The imperial harem of the Ottoman era was the collection of wives, servants, and concubines of the Sultan, who sometimes numbered in the hundreds. Some were mere playthings or used for the production of heirs, while others rose to great power and influence.
The term “harem” brings to mind an image of a room full of beautiful women whose sole purpose in life was to please their captor sexually. This image may have been inspired by the 16th and 17th century harems of the Ottoman Empire . However, the members of the harem were more than just sexual playthings for the Sultan.
Existing between 1299 and 1920 AD, the Ottoman sultan’s harem was comprised of wives, servants, female relatives of the sultan, and concubines. The women in the harem played a much greater role than simply entertaining the sultan, and some even had a hand in governing the powerful Ottoman empire. A period known as the “Reign of Women” or the Kadinlar Sultanati saw the harem of women playing an important role within the Ottoman government, leading them to gain more power than ever before.
Harem, Fernand Common
Large Harem, Great Power
The harem was the ultimate symbol of power and wealth of the Sultan. His ownership of women and eunuchs, mostly as slaves, showed his wealth and prowess. The institution of the harem was introduced in Turkish society with the adoption of Islam, under the influence of the Arab Caliphate, which the Ottoman’s sought to emulate.
Most of the men and women within the harem were bought as slaves to ensure obedience, however some remained free. The main wives, especially those married to solidify personal and dynastic alliances, were free women. Slaves and free men and women alike were given an education within the harem. At the end of their respective educations, the men and women would be married off to each other. Subsequently, the men would be sent to occupy administrative posts in the empire’s provinces.
Due to this practice, only a small number of women were chosen to become part of the Sultan’s personal harem of concubines. This group of women was governed by the Valide Sultan, typically the Sultan’s own mother.
An even smaller number of women would be chosen as the Sultan’s favorites, or the hasekis. Even these women could be chosen to be married off or sent as gifts to valued members of the Ottoman elite, that is if they hadn’t had sexual relations with the Sultan himself.
Dorotheum by Joseph Himmel, 1921. Shows the hierarchy within a harem
The First Lady of the Harem
The most powerful woman in the harem, the Valide Sultan , would have been a wife or concubine of the Sultan’s father and would have risen to supreme rank within the harem.
No court lady could leave or enter the premises of the harem without the permission of the Valide Sultan and the eunuchs of the court would answer directly to her. The Valide Sultan was also responsible for the education of her son on the intricacies of state politics. She was often asked to intervene on her son’s decisions as a member of the imperial court as well.
The next most powerful women in the harem would be the concubines that rose through the ranks to attain the titles of Gözde (the Favorite), Ikbal (the Fortunate) or Kadın (the Woman/Wife). Traditionally the Sultan could only have these four as his favorites and they had an equivalent rank to the Sultan’s legal wives within the hierarchy of the harem. They were given apartments within the palace, as well as servants and eunuchs.
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Portrait of Emetullah Rabia Gülnuş Sultan, Valide Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, 1695-1715. She was the last imperial concubine to be legally married to an Ottoman Sultan.
The Reproductive Function of the Harem
Customarily, the harem of concubines, alongside legal wives, was used for the purpose of reproduction; it served to emphasize the patriarchal power of the Sultan. However, slave women, unlike the legitimate wives, had no recognized lineage.
Legal wives were feared to have a vested interest in the promotion of their own sons , leading to disloyalty to the Sultan. Therefore, concubines were more trustworthy when it came to producing sons, as they could have no interest in this promotion of their children, since it would have no effect on them as the mothers.
Through this practice, concubines were seen as a more legitimate source of sons as there was no opportunity for betrayal from the wives. While the concubines could gain favor with the sultan, they could never rise to power politically or gain legitimacy within the royal family.
Harem, Lehnert and Landrock Postcard
The Employment of Eunuchs
While these women played an important role within the harem they were only half of the equation. Eunuchs were the integral other half of the harem. Eunuchs were considered to be less than men due to the mutilation of their genitalia. As such, they were unable to be tempted by the women of the harem and therefore it was believed they would remain loyal to the Sultan and posed no threat to the sanctity of the harem.
Eunuchs tended to be slaves or prisoners of war that would have been castrated before puberty and condemned to a life of servitude. All eunuchs were castrated en route to the slave markets by their Christian or Jewish captors because Islam prohibited the practice of castration, but not the use of castrated slaves. Similarly, the female slaves of the harem would be mainly comprised of white Christian girls since Muslim women were forbidden from becoming concubines.
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Guard of the Harem, Frank Duveneck, circa 1880
There was a hierarchy of eunuchs within the harem, much like the hierarchy of women: the first were black eunuchs, or sandali, while the second and third tiers tended to be made up of white slaves and eunuchs. This distinction is directly linked to the level of mutilation of the men’s genitalia.
The first class of black eunuchs would have both penis and testicles removed, whereas the white slaves would be left with their testicles and a portion of their penis would be removed.
The black eunuchs, due to their lack of parts, were to serve in the harem and protect the women therein. These eunuchs would serve under the Kizlar Agha , or “chief black eunuch.” Conversely, the white eunuchs would be kept away from the women and assigned to roles within the government.
The Western View of the Harem
In the later history of the Ottoman Empire the harem became romanticized by the Christian west. In 1861, the French painter Henriette Browne, who had accompanied her husband on a diplomatic trip to Constantinople, caused a sensation when she exhibited one of her paintings in Paris that depicted the interior of the imperial harem.
Unlike our modern thoughts on harems , this painting depicted a rather tame scene of veiled, long-robed women chatting below a row of ornate arches, but this was considered the first eyewitness view of the inside of a harem by the west. Due to this sensation, the harem was seen as a tourist attraction until the Ottoman empire came to an end in 1920.
The Harem of the Ottoman Sultan
There are some who think that the Harem was a sort of prison, full of women who were kept exclusively for the Sultan’s pleasure. This is simply not true. Harem was literally the Sultan’s family quarters. It was a secluded area within the palace where the Sultan and all his family members resided.
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Harem residents can be divided in three groups: 1) members of the royal family, 2) guards, and 3) concubines, some of which were servants of the royal family.
Members of the Sultan’s family included: his mother, his official wives (maximum of four), his sons until their deployment in service to the State, his daughters and sisters until they married as well as the maids, servants and guards of the royal family. In addition, the Sultan’s children received private education from tutors brought to the Harem.
T he head of the Harem was always the mother of the Sultan, Valide Sultan (Queen Mother.) She had enormous influence on everything that took place within the Harem and frequently her influence extended to her son, the Sultan, as well.
Providing security for the Harem were black eunuchs. These men were slaves brought from Africa, castrated, and entrusted in the service of the women of the Harem.
Why were Concubines needed?
As we’ll see a bit later, the impetus for supplying concubines to the Harem was indirectly tied to the State’s resolve to stop the outbreak of civil wars. So determined was the State to maintain order, it went to extreme lengths to avoid civil unrest. For instance, beginning with the 15 th century rule of Sultan Mehmed II, the princes ascending the throne were free to kill off their brothers to eliminate the possibility of the surviving sons’ claims to the throne. This lethal exercise persisted, within the Ottoman Empire, until Sultan Ahmed I ascended the throne in the early 17 th century.
Another way in which the State avoided civil unrest was to strictly defend the privacy of the Sultans and their administration. By training non-Muslims, from childhood, to serve as state officials, instead of hiring well-known local people from powerful Muslim families public knowledge of the habits and conduct of the Sultans and their administration was closely guarded. Of course, the non-Muslim children who were picked from faraway Christian villages, converted to Islam soon after they were recruited. Finally, the service of concubines, in the Harem, was undoubtedly one of the most effective ways the State kept peace in the land. The process by which girls became the wives of Sultans was crucial to this effort. In general, Sultans did not marry local Muslim girls or bring local Muslim girls into the Harem as concubines. As noted earlier, it was vital to prevent close contact with locals living outside the palace who might give away too much ‘insider information’ and expose the Sultans to rumor and public scrutiny. With few exceptions, Sultans married beautiful, well-educated concubines all initially were non-Muslims, but converted to Islam after entering the Harem. For this reason, recruiting the ‘best and the brightest’ non-Muslim girls for the Harem, and training them as potential wives for the Sultans, was institutionalized over the centuries.
Who were the Concubines, slave girls?
The palace often purchased beautiful, young girls for the Harem. Still other girls were taken captive as slaves following military conquests or were presented as gifts to the Sultan by foreign dignitaries. When these girls entered the Harem, they were thoroughly scrutinized and assessed. All eventually converted to Islam, were given Muslim names, and were trained as potential wives first for the sultan and, later, for the high officials of State.
Among the concubines in the Harem, there were four main classes: 1) Odalık (servants), 2) Gedikli (one of the Sultan’s twelve personal servants), 3) İkbal or Gözde (‘favorites’ who allegedly had affairs with the Sultan), and 4) Kadın or Haseki Sultan (wives who bore children of the Sultan).
When her son ascended the throne, following the death of his father, the Sultan a Haseki Sultan was promoted to Valide Sultan. She then became the most important female in the palace. After her, in order of importance, were the Sultan’s sisters.
The next most influential women, residing in the Harem, were the four wives of the Sultan. Their ‘rank’ was decreed by the chronologic order of their sons’ births. All wives had conjugal rights with the Sultan and had their own apartments within the Harem. Among the concubines, the ‘Favorites’ also were given their own apartments. All other concubines, however, slept in dormitories.
Concubines were given instruction according to their perceived talents. They could learn to play a musical instrument, sing, dance, write, embroider, or sew. They were also allowed to go for leisure drives in covered carriages from which they could see out from behind their veils and curtained windows. They also were permitted to organize parties up on the Bosphorus, or along the Golden Horn.
The Ottoman Harem – Concubines, Odalisques and Eunuchs
The fascinating world of the beautiful women that lived to satisfy and entertain the Sultan at the Ottoman court, surrounded by castrated slaves.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Ottoman court was known for its opulence and extravagant practices. Among the privileges of the Sultan, was the right to possess as many women as he pleased even if only for a night. For this reason, the court maintained hundreds of the most beautiful women of the empire locked in a reserved area of the palace at the disposal of the Sultan. With free time and extreme beauty, these ladies only had one thing in mind – to please their Sultan and perhaps become more than just a servant.
The Harem Hierarchy
The girls that arrived at the harem were usually bought at the markets. They were either kidnapped or voluntarily sold by their parents in an attempt to escape poverty. For many girls, to be sold as slaves to the court was a chance to live a luxurious life and be educated. However, behind the golden chandeliers, the fine jewellery and smooth satin, there were competition and intrigues, as the harem hierarchy was very strict and organized.
New girls were called odalisques, but if they were beautiful enough and had potential to be presented to the Sultan, they would be taught poetry, etiquette, erotic arts, entertainment techniques and dance, among other things. Those who were not good enough would become common servants. The hierarchical organization of the harem was divided into five positions:
- The Valide Sultana –was the most important woman of the Ottoman court, she was the mother of the Sultan and a great political influence as she was in charge of the Sultan’s education
- The Kadins – the favourite women of the Sultan and had some privileges such as eunuchs only to serve them and separate apartments. Their privileges were equivalent to those of wives
- Ikbal – favourite concubines that gave birth to a male child
- Concubines – beautiful women that lived in the harem and were presented to the Sultan at least once. Because there were so many women, a concubine might never see the Sultan more than once or twice, but should remain in harem her whole life in case he asked for her again. and
- Odalisques – virgin slave girls purchased at the market. Only the most beautiful of them would be trained in the sexual arts, entertainment and etiquette in order to be presented to the Sultan and become a concubine. If in nine years, the Sultan did not ask for them, they could leave the harem to marry.
The Eunuchs of the Ottoman Court
The eunuchs were slaves in charge of the harem. They should watch and serve the ladies and be loyal to the Sultan. Since the Muslim tradition forbade men to be among other men’s women, the eunuchs were castrated, having their private parts removed just before puberty through a painful process that involved a razor and boiling oil for cauterization. They were not considered men but half man and half woman and therefore, they could enter the harem without being seduced by the girls.
Mostly, eunuchs were black slaves captured in the jungles of Sudan, Abyssinia and parts of Egypt, castrated during the trip and sold in the markets of the Mediterranean Sea. The role of the higher-ranking eunuchs was very important in the court as they served as messengers between the Valide and the Sultan, took the chosen women to the Sultan’s room, bought new odalisques at the market and was in charge of the royal ceremonial events.
Life in the Harem
Some may imagine that being a slave and need to subject to the Sultan’s sexual desires was rather absurd, but historical references depict life in harem as joyful and pleasant. Women had luxurious clothes, jewellery, servants at their disposal and enough time to dance, recite poetry and massage each other. They also bathed themselves very often and spent most of their time making themselves beautiful and desirable by putting on make up and shaving the pubic area. Since there were so many women at the harem and many of them spent a long time without encountering the Sultan, it is said that there were sexual practices among the women as well a bit of unavoidable rivalry.
The Abolition of the Harem
When the Ottoman empire fell in 1909, the gates of the harem were opened and the women were set free to go back to their fathers, brothers or relatives. Interestingly, many women did not want to go back to their free but poor lives. Despite the abolition of the harem, it remains well and alive in the imagination of most men.
Ottoman Cuisine, The Secrets of Women in the Harem
With a vibrant culinary scene, Turkey is currently become the new mecca for international foodies. The sophisticated Turkish cuisine binds Mediterranean cooking with Middle Eastern and Central Asian fares and spices, and has a fascinating, rich and in-depth history. During the glorious days of the pre-Turkish Ottoman Empire, women of the mystic Harem did not only play an important role in politics but also in the kitchen.
Exclusively, if ones were “the eye of the Sultan”, Padishah gozdesi, and bore a son, they would have immense powers. These powers ruled over the Palace and what was cooked in the Royal Palace kitchens which served over thousand of people and was an influence for the entire cross-cultural Empire. As the Ottoman Empire expanded and conquered more territory, selected women from the new lands were brought to the Palace and to the Sultan’s Harem. Ottoman queen mothers – Valide Sultans– controlled the Imperial Harem and other affairs like matching marriages for their sons and female followers.
From Russia to North Africa, Anatolia, the Balkans, and to Saudi Arabia the various and ethnically diverse women of the Harem also incorporated their own culinary cultures to the kitchen of the Ottoman Palace. Numerous spices and methods of cooking were introduced to the kitchen every time a new Valide Sultan was designated to prepare her most favorite fares passed on from mother, grandmother or aunties. Yet all these recipes and methods of cooking were never recorded and traditionally kept secret.
Anyone who visits the Topkapı Palace can't help but notice the vastness of the Imperial Palace kitchens. With almost 20 chimneys, meals for the Sultan, the residents of the Harem and kitchen staff were cooked here. According to sources, as many as 6,000 meals a day could be prepared here. Yet no main recipe archives were left behind with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and disintegration of the Imperial Palaces. Today the cooking in the Empire vastly affects the new republic of Turkey which came out of the ashes of the Ottomans.
Contemporary Turkish cuisines have become exceptionally popular recently. Many international jet setters travel to Turkey for the country’s vibrant culinary scene to experience the vast sophistication of the history of the cuisines, and also for the dining experience in the mystical city of Istanbul. Modern-day Turkish food is currently passed down from generation to generation, from mother to daughter, from chef to chef and yet one thing still stood permanent the good recipes were always kept a secret.
Nowadays with the booming Turkish economy many chefs across the country are opening their own establishments and introducing these unique recipes. Yet many of these restaurants throughout the country and particularly in Istanbul are more prone to lighter fares with “organic ingredients” and a fusion twist. Consequently the Turkish fares cooked at local homes are no doubt more true to the time consuming Ottoman styles and even royal palace tradition of Istanbul’s Empire Palace kitchens.
Where to find a taste of unique Ottoman cuisine?
In Istanbul, located in Edirnekapi area and under the Kariye boutique Hotel, Asitane Restaurant ( Kariye Camii Sokak No: 6 Edirnekapı, Istanbul Tel: (212) 534 8414) is an institution celebrating fine Ottoman dining experience. The hotel is a restored 19th century Ottoman mansion situated next to the famous Church of the Chora above the Golden Horn. The restaurant is located on the lower floor of the hotel and in its romantic garden facing the Church. Asitane in Persian means “main gate” and is one of the 40 names the Ottomans gave to Constantinople after capturing it. No main recipe archives were left behind with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and disintegration of the Imperial Palaces. Looking into the archives of the Topkapı Palace experts came across a circumcision ceremony for the son of Sultan Suleyman in 1539. However instead of recipes, the documents merely recited amounts of ingredients used for certain dishes – like 40 kilograms of meat and 20 kilograms of onion. The culinary specialists at Asitane came up with several recipes from feasts like this through testing and adopting a method of trial and error. Adding honey one time and then another time more vinegar etc. After several tries the recipes were gradually recreated.
Today Asitane has recreated 200 recipes from three Palaces of the Ottoman (Dolmabahçe, Topkapı and Edirne). The culinary institution also has 200 original recipes of its own, totaling over 400 unique dishes.
36. A Bank and File Army
All members of the harem received a daily stipend, and it’s from this accounting that historians have been able to sketch an idea of where women and eunuchs ranked amongst each other. For example, the sultan’s mother received 2,000 to 3,000 aspers a day, his chief consorts received 1,000, and public officials received just a few hundred a day.
Originally, the Imperial Council was probably an informal advisory body of senior statesmen, but also functioned as a court of law. In the 14th century and until the mid-15th century, it seems to have been headed by the Sultan in person, "suggesting that relations between sultan and viziers were still informal, with the sultan’s advisors in the role of allies as much as subordinates" according to the Ottomanist Colin Imber. Meetings were often public or semi-public affairs in which the Sultan would appear surrounded by his senior advisors and hear grievances of his subjects, dispense justice and make appointments to public office.  In the case of an interregnum between the death of a Sultan and the arrival of his successor from the provinces, the Council was held by the senior councillors on their own. 
After Edirne became the Ottoman capital in the late 14th century, the Council met at the palace there or anywhere the Sultan currently resided. Following the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Council met initially at the Old Palace (Eski Saray), moving to the Topkapi Palace after its construction in the 1470s.  There the Council had a dedicated building (divanhane) in the Second Courtyard. The present building was built in the early reign of Süleyman the Magnificent by Grand Vizier Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha, and renovated in 1792 and 1819. The council chamber proper was known as kubbealtı ("under the dome").  During campaigns, the Council met at the Grand Vizier's tent, which was always pitched near the Sultan's own. 
The law-code of Mehmed II stipulates that the Council had to meet daily, of which four times in the Council Chamber (Arz Odası) in the Topkapi Palace, where they were received by the chief usher (çavuş başı) and the intendant of the doorkeepers (kapıcılar kethudası).  By the 16th century, however, the full Council met regularly on four days of the week, on Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays,   and sessions lasted from seven to eight hours, beginning at dawn and ending at mid-day in summer and mid-afternoon in winter. The members ate three times during each council session, breakfasting after their arrival, then after the main discussion had been concluded and finally after hearing petitions.  In earlier times, the Sultan often dined with the viziers after the Council, but Mehmed II ended this practice.  In addition, there were extraordinary sessions of the Council: the ulufe divani or galebe divani, convened each quarter to distribute the quarterly salary (ulue) to the members of the kapıkulu ("slaves of the Porte") corps, including the Janissaries, as well as for the formal reception of foreign ambassadors, and the ayak divani or "foot council", as everyone remained standing, an emergency session chaired by the Sultan or the army commander when on campaign. 
Although many decisions were taken outside the formal context of the Imperial Council, it was the main executive body of the Empire, conducting all kinds of tasks of government such as the conduct of foreign relations, including the reception of foreign ambassadors, the preparation of campaigns, the construction of fortifications and public buildings, the reception of reports from the provincial governors and the appointments to state office, as well as continuing to function as a court of law, particularly for members of the military class.  The inner workings of the Council are obscure, since no minutes were kept during the sessions, but the wording of Council decrees indicates that most decisions were prompted by petitions addressing a specific problem.  Later foreign observers reporting on Ottoman affairs also stressed that the council was "purely consultative, the final responsibility resting with the Grand Vizier" (Bernard Lewis). 
It is impossible to determine what role the Sultan played in the Council's workings. On the one hand, all decisions were made in his name and on his authority, and Ottoman law codes foresaw that the Sultan could make his wishes known to the Council through the Kapi Agha.  In Ottoman legal theory, however, as codified in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Grand Vizier was the Sultan's "absolute deputy" and the sole intermediary between the sovereign and the administration.  Therefore after each meeting, the Grand Vizier—according to some 16th-century accounts, however, this was done by the entire Council  —would go to report on proceedings to the Sultan in the Inner Palace.  These interviews between the Grand Vizier and the Sultan were probably the main conduit of communication between the ruler and his government.  At the same time, the Sultan could, if he wished, secretly listen in on the Council in session behind a grille-covered window (kasr-ı adil) overlooking the Council chamber and connected directly with the Sultan's private quarters in the harem, added either in the early reign of Süleyman the Magnificent or, according to another tradition, already by Mehmed II.   It is clear, however, that each Sultan favoured a different style of government, and their roles changed even within the same reign: thus Ahmed I ( r . 1603–1617 ) is recorded as refusing an audience with his Grand Vizier, demanding written reports instead, while Murad III ( r . 1574–1595 ) at first once more presided over Council meetings in person, but increasingly withdrew from active participation as his reign proceeded.  By the mid-17th century, on the other hand, the former elaborate protocol at Council sessions had once more been relaxed, and it is reported by the Ottoman renegade Bobovi that the Sultan (possibly Murad IV, r . 1623–1640 ) once more presided over Council meetings in person.  In addition, the courtiers and servants of the Inner Palace, or the members of the Imperial Harem such as the Valide Sultan (Sultana mother) or the Haseki Sultan (Sultana consort), who had direct and intimate access to the Sultan's person, often influenced government decisions bypassing the Imperial Council and the Grand Vizier altogether. 
Over time, as the importance of the Grand Vizier within the Ottoman system rose at the expense of the palace, it became common to hold an afternoon meeting (ikindi divani) to wrap up leftover issues, after the afternoon prayer (ikindi), at the Grand Vizier's residence. Eventually, the ikindi divani came to meet five times a week and took over a large part of the Council's actual business.  The Grand Vizier's pre-eminence was formalized in 1654, when a dedicated building (bab-i ali, the "Sublime Porte", or pasha kapısı) was constructed to serve the Grand Vizier both as a residence and as an office. The bureaucracy serving the Imperial Council was gradually transferred to this new location, and by the 18th century, the Imperial Council itself had, according to Bernard Lewis, "dwindled into insignificance".  The reformist sultans of the late 18th/early 19th century replaced the Imperial Council by a new institution, as well as forming special councils to apply their reforms. This system gradually evolved into a Western-style cabinet government. 
The principal members of the Council had become fixed by the time of Mehmed II at least.  They comprised:
- the viziers, responsible for political and military affairs, and also liable to be sent on campaign, either under the Sultan or the Grand Vizier, or as commanders themselves.  Their number was originally three, but this was raised to four in the mid-16th century, five in 1566, and seven in 1570/1. Their number reached as many as eleven in 1642, but by this time the title of vizier was also held by senior provincial governors (beylerbeys), who did not attend the council.  The viziers with the right to attend the Council were designated "viziers of the dome" (kubbe vezirleri) from the dome surmounting the council chamber in the divanhane. 
- the military judges (kadi'askers), responsible for legal matters.  Probably founded under Murad I, there was only one holder of the post until the late reign of Mehmed II, when a second was instituted, leading to a division of responsibility between them: one was responsible for Rumelia (the European provinces) and one for Anatolia (the Asian provinces). For brief periods, the existence of a third kadi'asker is attested as well. 
- the treasurers (defterdars), originally a single office-holder, increased to two (likewise one for Rumelia and one for Anatolia) by 1526, and four from 1578 (Rumelia, Anatolia, Istanbul and the "Danube", i.e. the northern coasts of the Black Sea). Further defterdars served in the provinces. With the decline of state finances from the late 16th century on, their importance increased greatly. 
- the chancellor (nişancı), possibly one of the most ancient offices, was originally the person who drew the Sultan's seal on documents to make them official. He became the head of an ever-expanding the government secretariat, overseeing the production of official documents. 
The members of the Imperial Council represented the pinnacles of their respective specialized careers: the viziers the military-political the kadi'askers the legal the defterdars the financial service and the nişancı the palace scribal service. This was all the more the case after the 16th century, when these careers became—as a general rule—mutually exclusive.  While the latter groups were from the outset recruited mostly from the Muslim Turkish population (although the kadi'askers tended to come from a very limited circle of legal families), the viziers were, after 1453, mostly drawn from Christian converts. These were partly voluntary (including, until the early 16th century, members of Byzantine and other Balkan aristocratic families) but over time the products of the devshirme system, which inducted humble-born youths into the Palace School, came to predominate.  An appointment to the ranks of the Imperial Council was an avenue to great power, influence and enormous wealth, which was matched by equally ostentatious expenditure for, as Colin Imber writes, "the sign of a man's status in Ottoman society was the size of his household and the size of his retinue when he appeared in public", meaning that the members of the Council often kept hundreds, if not thousands, of slaves. 
Over time, the Council's membership was extended to include additional officials:
- the beylerbey of the Rumelia Eyalet, who was the only provincial governor entitled to a seat in the Council, but only when a matter fell within his jurisdiction. 
- after the post's creation in 1535, the Kapudan Pasha, the commander-in-chief of the Ottoman navy, was also admitted as a member. 
- the Agha of the Janissaries was admitted to the Council if he held the rank of vizier. 
In addition, a number of officials attended Council meetings but did not have seats in the chamber and did not take part in the discussions, such as the head of the scribes (reis ül-küttab), the çavuş başı, the kapıcılar kethudası, various financial secretaries and palace officials, interpreters (tercüman, whence "dragoman") and police chiefs, each in turn with his own retinue of clerks and assistants. 
An ever-expanding scribal service, under the supervision of the reis ül-küttab, assisted the members of the Council, preparing the material for its sessions, keeping records of its decisions and creating the necessary documents. As their duties included drafting the state correspondence with other powers, initially they were probably drawn from various milieus, since until the early 16th century the Sultans corresponded with foreign rulers in their own language. After c. 1520 documents were only drawn up in Turkish, Arabic or Persian, and the service seems to have consisted solely of Muslims. 
The Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Imperial Harem
One rarely finds [a eunuch] who has, like him, an open forehead, a well-made nose, large, clear eyes, a small mouth, rosy lips, dazzlingly white teeth, a neck of exact proportion without wrinkles, handsome arms and legs, all the rest of his body supple and unconstrained, more fat than thin.
—Jean-Claude Flachat, Observations sur le commerce et sur les arts d’une partie de l’Europe, de l’Asie, de l’Afrique et même des Indes orientales (Lyon: Jacquenode père et Rusand, 1766), II: 127–28 (translation by Jane Hathaway)
So runs a description of the Chief Harem Eunuch of the Ottoman Empire by the French merchant Jean-Claude Flachat, a frequent visitor to the Ottoman palace during the early 1750s. He was speaking of a man who had been enslaved in his native Ethiopia, transported to Upper Egypt for castration, then sold on Cairo’s slave market. He would have been presented to the imperial palace by the Ottoman governor of Egypt or one of Egypt’s grandees, and entered the harem as one of several hundred subordinate harem eunuchs. He would have worked his way up the harem eunuch hierarchy over several decades before achieving the ultimate office on the death of his predecessor.
In employing East African eunuchs in this way, the Ottomans were following a venerable tradition. The use of eunuchs as guardians of a ruler’s inner sanctum dates to some of the world’s earliest empires. Stone friezes from the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which ruled northern Iraq and Syria from 911–612 B.C.E., depict smooth-cheeked young men—eunuchs—attending the heavily bearded emperor during his hunts. In fact, virtually all pre-modern empires in the Eastern Hemisphere, with the notable exceptions of western Europe and Russia, employed eunuchs at their courts.
The great Islamic empires, beginning at least with the Abbasids (750–1258 C.E.), likewise employed eunuchs. East African eunuchs seem to have been particularly popular as harem guardians for reasons that remain unclear. Lascivious African harem eunuchs are a trope in the Thousand and One Nights tales, many of which depict life at the Abbasid court in Baghdad. In actual fact, the harem eunuchs kept the sexuality of the harem residents in check rather than facilitating it, just as their counterparts in the barracks and the ruler’s privy chamber kept the sexuality of the male pages-in-training in check.
But why Africans? Availability was a key factor. Egypt could easily tap into the ancient slave caravan routes that ran through Sudan, while the Muslim kingdoms that emerged along Africa’s Red Sea coast during the medieval period raided the kingdom of Ethiopia for slaves, whom they transshipped across the Red Sea to the Arabian peninsula. The Ottomans in the late sixteenth century went so far as to conquer a good chunk of the Horn of Africa, as well as part of Sudan, giving them direct control, at least temporarily, over the slave trade routes. Apart from availability, the sheer cultural and linguistic differences between the African harem eunuchs and the harem residents, who, under the Ottomans, came predominantly from the Balkans and the Caucasus, would have prevented any meaningful contact—political, romantic, sexual—between the eunuchs and the women they were guarding—at least in the case of young harem women and young harem eunuchs. In later life, harem women, and above all the sultan’s mother, forged influential political partnerships with the most senior harem eunuchs.
Clearly, the Chief Harem Eunuch was far more than a harem functionary. His activities reinforced the Ottoman sultan's religious and political authority, contributing to the promotion of Sunni Islam in general and the Hanafi legal rite in particular.
Even the earliest Ottoman sultans had harems guarded by eunuchs, and there was presumably always a head eunuch, or at least a primus inter pares. But the office of Chief Harem Eunuch was created only in 1588, nearly three hundred years after the Ottoman state’s emergence and well over a century after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople from the Byzantines. Sultan Murad III (r. 1574–95) inaugurated the post when he transferred supervision of the imperial pious foundations for the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina to the head of the harem eunuchs from the head of the white eunuchs who patrolled the third court of Topkapı Palace, where the sultan had his privy chamber. The Ottoman sultan derived a good part of his international prestige from his status as “custodian of the two holy cities,” and the pious foundations, which supplied grain and services to the poor of Mecca and Medina, as well as to Muslim pilgrims, contributed to his status. Since land and properties throughout the empire were endowed to these foundations, the Chief Harem Eunuch cultivated a network of clients in every province who could ensure that the requisite grains and revenues were delivered every year. Egypt loomed particularly large in the Chief Eunuch’s considerations, for the holy cities’ grain came almost entirely from a large number of Egyptian villages endowed to the pious foundations. This continuous connection to Egypt perhaps helps to explain why, beginning in the early seventeenth century, most Chief Eunuchs were exiled to Cairo on being removed from office. By the 1640s, an entire exiled eunuch neighborhood had sprung up to the west of Cairo’s citadel.
In certain respects, the evolution of the office of Chief Harem Eunuch mirrored institutional, social, and economic developments in the Ottoman Empire as a whole. The office was created just before the onset of the prolonged crisis of the seventeenth century, when a series of sultans died in their twenties or even in their teens, leaving no heirs or only tiny children. In this atmosphere, the Chief Harem Eunuch, along with the sultan’s mother, became the main influence on the sultan’s development as a statesman, or lack thereof. The crisis ended in the latter half of the century with the rise of the reforming grand viziers of the Köprülü family, who promoted Chief Harem Eunuchs from their own household. By the early eighteenth century, the empire had adapted to the crisis. Its economy grew again as trade with western Europe, and France in particular, boomed. The Chief Harem Eunuchs of the era directly encouraged this trade by serving as conduits for European luxury goods to the women of the harem. El-Hajj Beshir Agha (term 1717– 46), the longest-serving and most powerful Chief Eunuch in Ottoman history, presided over elaborate nighttime garden parties at which luxurious European baubles were conspicuously consumed.
El-Hajj Beshir Agha was, according to European observers, a “vizier-maker,” in stark contrast to the Chief Eunuchs of the Köprülü era, who served at the pleasure of the grand viziers from that family. But following his death in 1746, Ottoman grand viziers began to compete with the Chief Eunuch for influence, and they often prevailed. The Westernizing reforms of the mid- to late nineteenth century finally eclipsed the Chief Harem Eunuch’s power the office was in abeyance from the 1830s through the end of the empire following World War I.
But the Chief Harem Eunuch’s influence extended beyond palace politics, on the one hand, and the holy cities, on the other. Through his personal pious endowments, he founded mosques, madrasas, Qurʾān schools, and libraries throughout the empire that had a profound effect on Ottoman religious and intellectual life. In frontier provinces such as what are now Bulgaria and Romania, these foundations reinforced the presence of the Ottoman brand of Sunni Islam of the Hanafi legal rite, not least by supplying manuscripts of canonical works of Hanafi law and theology. In venerable Muslim cities such as Cairo and Medina, such foundations reinforced Hanafism in regions where adherents of other Sunni legal rites formed a majority. Revenue for these institutions came from markets, farmland, mills, warehouses, and residential properties scattered across the same territories.
Clearly, the Chief Harem Eunuch was far more than a harem functionary. His activities reinforced the Ottoman sultan’s religious and political authority while contributing to Ottoman promotion of Sunni Islam in general and the Hanafi legal rite in particular. In the course of endowing religious and educational institutions, furthermore, he contributed to infrastructural development in the Ottoman capital and in the provinces.
Jane Hathaway, Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation Member in the School of Historical Studies, is completing a book on the Ottoman Chief Harem Eunuch, to be published by Cambridge University Press. She is Professor of History at the Ohio State University.
The 10 Largest Harems in History
While extensive armies and massive monuments have always served as traditional proof of the might of an emperor, yet another common way of underlining the ruler&rsquos power and influence was keeping a large harem. Interestingly though the original meaning of harem did not imply a large collection of wives, concubines and female attendants fiercely guarded by male eunuchs. Originally a harem could indicate any specific area in the house or complex for the exclusive use of women and children. The exotic notion of harem was largely the product of European travelers and historians who were unfamiliar with the concept of separate living spaces for genders and thus embellished the concept of harems with extravagant and lascivious details, especially in relation to the large ones maintained by Oriental rulers. Here is a brief account of the some of the largest harems in history and the rulers who owned them.
- Grand Seraglio of Ottoman Sultan
The most famous harem in history is probably the Grand Seraglio of the Ottoman Sultans. The Sultans of the Ottoman Empire - which covered most of modern day Turkey &ndash had typically many wives along with a large retinue of female attendants and servants. All these would be housed in a harem as would be the Sultan's mother, daughters and other female relatives. They all would be guarded by an army of eunuchs since eunuchs were not fully male, only they would be allowed access to the harems which because of the principle of gender segregation could not be guarded by male soldiers.
Ismail ibn Sharif holds the distinction of fathering probably the maximum number of children in history &ndash not surprisingly he also had one of the largest harems, housing more than five hundred concubines 2 . The Moroccan ruler was second in line of the Moroccan Alaouite dynasty and reigned from 1672 to 1727. Like other members of the dynasty, Moulay Ismail too claimed to be a descendant of Muhammad through his roots to Hassan ibn Ali. Known in his native country as the "Warrior King", Ismail fought the Ottoman Turks and gained respect for Moroccan sovereignty. Today though he is widely known for another reason, that of fathering more than eight hundred children.