The Life in Harem Documentary

The Life in Harem Documentary


The word harem stems from the Arabic haram
or harim, meaning sacred and forbidden. Principally aimed at holding
the royal womenfolk away from prying eyes, the
Imperial Harem of the Ottoman Empire grew into a
gilded cage where women were trained and raised to
serve the royal purpose. The harem was populated
with the Sultan’s mother, wives, other female relatives,
concubines and slaves. They were zealously guarded by eunuchs. In the course of time, as we shall see later,
the residents of the harem started moving beyond their homely duties of producing heirs
and moved closer to the seat of power. Exquisitely beautiful,
harems were physically spots of idyll in the
palace, set apart from the rest of the palace by
complex designs which made contact with the
world outside difficult. There was nothing wanting in
the way of worldly pleasures – the architecture and gardens
were unparalleled in beauty. From a modern perspective
though, this was nothing short of a golden cage housing
birds with clipped wings. The women residing
within had only one purpose – to serve the
Sultan on the throne. The life in the harem was
thus designed to this end. They offered the requisite female influence
in the lives of the Sultan, in terms of emotional attachments, social standing and
the securing of the future of the throne. Hierarchy within a harem The women occupying the harem
followed a distinct hierarchy. The establishment was rallied
around the Valide Sultan – in other words, the mother
of the reigning Sultan. This matriarchal setup was tied to the longevity
of the Sultan himself; his death would spell the end of the
dominion of the Valide Sultan in the harem, and
she would be secluded. The other women in the harem
served the Valide Sultan and her observations about
them decided their fate. She selected the appropriate
concubines for the Sultan, her son. The second best were married
off to the court nobilities. The lacking and belligerent were
punished, either by being left penniless and without a visible prospect, or
by summary execution in some cases. This centralisation of
power meant that the women usually tried to cosy up
to the Valide Sultan, so as to survive comfortably
and further their personal – and in some cases,
political – ambitions. The next in line was the
first wife of the Sultan –Hasseki Sultan, the one
who born him maximum sons. This was followed by Hasseki
Kadin – the wife who born daughters; the Sultan was allowed
to have only four of these. While the Valide Sultan and Hasseki Sultan
lost much of their powers upon the death of the ruler, the Hasseki Kadin could
remarry, upon the demise of the Sultan. The next in line was the hassodalik or
the ikbal, meaning the fortunate girl. These were basically the
Sultan’s mistresses. They were known to be
beautiful and talented. Their prominence and
position were validated by the Valide Sultan and
the Hasseki Sultan. Often these women were given away as gifts
to visiting men worthy of being honoured. This stratum was followed
by the gozde or gedik. These were young female graduates
of the harem school, who had caught the eye of the Sultan for
their beauty and intelligence. If they pleased the Sultan
enough and bore him daughters or sons, they could be promoted
up the pyramid and paid more. There was no hard-and-fast rule
regarding the accession of these women; the only requisite was to be
able to be spotted by the Sultan. The students of the harem school
constituted the next layer of residents. Known as the sahgird, they were educated in
music, dancing, poetry, love and religion. If they graduated, they learned
to read, write and narrate stories (a very important
aspect of this civilisation). If they failed to fare well,
they could be married off to less eligible
men – relatively less brilliant students of the
Palace school, rather than being promoted to
the level of a gedik. The last stratum was comprised of
servants and guards of the harem. The harem was guarded – night and
day – by eunuchs who had been purchased from Ethiopia or Sudan
or claimes as spoils of war. Originally, the harem and the Palace
school – where the elite young boys received their training – were guarded
by the same community of white eunuchs. However, the black eunuchs were solely
tasked with stringently defending the harem; many of them often rose
up the ranks in the Sultan’s army. The zealous guarding of the harem
was evidence of the extreme privacy that this establishment
demanded in the Ottoman Empire. How were the women treated
within the harem? Contrary to the popular
belief regarding the use of harem women as slaves
for sexual contentment alone, education – in
various forms – was an inherent part of the life
of women in a harem. Looks were hardly ever deemed enough. Women and girls – who had been captured from
lands as far as Russian, Iran and Greece – were required to undergo
training in basic literacy, including
mathematics and religion. Besides, they were taught
the more qualitative aspects of sophistication
and presentation. They learned to embroider, sing and dance. In that sense, the harem
functioned as a starting and finishing school for
young girls so that they could grow up in a way
that made it easier for them to find their position
in the royal society. Freedom was, however, all
a matter of perspective. These women were effectively
imprisoned within the golden cage of the palace, disallowed from
stepping out in the city below. But there was hardly anything
lacking within the premises. Equipped with the highest standards
of luxury and aesthetic decorations, the harems were incredibly soothing
and offered a reflective mood. It was an ideal place for the Sultan
to retire in and relax in the company of charming, intelligent
women and exquisite surroundings. In some sense of the word, only the
Sultan’s wives were free, while all others were bound in some or the other form,
somehow linked to the ruler’s proclivities. In the obvious absence of free will, the
prospects of these women were usually measured in terms of marriage and
hinged almost completely on their ability to
appease the Sultan. Those who succeeded were
rewarded copiously. Besides monetary benefits, they
were given living quarters, slaves, eunuchs, in addition to the
unlimited affections of the Sultan. This usually meant that clothing and
jewellery flowed for the fortunate few. The ruling Sultanate of women The women of the harem were far from dull. With time, they started influencing the
political fabric of the Ottoman empire. This began with the time
of Roxalena – otherwise known as Hurrem Sultan
– Hurrem meaning cheerful in Persian – when
she and her entourage moved to the Seraglio
from the Old Palace. As the utter favourite of the Sultan
Suleiman The Magnificent, she was a close confidante to the Sultan in matters
of both household and state affairs. Though never proved
concretely, Hurrem Sultan is credited with several political
manoeuvres, which, as argued by some historians
– may have played some role in the eventual decline
of the Ottoman Empire. Kosem Sultan – the Hasseki
Sultan of Sultan Ahmed I – was another influential
figure in the Ottoman empire. Of Greek origin, Kosem Sultana first
came to power when her husband ruled. But after his untimely
death, she had to retreat to the Old Palace, as
mandated by the code. Subsequently, however,
she returned as a Valide Sultan as the mother of
her minor son Murad IV. Given that he was still not of age,
Kosem stayed on as an official regent. It is said that she
effectively ruled the kingdom through her son, during
the latter’s reign. The last in a line of this
rule of women was Naksidil Sultan, who was the Valide
Sultan to Mahmud II. The Imperial Ottoman Harem was not
what the West easily assumes: a mass of women that the Sultan
imprisoned for his pleasure. Quite opposite to that,
only a few women were in fact deemed fit for
association with the ruler. This decision was primarily
left to the Valide Sultan, and to a less extent,
to the Hasseki Sultan. The ultimate aim was to secure
the future of the Sultanate. The code of the harem was almost
strict, but more often than not, the affections of the ruling
Sultan overruled these norms. The harem functioned more a centre of
learning for the womenfolk, many of whom had been captured as slaves during
conquests, or may simply have been bought. With the right kind of education and grace,
some of them proceeded to positions of considerable influence; Hurrem Sultan
herself being a sterling example of this. Their eventual proximity to the decision-making
centre of the Ottoman Empire was coincidental and led
to their increased participation in the state
affairs of the Empire. While it can be argued that their meddling
may have brought about the ultimate demise of the Ottoman Empire, their
rise and influence are noteworthy.

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