside the harem was luxury personified. it had places for music and dance, luxury bedrooms, lovely and salubrious bathing hammams( baths). Girls and women ate the best of food, and wine was also allowed. Inmates of the Harem were administered by a code enforced by the senior ladies of the harem. Any woman selected by the sheik or Bey to bed had her name entered in a register so that in case she conceived, the fact that the husband was the ruler himself could be proved. Crimes also took place and in one case, a woman selected by the Caliph and had intimacy with him conceived, but she was killed as the chief lady in the harem had deliberately refused to enter her name in the register and she was propagated as having got pregnant by someone else.

In the book "Shedding light on the life in a harem through Ottoman times" the author Zeynel Yaman brings out many aspects of Harem life. Just for the record this book was authorized by the Directorate of National Palaces under the Turkish Grand Assembly and published as a part of the Istanbul Kültür A.Ş. Culture and Civilization Series.

The harems thus catered for an orderly life and to get away from boredom, many of the women developed lesbian relationships. The harem was a world by itself and once a woman entered she had to adjust to the conditions.

The inmates were referred to as concubines. The harem offered good living conditions. What is now difficult to understand is that the Ottoman emperors till the 14th century preferred Christian wives and from the 15th century they turned to Muslim wives.

The harem was kept populated with fresh blood either through conquest or capture and in some cases the Barbary Pirates would raid the villages of Europe and abduct any number of Christian girls to populate the harems. However, care was taken that the girl was a virgin.

The harem also allowed the women to get an education, learn music, and even have their own orchestra. A considerable fortune was spent on the maintenance and upkeep of the harem.

The harem normally had a vast number of rooms and the allotment of rooms for the concubines was as per the hierarchy decided by the queen mother.

One peculiar fact that has not come out or been publicized is that the Ottoman emperors did allow a woman who did not want to stay in the harem to leave and they could get married to a person of their choice. In any case, European women were given a document of emancipation after they have been in the harem for nine years; this was later extended to African women also.


A relic

The harem spread from Turkey to other parts of the world notably India, the Middle East, and North Africa. The concept of the harem spread only among Islamic-ruled countries or regions and other religions never accepted it. It must be mentioned that the harem was only confined to the ruling elites and the rank and file that is the population had no time or money for harems.

The harem is now a thing of the past but there are still some places in the world where this concept lingers on. It is interesting to read about the harem which was a fascinating concept in world history.

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MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on March 26, 2021:

Sp Greaney, it's a pleasure to read your comment.

Sp Greaney from Ireland on March 26, 2021:

This was very interesting and it's great to learn more on something that you often hear about but you actually don't really know much about it. Glad that society has evolved in some ways.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on March 26, 2021:

Peggy, thanks for commenting.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 26, 2021:

Your story is a fascinating account of life in harems.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on March 26, 2021:

Vanita, nice that you commented.Thank you

Vanita Thakkar on March 26, 2021:

Informative article. It is good that such weird concepts / systems - a shame in the name of humanity - are no longer prevalent.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on March 26, 2021:

Tom, you are right Maharaja Ranjit Singh had a harem and he also had 2 Muslim women as his wives. It was accepted by the Durbar Sahib. Rani Jindan was the youngest queen and she had a hand in the collapse of the Sikh empire. The Nizams harem was fabulous. He tried for independence in 1948 but he failed. Bhupinder Singh fathered over 80 children with 100 wives. He was "his exhausted highness"

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on March 26, 2021:

Akram, I almost agree with you that in the geographical confines of Bangladesh the harem was not in favor.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on March 26, 2021:

Bill, it's a pleasure to read your comment. Thank you.

Mohammed Akram on March 26, 2021:

I am from Bangladesh and would like to point out that the concept of Harem was never accepted by Bengali Muslims. It was confined to present-day Pakistan and Muslim rulers in the sub-continent.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 26, 2021:

It is, indeed, a fascinating historical topic. I learned much here in this article, and for that I thank you! Very fascinating indeed!

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