The myth of the Harem has always loomed large in western imagination. Is it really the ultimate male fantasy? Or was reality a little less than sublime behind the Sublime Porte?
The Harem dated back to the time when the Osmanli Turks were just nomads living on the wild plains of Anatolia. The idea was borrowed from the Persians, a convenience for warriors who were away from the tribe for long months at a time.
By the time the Osmanlis gave up the open plains and created their capital at Constantinople - which they renamed Stamboul - the Harem was no longer just a tent full of sex slaves. It had become an institution in itself, a rigid hierarchy with its own protocols and government.
The girls were either captured in war - mainly Christians from the Balkans - or were recruited from within the Empire itself. They were brought to the Harem at a young age and educated in palace protocols. Their only avenue for betterment and family was through the Sultan.
The first step on the ladder was to somehow find a way into his bed - not as easy as it seemed, for many of the Sultans tended to have favourites and did not do the rounds every night picking winners like a beauty pageant. The first step was to become gözde - lucky enough to catch the Sultan's eye and invited to his bed. If they were asked back often enough they became iqbal, a favourite, and would get their own apartment and slaves.
If the girl conceived a male child she then became kadin - and there were only a maximum of four. One of these four slave girls would become the mother of the next Sultan and thus became the Valide Sultan, head of the harem and the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire.
The stakes then were high. Yes, there were beautiful and sensuous women in the harem. Yes there were opulent surroundings. But it was no male paradise. This was a snakepit.
The descriptions of the old Stambouli harem paints a grim picture of a twilight world of dark panelled rooms where the sun seldom penentrated. Ancient grime coated the dusty lanterns and baroque mirrors, and sloe-eyed women with rubies in their hair glided like ghosts through the warren of corridors.
What must life have been like for such women, left in this gilded prison, ungratified and forgotten? Is there a chance some women might become bitter or even vengeful?
History says yes.
This outstanding example; during the eighteenth century some British soldiers in India conspired to break into a mughal's harem one night on the misguided belief that there were hordes of women inside who were just panting for a man. It didn't occur to them that these women might not feel warm and fuzzy to the gender that had enslaved and imprisoned them their whole lives.
The Mughal's personal guard spent the next morning picking up pieces of British soldier left lying around the haremlik. The women had torn them apart with their bare hands.
Which leads us to the story of Suleiman the Magnificent and his favourite, Hurrem. On the face of it, it was the perfect love story. He had the most beautiful women in the empire at his disposal - yet he chose just one. The remarkable Hurrem - it means 'Laughing One' - was the first concubine to legally marry an Ottoman Sultan and move into his palace - an astonishing break with tradition. He even retired his entire harem for her! It shows a total devotion and commitment - at least on Suleiman's part.
But what about her? Was the laughing one really laughing on the inside? Perhaps not.
She later conspired to have Suleiman order the death of his best friend and chief adviser Ibrahim, as well his son Mustapha, two of the most talented men in his administration. She then engineered her own son to succeed him; 'Selim the Sot' was an alcoholic and a lecher with few redeeming qualities. Indeed some scholars have even speculated that Suleiman's bloodline was broken. How ironic if the woman to break it had been the woman he devoted his life to!
Suleiman had more power and women than the Prime Minister of Italy. Yet this is what he wrote just before his death in 1566:
"What men call empire is worldwide strife and ceaseless war. In all the world the only joy lies in a hermit's rest."
His story is one of his time for all time. Beware of wanting everything. You just might get it.
Colin Falconer has been published widely in the UK, US and Europe and his books have been translated into seventeen languages. You can find him at his blog at http://www.colin-falconer.blogspot.com or his web page at http://www.colinfalconer.net.
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