History Podcasts

#46: How Did the Ottoman Imperial Harem Operate?

#46: How Did the Ottoman Imperial Harem Operate?

Nothing fascinated Europeans about the Ottoman Empire quite like the harem. Since no foreigners were permitted to enter it themselves, imaginations ran while about what sort of licentiousness happened behind the doors of Istanbul's Topkapi palace.

But even though a sultan could have four wives and limitless concubines, the harem wasn't a sensual fantasy land. It was more of an imperial cadet academy, where foreign girls were turned into the wives of aristocrats and even future sultans.

The harem was a large section of private apartments located on the grounds of Topkapi Palace. It consisted of more than 400 rooms. There the girls took lessons in theology, mathematics, embroidery, music, and literature. The most important lesson they gained, however, was in politics. The harem staff held enormous powerful as state administrators. They were typically eunuchs that supervised the female's quarters but also had influence on the palace.

When the harem “cadets” entered the palace, they were placed at the lowest rung of a viciously competitive hierarchy in which one earned a promotion by attracting the attention of the Sultan. They began as a concubine and was not allowed to leave the palace without the permission of the Queen Mother (valide sultan), the reigning sultan's mother and a former concubine herself. If a girl managed to share a bed with the sultan, she became a gözde (the favorite). If she continued to curry his favor, then she became ıkbal (the fortunate). A woman to whom the sultan wanted a permanent union would become one of his four wives (kadın). If she birthed him a son who went on to become sultan, she became the next Queen Mother.

Learn more about harem life in this episode.

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