Ottoman harem life, which has always been an issue of heated debate, is once again dominating the agenda despite the passing of the centuries. The topic has come back on to the agenda following the premier of a controversial historical drama on the life of Süleyman the Magnificent earlier this month.
Highlighting the many inaccuracies in the TV series, which she says stem from an Orientalist approach to the harem, author and lecturer Aslı Sancar says women in the royal harem and the Ottoman Empire in general were not the passive, oppressed, depraved and highly sexualized figures portrayed by 19th century Western Orientalism. “For Ottoman women it was a distinction to be in the royal harem,” she says.
Sancar is a writer and lecturer on women’s issues. Born and raised in the US, she has lived in İstanbul for nearly a quarter of a century since her marriage to a Turk and she has been studying the role of women in the Ottoman Empire for around 10 years. She is a frequent lecturer on the subject and has published two books and numerous articles about women and the family. She has authored the book, “Ottoman Women: Myth and Reality,” which is a detailed exploration of Ottoman harem life. Published by the New Jersey-based Tughra Books in cooperation with the Kaynak Publishing Group in İstanbul, Sancar’s book explores the lifestyles and legal rights of Muslim women in the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the 19th century. The book features hundreds of illustrations and portraits of Ottoman women and objects from the period. The book won the Benjamin Franklin Award in 2008 in the history/political category -- one of the two categories in which it was a finalist -- which was presented during an awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Apart from its content, the book was also nominated for its visual quality in the cover design/large format category.
Sancar spoke to Sunday’s Zaman and shared her broad knowledge of life in the harem. She did begin by complaining that the Turkish public has very little information about harem life and what little information they do have has been dominated by a Western “sensational” approach. “Unfortunately, most of the books on the harem written for the public present the Orientalist myth of the harem which portrays harem women as erotic, indolent and oppressed. This myth has dominated this subject for several centuries. There are many sources written by women in particular that refute this myth, but many of them are in English and are less well known to the reading public,” she says. She states that the Western perception of Muslim women has been dominated by fiction such as the “1001 Nights” fairytales or through fantasy or rumor-based travel accounts by people who simply would not have even been allowed into the harem.
According Sancar, the Western fantasy of the harem and the actual harem are completely different. “The Western fantasy of the harem saw the women in it as beautiful sex objects. A woman was never seen as a real person or, for example, as a mother. The myth portrays women as having no agency of their own. They are totally at the will of their master or husband. Actually, this was the case in the West. Women did not have legal agency, for example, until the end of the 19th century. Ottoman women, however, had a broad range of legal rights for centuries from the outset of the Ottoman Empire,” she says.
Sancar said that when she began investigating Ottoman women and the harem life, she observed that almost all the books written on the issue were dominated by this “harem myth.” She says although she suspected that these were not true she had nothing on hand to prove this. Sancar notes that the more objective works about the harem are relatively recent except for the accounts of such famous female travelers as Lady Mary Montagu, Julia Pardoe and Lucy Garnett; all of whom traveled or lived in Ottoman territories during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Ottomans were not the first dynasty to make use of the slave and harem system, as many other Muslim and Western dynasties had similar systems in those times. “This was basically a state policy,” Sancar says. “First of all, the Ottomans used the harem as a source of wives for the sultan to produce male heirs to the dynasty. Before the middle of the 15th century it was state policy to marry women of rank in Rumeli and Anatolian principalities to make political alliances. But as the Ottoman Empire gained in power, they no longer found women from principalities equal to their stature. After that, again it was state policy to use slave girls who had been extremely well trained in Ottoman customs and who were strongly loyal to the sultan as a pool of wives to the sultan and mothers to the princes. At the same time they used a highly trained and loyal corps of male slaves to form the military and bureaucratic Ottoman elite,” Sancar notes.
Noting that slave women were highly trained in palace etiquette and decorum, she says as young girls they immediately learned the Turkish language and were taught the fundamentals of the Islamic religion. “If they had musical talent, they were taught to sing and dance or play musical instruments. Potential candidates as consorts to the sultan were taught to read and write as well. All the slave women were skilled in the handicrafts of embroidery and making lace,” she says.
Sancar states that the royal harem not would serve the royal family but society in general. She explains that a woman who completed her service in the harem was matched with a man who was raised in a parallel structure to the harem, the Enderun School, which trained future bureaucrats. “They were role models. They represented the elite of society,” she adds.
According to Sancar, the women in the harem were very happy to be there as it was an honor to be in the harem. “They felt privileged,” she says, adding that they would object to be excluded from the harem since they thought they were protected by the sultan there. Noting that the harem was an institution of education, she says the cariyes (slave girls) received various types of training there, from music to handicrafts and embroidery.
On the ‘Magnificent Century’
Sancar also commented on the TV series that has once again brought harem life into the spotlight. Since the first episode was broadcast on Jan. 5, the series titled “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (Magnificent Century) has sparked severe criticism for the manner in which it depicts the empire and the life of the sultan.
“I don’t think the TV series accurately reflects the imperial harem. To begin with, decorum, etiquette and refined manners were an indisputable part of the royal harem. There were very strict rules of conduct and everyone had to follow them. For example, the sultan wore hob-nailed shoes when he entered the harem. These shoes made noise when the sultan walked so they allowed anyone in the corridors to get out the way. It was considered extremely rude to run into the sultan randomly and this was called “hünkara çatmak.” All of the residents of the imperial harem were bound by custom to follow the strict rules of etiquette and young slave girls were taught these rules before they were able to begin their duties in the harem,” she says.
Sancar emphasizes that “there are many, many mistakes in the TV series.” For example, the sultan’s throwing a handkerchief to the slave girl he wants to become his consort is a part of the Orientalist myth of the harem. It was not a custom practiced by the sultans. Lady Montague, who visited Turkey between 1716 and 1718, asked the widow of Sultan Mustafa II whether or not this was a harem custom and she was told it was not,” she notes.
Hürrem Sultan: a person of charity
The wife of Süleyman the Magnificent, Hürrem Sultan, one of the most powerful women in the history of the Ottoman Empire, is generally mentioned in history books and novels about her life in terms of her ambition for power, intrigue, jealousy and involvement in politics. However, these are not enough to fully understand Hürrem, who was someone who left behind numerous works of charity.
Originally from Ukraine, Hürrem Sultan, known in the West as Roxelana, has been mostly mentioned as an evil woman in history books. However, Hürrem showed her charitableness in her early years at the Ottoman palace as a cariye. She wanted to donate the first salary that she received as a cariye to Mecca, saying she did not need the money in the palace. However, in order for a cariye to make a donation, she had to be freed according to Ottoman laws. So she later demanded Sultan Süleyman free her so she could make the donation, and the sultan did what she requested. From that time on, Hürrem donated a large amount of gold to Mecca. Soon after her liberation she married Süleyman and became his much-loved wife, Haseki. She continued her charitable efforts after her marriage to Süleyman, including commissioning a number of mosques, caravanserais and imarets (soup kitchens) in various cities.
Hürrem Sultan used to spend winters in Saray-ı Humayun in Edirne. She ordered famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan to construct waterways and fountains in Edirne, a city which had a special place in Süleyman’s heart. These waterways and fountains were used in the city until the 20th century. Hürrem commissioned a külliye (complex) in İstanbul whose construction began in 1538 and ended in 1550. The külliye is made up of a mosque, medrese (school), sıbyan mektebi (primary school), fountain, imaret and a darüşşifa (hospital). Today, the darüşşifa building is still a part of the Haseki Research and Training Hospital, which was named after the complex built by Hürrem. The complex has recently been restored. Sevim Şentürk İstanbul