The harem was defined to be the women's quarter in a Muslim household. The Imperial harem (also known as the Seraglio harem) contained the combined households of the Valide Sultan (Queen Mother), the Sultan's favourites (hasekis), and the rest of his concubines (women whose main function was to entertain the Sultan in the bedchamber). It also contained all the Sultanas' (daughters of the Sultan) households. Many of the harem women would never see the Sultan and became the servants necessary for the daily functioning of the harem.
The reasons for harem existence can be seen from Ottoman cultural history. Ottoman tradition relied on slave concubinage along with legal marriage for reproduction. Slave concubinage was the taking of slave women for sexual reproduction. It served to emphasize the patriarchal nature of power (power being "hereditary" through sons only). Slave concubines, unlike wives, had no recognized lineage. Wives were feared to have vested interests in their own family's affairs, which would interfere with their loyalty to their husband, hence, concubines were preferred, if one could afford them. This led to the evolution of slave concubinage as an equal form of reproduction that did not carry the risks of marriage, mainly that of the potential betrayal of a wife. The powers of the harem women were exercised through their roles within the family. Although they had no legitimate claim to power, as their favour grew with the sultan, they acquired titles such as "Sultan Kadin" which solidified their notion of political power and legitimacy within the royal family was reflected with titles including "sultan."
During the sixteenth century, both male and female members of the imperial family used the title of "sultan". As the role of the royal favourite concubine (title: Sultan) eroded during the seventeenth century, the title designation also changed to "kadin" or "haseki," which were names originally reserved for less prominent members of the royal family. Henceforth, only the mother of the reigning Sultan was addressed as a Sultan: the Valide Sultan. The retention of the title of Sultan for the mother indicated the power of the Valide Sultan. After all, men could take as many concubines and odalisques as they desired, but they only had one mother.
Many of the concubines and odalisques of the Imperial harem were reputed to be among the most beautiful of women in the Ottoman Empire. Young girls of extraordinary beauty were sent to the sultan's court, often as gifts from the governors. Numerous harem women were Circassians, Georgians, and Abkhasians. They were usually bought from slave markets after being kidnapped or else sold by impoverished parents. Many Georgian and Circassian families encouraged their daughters to enter concubinage through slavery, as that promised to be a life of luxury and comfort. All slaves that entered the harem were termed odalisques or "women of the court" - general servants in the harem. Odalisques were not usually presented to the Sultan. Those that were of extraordinary beauty and talent, were seen as potential concubines, and trained accordingly. They learned to dance, recite poetry, play musical instruments, and master the erotic arts. Only the most gifted odalisques were presented to the Sultan as his personal gedikli (maids-in-waiting). Generally, odalisques would be assigned as servants to the oda (or court) of a harem mistress. For example, the Mistress of the Robes, or the Keeper of Baths, or the Keeper of Jewels, etc.
It was possible for these odalisques to rise through the ranks of the harem hierarchy and enjoy security through their power and position.
The most powerful women in the harem were the Valide Sultan and the Kadins. The Valide Sultan was responsible for the maintenance of order and peace inside the harem. Being a female elder in the Imperial family, the Valide was expected to serve as a guide and teacher to her son by educating him about the intricacies of state politics. Often, she was asked to intervene upon the Sultan's decisions when the Mufti (head of the Muslim religion), or the Viziers (ministers) felt that the Sultan may have made an erroneous decision.
Kadin's were the Sultan's favourite women. Tradition allowed only four principal Kadins but unlimited number of concubines. Kadins were equivalent in rank to that of a legal wife, and were given apartments, slaves, and eunuchs. For example, during the reign of Selim II (the Sot), his favourite, the bas kadin Nurbanu had an entourage of one hundred and fifty ladies-in-waiting. The amount of properties, clothing, jewelry, and allowances given, was all-proportional to the affection the Sultan held for them.
Odalisques were at the bottom of the harem hierarchy. They were considered to be general servants in the harem. They were not usually seen to be beautiful enough to become presented to the Sultan. Odalisques that were seen as potential candidates for concubinage were trained to become talented entertainers. The greatest honour a Sultan could bestow upon a male guest was to present him with an odalisque from his court who had not yet become his concubine. These women were greatly coveted as they were beautiful and talented, and what is more important, had links into the harem hierarchy.
Concubines could be considered an equivalent to the modern version of a "one night stand". They were odalisques that were presented to the Sultan and after that one night, they might never see the Sultan again unless the girl became pregnant with a male child. If she was successful in birthing a male child, then she would become an ikbal (favourite) to the Sultan. The female hierarchy followed the pattern of odalisques (virgins), concubines ("one night stands"), ikbals (favourites), and kadins (favourites "wives").
harem women formed only half of the harem hierarchy. Eunuchs were the integral other half of the harem. Eunuchs were considered to be less than men and thus unable to be "tempted" by the harem women and would remain solely loyal to the Sultan. Eunuchs were castrated men and hence possessed no threat to the sanctity of the harem.
According to Muslim tradition, no man could lay his eyes on another man's harem, thus someone less than a man was required for the role of watchful guardianship over the harem women. Eunuchs tended to be male prisoners of war or slaves, castrated before puberty and condemned to a life of servitude.
White eunuchs were first provided from the conquered Christian areas of Circassia, Georgia, and Armenia. They were also culled from Hungarian, Slavonian, and German prisoners of war. These white eunuchs were captured during the conflicts that arouse between the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan countries. Black eunuchs were captured from Egypt, Abyssinia and the Sudan. Black slaves were captured from the upper Nile and transported to markets on the Mediterranean Sea - Mecca, Medina, Beirut, Izmir and Istanbul. All eunuchs were castrated enroute to the markets by Egyptian Christians or Jews, as Islam prohibited the practice of castration but not the usage of castrated slaves.
There were several different varieties of eunuchs:
Sandali, or clean-shaven: The parts are swept off by a single cut of a razor, a tube (tin or wooden) is set in the urethra, the wound is cauterized with boiling oil, and the patient is planted in a fresh dung-hill. His diet is milk, and if under puberty he often survives.
The eunuch whose penis is removed: He retains all the power of copulation and procreation without the wherewithal; and this, since the discovery of caoutchouc, has often been supplied.
The eunuch, or classical thlibias and semivir, who has been rendered sexless by the removing of the testicles..., or by their being bruised..., twisted, seared or bandaged.
Black eunuchs tended to be of the first category: Sandali, while white eunuchs were of the second or third categories, thus have part or their entire penis intact. Because of their lack of parts, black eunuchs served in the harem, while white eunuchs served in the government (and away from the women). At the height of the Ottoman Empire, as many as six to eight hundred eunuchs served within the Seraglio (palace). Most eunuchs arrived as gifts from governors of different provinces. At the end of their training as young eunuch pages, eunuchs were assigned to service. White eunuchs were placed under the patronage of various government officials or even into the service of the Sultan himself (like in Topkapi Palace). If they were black eunuchs, they were placed into the service of a harem personage, such as a Kadin, or a daughter or sister of the Sultan. They could also serve under the Kizlar Agha (master of the girls), the Chief Black Eunuch.
The Kizlar Agha was the third highest-ranking officer of the empire, after the Sultan and the Grand Vizier (Chief Minister). He was the commander of the baltaci corps (or halberdiers - part of the imperial army). His position was a pasha (general) of three tails (tails referring to peacock tails, and the most number of tails permitted being four and worn by the Sultan). He could approach the Sultan at any time, and functioned as the private messenger between the Sultan and the Grand Vizier. He was the most important link between the Sultan and the Valide Sultan (mother of the sultan).
The Kizlar Agha led the new odalisque to the Sultan's bedchamber, and was the only "man" who could enter the harem should there have been any nocturnal emergencies. His duties were to protect the women, to provide and purchase the necessary odalisques for the harem, to oversee the promotion of the women (usually after the death of a higher-ranking kadin) and eunuchs. He acted as a witness for the Sultan's marriage, birth ceremonies, and arranged all the royal ceremonial events, such as circumcision parties, weddings, and fêtes. He also delivered sentence to harem women accused of crimes, taking the guilty women to the executioner to be placed into sacks and drowned in the Bosphorus which lay outside the Topkapi Palace.
The Chief White Eunuch was the head of the Inner Service (which is the palace bureaucracy) and the head of the Palace School (school for white eunuchs). He was also Gatekeeper-in-Chief, head of the infirmary, and master of ceremonies of the Seraglio. The Kapi Agha controlled all messages, petitions, and State documents addressed to the Sultan, and was allowed to speak to the Sultan in person. In 1591, Murad III transferred the powers from the white to the black eunuchs as there were too many embezzlements and various other nefarious crimes being attributed to the white eunuchs, among them being purported intimacy with the harem women.
. The Kapi Agha's loss of powers was seen through the decreasing of his ceremonial duties (which had various stipends entailed) and the decrease in his overall income. Originally, the Kapi Agha was the only eunuch allowed to speak to the Sultan alone, but as his importance decreased, the Valide Sultan and the Kizlar Agha were able to request private audience with the Sultan also. Because of their possible disloyalty, white eunuchs were assigned positions that did not bring them into contact with the harem women as many of them had incomplete castrations (still possessing of their penis). The total number of white eunuchs in the Seraglio at any given time was between 300 and 900.
In the late sixteen hundreds, the power of the black eunuchs grew. During the Kadinlar Sultanati, the eunuchs increased their political leverage by taking advantage of child Sultans or mentally incompetent ones. It was during this period of enthronement of child Sultans that caused political instability. The young teenage Sultans were "guided" by regencies formed by the Valide Sultan, the Grand Vizier and the Valides other supporters. The Kizlar Agha was the Valide Sultan's and the Kadin's intimate and value accomplice.