Miss Party thought a few of you might enjoy a little Harem history to go along with the mystery of the Harem’s ‘Secret Language’. If you came here first, be sure to check out “The Secret Language of a Harem, Part 1” to find out what the Harem’s ‘secret language’ is all about. It’s a romantic and creative symbolistic language that will stir your imagination.
The very idea of a Harem in our modern times is beyond comprehension to contemporary Western women today. Miss Party, herself, knew a thimble-ful about the Harem’s way of life or social structure before visiting Istanbul and imagines you might know about the same. She found it was much more structured and organized than she had imagined, and much less the stuff of men’s fantasies. The very biggest surprise to her was the extent of power and control of the Mother Sultan, to the degree that some Mothers all but ran the country!
The word ‘Harem’ refers to the women of the Sultan AND to the place where they lived. Generally, each Sultan’s Harem consisted of: the Mother Sultan (mother of the Sultan); up to four ‘official’ wives; ‘favorites’ of the Sultan who were chosen from amongst the Concubines; 50-100 Concubines (young, female servants); and the White or Black Eunuchs (castrated males brought from other conquered lands, educated and trained as the protectors and administrators of the Harem). Other than the Sultan, young Princes, and doctors, NO men were ever permitted to enter the Harem or lay eyes on the women. Vice versa, the women, except for the Mother Sultan, were almost exclusively confined to the Harem except for rare shopping outings or special ceremonies that might include the wives.
The purpose of the Harem was to carefully control the longevity of the Ottoman Empire. The entire operation was closely watched over by the eagle-eye of the Mother Sultan. Wives and ‘favorites’ jostled constantly for the position of ‘most favorite’. Wives were often bitter enemies with the wife-next-door or, worse yet, their mother-in-law. Back-biting and thinly-veiled contempt was common amongst the senior women of the Harem. Even to the point of permanently removing the competition! The threat of poisoning, whether real or imagined, was strong enough that the Mother Sultan, each wife, and each ‘favorite’ required their own ‘Taster’.
For the Concubines, life was not as simple as staying on top, first they had to get to the top. They did this by pleasing the Mother Sultan or wives to the degree that they might be chosen for the Sultan to ‘unveil’ and become a ‘favorite’. (Believe it or not, Mom chose who her son, the Sultan, spent each night with!) If the Concubine could bear the Sultan a son, they would immediately jump to the front of the line and be of similar stature to the official wives with a private room and personal servants.
The Concubine’s purpose within the Harem varied. As they joined the Harem they were assigned a job. The more attractive girls would be given jobs assisting the senior women, such as wardrobe maintenance, hairdressing, or childcare; the less attractive girls might be assigned various housekeeping tasks within the Harem. They would be educated and trained for various tasks and when their training was completed they might be released back to their families if they had not been chosen as a ‘favorite’ by that time.
The Harem wing within the Topkapi Palace is quite beautiful and unique. Each of the 20 or so rooms is decorated, floor to ceiling, with stunning hand-painted tiles and gold-leafing. The tiles themselves are a highlight of the visit to the Harem. Multiple patterns of tile, coordinating layering of colors, borders – even shelf recesses in the walls are tiled. Murals of pastural scenes are painted in panels above the doorways. One entire room is painted top to bottom with fruits and flowers, as if wallpaper. Miss Party has seen no other place like it to be sure!
Well, now you know just a little bit more about another time and place. If you’d like to learn even more, try http://www.MysteriesoftheHarem.webs.com. To hostesses everywhere: Here’s to enjoying the freedom we have to make choices in our lives and controlling our own destiny!
Aran, Lale Surmen, Aran, Tankut. Rick Steves’ Istanbul. Avalon Travel, California, 2011.
Hammer, M., “The Language of Flowers, Fruits, Etc. Used by the Turkish Ladies in the Harems.”, The Classical Journal for March and June, Vol IX. 1814, A.J. Valpy.
Season, Beverly. The Language of Flowers: a history. Uni Press of Virginia, 1995.