What to say about a harem

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The harem is easily the highlight of Istanbul’s Topkapi palace. That’s partly because of the beautiful mosaics and stonework, but partly because the stories it houses are full of intrigue. It was essentially the Sultan’s private quarters (harem literally means ‘private’). Inside the Queen Mother ruled over up to 200 concubines, attended by a small army of black African eunuchs, and Crown Princes spent their first sixteen years, without a peak into the outside world. When the Sultan visited he wore shoes that made a distinctive clacking on the cobbled floors so everyone knew to get out of his way.

The harem reached its prime around the same time the Ottoman empire did. At the peak of their strength, the Sultans decided it was no longer tolerable for them to marry princesses from the lesser states to produce heirs. Instead they took to bedding various slave girls who were captured from enemies or brought in from far away lands. They didn’t have primogeniture (first heir, next monarch). The prince that gained the most favour from the Sultan ended up succeeding him, providing he could fight off challenges from his brothers. Or, more likely, half brothers.

If you’re thinking this sounds like the setting for a phenomenal period drama, you’re on the same wave length as the Turkish TV industry. They’ve pumped out many a programme about the Sultan’s harem and the court that surrounded it, contributing to Turkey’s astonishing position as the second largest producer of television in the world. The Magnificent Century is a recent example, and it’s available with English subtitles here.

There’s some consternation in Turkey about the romanticisation of harems in popular media. I guess they’re claiming shows Magnificent Century do for harems what Big Love did for fundamentalist Mormon polygamy: make it modern and sexy, when the reality was more complex. The Sultan might have had two hundred concubines, for example, but it seems like he was only sleeping with four of them at once. Others were more conventional entertainers, playing music, dancing and such.

One academic, Alsi Sancar, in particular criticises the sexualisation of the harem portrayal, and the objectification of the women in it, as a propagation of a kind of western fantasy. Instead, she describes a meritocracy among the women, who gained favour by mastering etiquette. If they were musical, she says, they were taught instruments. If they had a shot at getting close to the Sultan, they were taught to read and write. “For Ottoman women it was a distinction to be in the royal harem,” she says.

Sancar trotts out a whole new kind of harem romanticisation. Never before have I read something that uses the phrase “slave girl” frequently but still comes to positive conclusions. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a mass orgy, but the ‘meritocracy’ involved striving to get closer to the Sultan’s bed, ideally to producing a male heir, and then enjoying the status and protection of being a sort of queen. Not, like, smashing glass ceilings and ending up a neurosurgeon.

I think the best that can be said is that the harem contained the sorts of gender structures that were common throughout Europe at the peak of the peak of Ottoman power. They remained in place for longer than in the West however, the Ottoman harem was still going in some form in 1923.

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