keskiviikko 16. toukokuuta 2018


II- THE ḤAREM IN THE OTTOMAN STATE




Whenever the term “Ottoman ḥarem” is heard Topkapi Palace automatically comes to mind. Many people think of that palace as the Ottoman Sulṭāns’ place of relaxation and entertainment, and any idea to the contrary is simply not accepted. The tourist brochures, the official guides who work in Topkapı, and even some ill-intentioned writers and scholars, describe Topkapı Palace as the place where the Sulṭāns indulged in pleasure, even adding that “they lived right ‘royal’ lives” there.

While writing this book, I visited the ḥarem in Topkapı Palace ,together with some resident photographers in order to take some slides. I explained to them that the room known as the Imperial Hall (Ḫunkār Sofası), which is commonly known as the place where the Sulṭāns held “orgies” with their concubines, was in fact used for other purposes and the writings on the walls were verses from the Qur’an and Hadīths of the Prophet (pbuh) on family life, good conduct, and character training. On hearing this, one of the attendants confessed that up to then they had described the inscriptions to the visitors as erotic verses written by the Sulṭāns for their concubines. One man asked if they really were verses from the Noble Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet (pbuh). When I replied “Yes,” he began to weep.

First, when mentioning a palace like Topkapı or Yıldız, one should not think of them as being only luxurious mansions where the Sulṭāns resided with their wives and families. These palaces were in fact like the residences of presidents or prime ministers today, and ministries and government offices. The part where the Sulṭāns’ families lived, their apartments or residential quarters – its equivalent today would be the presidential palace –  constituted the ḥarem. On examīnation, such ḥarems were no more luxurious or grand than the residences of today’s rulers or leading state officials.

Second, the term ḥarem means a sacred place or sanctuary that was not open to everyone. Al-Ḥarem al-Sharīf in Mecca, or Ḥarem-i Şerif, depending on how it is transliterated, is called that because it is inviolable, a place that has to be kept sacred from any profanation. A further meaning of the word is reflected in the term aremeyn, which refers to the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, which non-Muslims are forbidden to enter.

Similarly, in the Islamic world, the women’s quarters, to which entry is forbidden for men outside the stipulated degrees of kinship, are called ḥarem, and women who are forbidden to such men are also called ḥarem. In Ottoman times, both ordinary houses and palaces, the residences of the Sulṭāns, princes, and dignitaries, were divided into two, the ḥaremlik and the selamlık. The former was where the women lived. Thus, both the Sulṭāns’ wives were called ḥarem, and the place they lived was the Ḥarem-i Humāyūn, i.e. Imperial Ḥarem. Although the Sulṭāns’ living quarters were also called the Abode of Felicity (Dār al-Saʻādah) in the Ottoman period, the term ḥarem was more widely used.

It should be recalled that, physically, the Ḥarem was divided into three parts. The first part was the Entrance (Medḫal) or quarters of the black eunuchs, which was where the Chief Eunuch and the male slaves under the command of the Ḥarem eunuchs were employed. Just as there were no female slaves here, so the eunuchs were not permitted to enter the Ḥarem proper without being granted permission. This part of the Ḥarem is explored below in the section “The Male Staff of the Ḥarem.” The second part was the Ḥarem where the female slaves (jāriyes) served the members of the Sulṭān’s family who lived there, that is the Sulṭān’s wives, princes, and others. They were the staff of the Ḥarem, and they served under the female slave known as the Ḫazinedār Usta. They had no sexual relations with the Sulṭān at all, for they were not concubines. The third refers to those female slaves who may be viewed as members of the Sulṭān’s family; that is the Sulṭān’s wives and mother, the wives of the princes, and the concubines of both. The head of this group was in some periods the Sulṭān’s first wife (baş kadın efendi), and in other periods, the Sulṭān’s mother.[1]


The books Western writers have written about the Ḥarem resemble erotic novels and are full of scenes that are entirely fictitious. Unfortunately, the first to write about the obtaining of female slave concubines for the Ḥarem were Western writers. The first of these was Thomas Dallan (1599) in the seventeenth century, who described the Ḥarem women of Meḥmed III. He was followed by the Venetian Ambassador Ottaviano Bon (1606-1609), Robert Withers (1650), Rico, Lady Montagu (1717-1718), and the French manufacturer Flachat (1745-1755). All subsequent Western writers unfortunately repeated Bon’s extravagant descriptions of odaliks being presented to the Sulṭāns. I am ashamed to quote their lies, and no extant documents and memoirs confirms what they say.

To learn the truth of the matter and how Western writers have distorted the facts one should read what Mualla Anhegger, the wife of the French historian Robert Anhegger, wrote at the time of their work on the restoration of the Ḥarem in the 1960s. She wrote: I realized that the Ḥarem had no connection whatsoever with what Europeans had written about it for hundreds of years. The Ḥarem was not an institution that had been founded so that the Sulṭān could sleep with whatever women he wished. It had not even been designed architecturally for this. It was not possible for the Sulṭān to see the female slaves and take those he wanted. The doors, rooms, and passages were not planned according to this. The female slaves slept in dormitories of twenty-five, under the strict supervision of the kalfas on the upper floor. The Sulṭān’s mother in her own apartment, the Sulṭān’s wives in their apartments, and the Sulṭān in his. The Sulṭān’s mother could choose his wives and present them to him. If the Sulṭān had wanted to go to the slaves’ quarters, he would have had to become a bird and flown there!

The Ḥarem was conceived of as a university, with the female slaves as students. Anyway, it was written over their door: ”O God! Open to us all doors of good!” And in accordance with this, most of them were married off with the Sulṭān giving them their trousseaux. For the jāriyes were not slaves, let alone sex-slaves. In my opinion, the best way of putting it is that the jāriyes were the Sulṭān’s adopted children. And truly, it is understood that, like adopted children, they were well treated and well educated. While planning the layout of the Ḥarem, the aim must have been that no one had even a moment of spare time. Dancing, music, sewing, education ... it was as though the Ḥarem was a military organization. I was frequently aware of this military organization while restoring the Ḥarem. Finally, I so lost myself in it that when, for unacceptable reasons, my wage was cut by the government I still continued to work from dawn till dusk. To put it briefly, I did not gain anything materially from restoring the Ḥarem, but I succeeded in understanding an institution that had remained obscure, even if only by groping in the dark.

The women in the Ḥarem were extremely well-trained and educated, intelligent and capable. Those that were not only beautiful but also clever wanted to rise through the government ranks. I don’t see anything extraordinary or wrong in this. Like self-confident men, the women of the Ḥarem played their hands to the last. Contrary to what is thought, there is no need to be beautiful in order to rise in the world. Those that took best advantage of their education, who wrote well and spoke well, started this race with an advantage. It is for this reason that in some periods the Ḥarem laid its hands on political power, which was quite natural. Certainly some pitiless and ambitious Sulṭāns emerged from the Ḥarem. But I see the women of the Ḥarem as people who tried to create chances for themselves, and just like men, sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, and when conditions demanded could be as pitiless as men.

It would have been possible to make the above passage the summary of this book. Indeed, The works foreigners have written are mostly the products of fantasy. They are nothing other than the written and pictorial representation of hearsay. None of these works has delivered the Ḥarem from being a dark and mysterious world of fantasy. There are various reasons for this, the chief of which may be explained by our Muslim women avoiding men, being veiled out of doors, and not taking part in mixed company. There are numerous pictures, statues, and writings about the lives, dress, and appearance of the wives and daughters of European rulers, yet with the exception of a few ambassadresses’ meetings in palaces and pictures of them, there are no such sources for our women here.[2]



Pictures of naked women published in books and magazines as illustrations of the Ḥarem also have absolutely no basis in fact; they too are the product of Western writers’ imaginations. Some Western writers employed artists to depict the life of the Ḥarem as they imagined it, and published these pictures with complete disregard for the question of their lawfulness. Especially pictures of the Sulṭān bathing in milk surrounded by a bevy of naked jāriyes are entirely the product of fancy. The clearest such picture extant in the Ottoman sources is that included in the Ḫubānnāme, depicting the scene at a birth. In any event, as long as it remained private, it was not unlawful.

At this point we should listen to what an expert has to say on the question of these pictures of the ḤaremThe fact that most of the travelers who visited Turkey did not know Turkish, and spent all their time with minorities since they were Christian, and did not in any way verify the information they gave them, which most of the time was inaccurate, led them to make gross errors. One can estimate to what degree the judgements passed on us by the foreign travelers and artists would be correct, and the pictures they drew and books they wrote, for they could not converse with Turkish men, let alone Turkish women. Let the reader think and decide.

Does this not force us to ask if the various portraits of Ḫurram Sulṭān and her daughter Mihrimah Sulṭān, and Gülnufl Sulṭān in the picture gallery in Topkapı Palace are authentic?[3]

All the unlawful pictures in the books about the Ḥarem of the Republican period, or which form their covers, are the fruits of Western artists’ imaginations. For example, the picture of a naked woman on the cover of Meral Altındal’s book Osmanlı’da Ḥarem (The Ottoman Ḥarem) is by Karl Bruillov, while the one on the cover of her book Osmanlı’da Kadın (Women in the Ottoman Empire) is by Camille Rogier.

The Western writers who cast aspersions on the Ottoman Sulṭāns through these fanciful pictures know perfectly well how their own kings and emperors acted unlawfully and make analogies between them and the Sulṭāns. For instance, what I saw on visiting the Imperial Palace in Vienna truly astonished me. For the emperors who inhabited it had erected the statues of their various women on the parapet of the palace roof. That is to say, the proof of the shameful lives the emperors lived in the palace is not fanciful pictures like those of the Ḥarem but the concrete statues of the women on the palace roof, which are still to be seen there.[4]

195. Were all the concubines at the palace the Sulṭāns’ wives?

In their relations with female slaves, which they both employed as servants in the Ḥarem and used as concubines, the Ottoman Sulṭāns applied Sharī‘ah rulings. Female slaves were present in the Ḥarem and were employed there from the time of Orḫan Bey (724/1324-761/1360). However, it was only since Meḥmed the Conqueror in the fifteenth century that their numbers began to increase. Precisely at the time that the government passed into the hands of the devşirme recruits, the Ḥarem came to be dominated by female slaves. That is to say, through their education in the palace school (Mekteb-i Enderūn), the conscripted youths rose to the highest civil and military positions. Similarly, according to their intelligence, good conduct, and physical attributes, the female slaves who entered the Ḥarem – which was a school –  were able to rise through the ranks of jāriye, kalfa, and usta as the domestic staff of the Ḥarem, and then, if chosen by the Sulṭān to be his consort, to the ranks of gözde, ikbal, and kadın efendi, possibly even rising to be the Sulṭān’s mother (Wālide Sulṭān).

There were thus two categories of female slaves educated in the Ḥarem school. The first consisted of those female slaves who were employed as domestic servants of the Sulṭān’s family in the Ḥarem. Their numbers sometimes reached between 400 and 500, and they formed 90% of the female slaves. These were only servants and not the Sulṭān’s concubines in any sense of the word.

Those female slaves, the palace jāriyes, who were employed as domestic servants of the Sulṭān’s family in the Ḥarem, may be classified into four main groups: 1- novices (acemi); 2- slaves (jāriyes); 3- experienced slaves (kalfas and şakirds); 4- supervisors (usta and gedikli jāriye).

Study of these four groups will show that 90% of the female slaves in the Ḥarem were the direct equivalent of female domestic servants today, who worked in the Ḥarem for a fixed wage. But, since they were unmarried and unable to marry as long as they were in the Ḥarem, they could at any time become the concubines of the Sulṭān or the princes. Those who did not or could not become concubines, and wanted to marry outside, were married off and “retired” from the Ḥarem as cirag.

The second category included the gözdes, ikbals, and kadın efendis, who were the Sulṭān’s concubines and wives.[5]

196. The female servants (jāriyes) in the Ḥarem and their marriage

The question of the marriage of jāriyes has to be discussed in relation to their status.
The first group was the concubines of the Sulṭān or princes. As explained below, the Sulṭān did not have sexual relations with all the female slaves trained as concubines. He had relations only with a certain number. Some of these became kadın efendis, and some ikbals. These were generally those who bore him children. The same applied to the princes and their concubines, but those belonging to the princes were known as ḥarem and not as kadın efendi or ikbal. The concubines who fell out of favor or who did not bear them children were retired and married off to someone suitable “outside.” Their trousseaux and accomodation were provided by the Sulṭān.

The second group was the jāriyes, kalfas and ustas described above, who worked as domestic servants. They were freed after fulfilling their nine-year term of service, and, having been given their certificate of freedom, called çırağ kağıdı, were permitted to leave the Ḥarem. Those who did not wish to leave either remained in the Ḥarem or were sent to the Old Palace. Those who left the Ḥarem from both groups were called saraylılar and were given every sort of assistance so that they would not fall into poverty. If their husbands died, they were paid a pension.

Any jāriye who committed a misdemeanor in the Ḥarem was punished by the kahya kadın. Documents show that one jāriye was exiled to the island of Chios, and that there were other similar incidents.

It is recorded that, on ascending the throne, some Sulṭāns expelled the jāriyes of the former Sulṭān from the Ḥarem, because of their dislike of the former sovereign, and that the slaves fell into extreme hardship. But to suggest that this was general is incorrect. According to Islamic law, if the female slaves had not been freed before their deaths, their estates (muḫallafāt) and effects passed to their masters. For this reason, when the jāriyes of the Ḥarem died, any possessions they left were appropriated by the state and placed in the treasury.[6]
The Ḥarem may be seen as a pyramid at the apex of which the Wālide sat in a far from lonely state, since all important business passed through her hands, not Ieast discipline, without which Iife would have been impossible. Should the slaves continue to be disobedient, they were sent to the Old Saray, stripped of their savings, and Ieft without hope of marriage or any other future. Until 582 (A.H.) the Ḥarem was under the same administration of the white eunuchs who controlled the palace school where the elite boys were trained for the chief offices of the empire. The structure of training was the same too, but not the subjects. Both had affinities with the guild system. For example, the young girls were admitted to the Ḥarem as acemi, which was the same term used for the boys and meant cadet, rather than recruit. Like the pages, they were kul, or members of the Iarger family of the Sulṭān, rather than slaves who could be bought or sold.
They were taught religion, and to sing and to play a musical instrument, along with dancing, poetry, and the complex arts of love. If they graduated from their apprenticeship, they went on to learn to read and write and to tell stories. Stories were important everywhere in the empire, and nowhere more than in a ḥarem. Every night one of the Thousand and One Nights was read, or so it was said. The Nights include heroes and heroines and some noble souls but, since such characters are often dull, the stories are more often about vagabonds, promiscuous women, sorceresses, criminals and unscrupulous judges, mountebanks, and lying holy men. It is the world upside down, which does not mean that it was an exact mirror of the daily life of Baghdad or Istanbul.

Even at this level, there were still failures, but they could hope to be sent into the world with some recompense, including the possibility of marriage to a failed student of the palace school. The next promotion was to gedik, or the “privileged,” who had been seen by the Sulṭān and who may even have had contact with him. They were not only beautiful but also intelligent and amusing, in addition to being skilled at making love, although they were still virgins. If a person like Ḫurram entered the Ḥarem, and the Sulṭān was a Süleyman, the whole system broke down, and the girl graduated immediately. Gediks were girls chosen by the Sulṭān. At various periods these girls ranked as gözde, or “girls in the Sulṭān's eye.” He might select them more and more often so that they joined the elite ikbals or ḥas odalıks who were in sight of the top of the pyramid, and only had to become pregnant and safely deliver a child, preferably a son, to reach it. These ranks varied over the years and were not always used.

Girls who had slept with the Sulṭān graduated to their own rooms with their own slaves and kitchen maids and their own eunuch. If a female child was born, they moved to a larger apartment and became a Ḫaseki kadın, or mother of daughters. They had the right to remarry at the death of their Sulṭān. They were the favorites who enjoyed a handsome income compared with the pocket money that they had received before. With motherhood they had crossed the frontier and were free. If they bore a son, their ambitions were indeed achieved. At the very least they were the Ḫaseki Sulṭāns, or mothers of younger sons, but these royal ladies were secluded and, if the boy should die, they could not marry again.

The Baş Ḫaseki was the mother of the eldest son, and she, more than anyone, had to be secluded if the prince were to die before her. She was the chief royal lady as long as she lived, and on her son’s ascension became Wālide and ruled the Ḥarem. In theory, his death meant her seclusion and the loss of all her powers. Thus the Wālide Mosque of Safiye Sulṭān could not be completed by her when Mehmet lll died in 1603 and it was left to go to ruin for 60 years. She was well looked after in the Old Saray but had no access to any funds but her own. One Wālide, Kösem, overruled custom and continued to exercise power. Trouble began when a girl became an ikbal because she could not help but be seen as a rival to those of the same rank and therefore be involved in the factional politics that were the heart of Ḥarem life.

197. The kadın efendis as jāriyes regarded as the Ottoman Sulṭāns’ wives

The Sulṭāns concluded the marriage contract with some slave concubines observing the limit of four wives, and others rose to the status of umm al-walad and kadın efendi when they bore the Sulṭān’s child. Their maximum number at any one time was eight. According to Ayşe Osmanoğlu, the daughter of Abdülhamid II, the marriage contract was mostly contracted with women like these. In this case, even if the woman was a female slave, the total number of wives could not exceed four at any one time. If one was divorced, then the Sulṭān could marry another. Nevertheless, there were Sulṭāns who had more than four concubines and kadın efendis, so all the kadın efendis could not have been “married.”

The Sulṭān’s first wife was called the baş kadın efendi, and the others followed in succession: second kadın efendi, third kadın efendi, and so on, up to as many as eight. The first wife and the others were assigned apartments and their own female slaves (jāriye and kalfa). If one of the kadın efendis died or separated from the Sulṭān, an ikbal would be selected by the Sulṭān in her place, and she would be presented to him by the chief eunuch and then become a kadın efendi. For example, Mehtab, one of the kalfas of Abdülhamid I, was raised to the position of fifth kadın efendi and presented to the Sulṭān by the chief eunuch, Bashir Ağa. The new kadın efendi would be given an apartment and new clothes and would be instructed in the conduct and etiquette of the court by the ḫazinedār usta and kalfas. The Sulṭān’s kadın efendis were also called Ḫaseki. Some writers have stated that the most favored of these and those with children received the title Ḫaseki Sulṭān. The first to be given this title, which was used from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries, was the wife of Sulṭān Ibrahim (1049/1640-1058/1648).

Although the Sulṭāns did not have wives in the usual sense, they conformed as far as was possible to the principle described in books of Islamic law as qasm, that is, apart from spontaneous affection, they treated all their spouses equally; this they called nöbet (nawbah), i.e. taking turns. It was the Ḫazinedār Usta’s duty to arrange the turns. Some foreign travelers and envoys have even reported how a kadın efendi who was neglected for three consecutive Friday nights had the right to lodge a complaint with the judge. It is understood from some recorded incidents that when the Sulṭāns did not practise the principle of treating the women equally it led to jealousy and unrest among them. The conflict between the first wife of Süleyman the Lawgiver, Mehdevran baş kadın efendi, the mother of Prince Mustafa, on the one hand, and Ḫurram Sulṭān, the mother of Prince Selim on the other, arose from this just principle not being applied.

Unfortunately, one of the main factors in the halt of the Ottoman expansion and even its decline was that, for nearly a century, the kadın efendis interfered in state affairs. Particularly after having Mehdevran exiled to Manisa and herself made baş kadın efendi, Ḫurram Sulṭān, Süleyman’s wife, came to rule over the Ḥarem like a Sulṭān’s mother, and not stopping here, she interfered in the affairs of state. She also played a key role in the murder of Şehzāde Mustafa, which shows how far she went.  The kadın efendis were also instrumental in the Sulṭān’s armies not going to war after the death of Süleyman the Lawgiver and shutting themselves up in the palace. The attempts of Safiye Sulṭān, the first wife of Murad III, and Kösem Sulṭān, who succeeded her and was first first wife, then Sulṭān’s mother, to govern the empire are bitter examples in the pages of history, which unfortunately tell of many such events. Nevertheless, it came to an end with Turhan Sulṭān, who dominated Meḥmed IV (1058/1648-1099/1687). In fact, Turhan Sulṭān so established the rule in the Ḥarem that its inhabitants should not mix in political affairs that this rule was followed until the end of the empire. In this way, the era of the three Ḫurram-Safiye-Kösem Sulṭāns was closed at the same time.[7]

198. The ikbals as jāriyes with whom the Ottoman Sulṭāns lived as husband and wife

The slave concubines of the Sulṭāns known as ikbals were those who generally had not borne the Sulṭān a child. If they did produce a child, they rose to the rank of kadın efendi, like Pertevniyal Sulṭān, the ikbal of Mahmud II. Others remained ikbals even though they had given birth to the Sulṭān’s child, and were not immediately raised in rank. An example of the latter was Sulṭān Abdülmecid’s chief ikbal, Nalandil Hanım.

The first ikbal in Ottoman history was kept by Mustafa II (1106/1695-1115/1703); her name was Şahin Fatma Hanım. After this, Aḥmed III kept one, Mahmud I four, Mustafa III one, Selim III one, Mahmud II four, Abdulmecid six, and Abdulḥamid II four: Ikbals were second in rank after kadın efendis. If the slave concubines (jāriyes) called ḥas odalık, peyk, or gözde became pregnant and were not subsequently “retired,” they would be promoted to the rank of ikbal. If there were more than one they would be called chief ikbal, second ikbal, and third ikbal and so on. They never exceeded four at any one time. As was mentioned above, the ikbals first appeared at the end of the seventeenth century, the start of the Ottoman decline, and were concubines the Sulṭāns acquired after they had succeeded to the throne. But by the ninteenth century, they had taken their place as respected members of the Ḥarem. Until the time of Abdülhamid I, the ikbals had no particular apartments in the Ḥarem, but he built the famous apartments of the “Favorites” (Gözdeler) i.e. of the gözdes and ikbals, at the far end of the Ḥarem. A significant privilege of the kadın efendis and ikbals was that they could retain their positions after the Sulṭān’s death.

The ikbals were promoted on the deaths or divorces of the kadın efendis, or if the latter separated from the Sulṭān for any reason. That is, if one of the kadın efendis died or fell out of favor and was sent to the Old Palace, one of the ikbals, and generally the chief ikbal, took her place and her title. For example, Pertevniyal Sulṭān gave birth to Abdülaziz when she was the second ikbal of Mahmud II, and immediately rose to fifth kadın efendi. Sometimes the Sulṭāns were more fond of an ikbal than they were of the kadın efendis, as was the case with Abdülhamid II’s chief ikbal, Müşfika, who subsequently became fifth kadın efendi. The ikbals also had the right to wear fur-trimmed gowns in winter. The ikbals had their own attendants as well as female slaves appointed to serve them.[8]

199. Gözde, peyk, and ḥas odalık

As described above, the kadın efendis generally numbered four and throughout a Sulṭān’s reign perhaps seven or eight. They were selected from among the ikbals, and were still slave concubines (jāriye), but sometimes the Şeyḫulislam permitted marriage contracts to be concluded, and they became wives, and sometimes continued as concubines.

The ikbals were selected from among the slave concubines called ḥas odalıks, peyks, or gözdes. Until the ikbals were introduced in the time of Mustafa II, the kadın efendis were selected by the Sulṭān directly from the ḫas odalıks, peyks, or gözdes. Again, as described above, according to Islamic law, owners of slaves, and therefore the Sulṭāns, could have sexual relations with female slaves over whom they had rights of concubinage, on condition that the slaves were not married to anyone else. The Sulṭāns’ concubines were selected from among the female slaves brought into the Ḥarem. The slaves were trained in the conduct and etiquette of the court under the supervision of the ḫazinedār usta, and the Ḫunkār kalfasi were chosen from among these, who attended to the Sulṭān’s personal and private needs. From those the Sulṭān favored the concubines called peyks, gözdes, and ḥas odalıks were chosen. These concubines were assigned their own apartments.

The ḥas odalık concubines, from which the English word odalisque is derived, were divided into peyks and gözdes. There was never more than four of each. Those who won the Sulṭān’s favor or who bore his children rose to either ikbal or kadın efendi. The others would be married to male slaves outside the Ḥarem. Any who bore male children to the Sulṭān were certain to rise to kadın status, and if it was the Sulṭān’s first male child, the mother would become chief kadın efendi, or first wife.

In all, there were seven or eight Sulṭāns who kept ikbals in addition to kadın efendis. Those who kept gözdes as well were very few. And there were only two who kept peyks in addition to all the others. That is to say, it did not mean that all the Sulṭāns kept four kadın efendis, four ikbals, four gözdes, and four peyks all at the same time.

It should be stated here that chiefly Penzer, and other Western writers, have so misrepresented the acquisition and selection of the “odalisque” concubines from among the ikbals and kadın efendis, and have shown it to have been done in such an unlawful and distasteful way that what they have written conforms to neither history nor any archival evidence. Dancing, throwing handkerchiefs, selections in the bathroom –  all these are fantasies that bear no relation to reality.[9]

200. It is said that some of the Ḥarem women wrote love letters to the Sulṭāns or notables and vice versa

As long as it remains within the bounds of the licit, a man may love his wife, children, parents, and others. That is the only limit on loving others. Love is forbidden  only if it is outside those limits. It was therefore permissible for the Sulṭāns to write either “love letters” or affectionate letters to their wives or daughters, or for their daughters or women in the Ḥarem to write similar letters to the Sulṭāns or their prospective sons-in-law. The measure is for these letters to be lawful.

The Sulṭāns and Ḥarem women were human. They loved people and were jealous, the same as other people. So to interpret the occasional disagreement or love letter that remained in the family until the collapse of the Empire always negatively, choosing one easy subject to exploit, and to infer that it is representative of all the rest is not right. I will mention two of these letters here, which, although they were originally kept in the Ḥarem treasury, came to be known as “Love Letters from the Ḥarem” when everything about the palace was made public after the foundation of the Republic.

The first is a letter written by Ḫurram Sulṭān, the chief wife of Sulṭān Süleyman the Lawgiver, to the Sulṭān. If someone like Ḫurram Sulṭān, who was known for her love for Süleyman, used such refined language, one can understand by comparison the courtly language the Sulṭāns’ sons-in-law and others would also use for the princesses and other women: Happy Sulṭān, My Very Life! With a hundred thousand sorts of yearning, from the very depths of my heart I utter endless supplications for your well-being, and, offering my deepest respects (lit. wiping my face in the dust of your noble feet), I kiss your blessed hand.

My Illustrious Sulṭān, May my very eyes be sacrificed for you! It is to be hoped that you accept this wretched slave of yours. My Illustrious, Fortunate Sulṭān! How are you? How is your blessed head and all your members, and your blessed feet? For sure, my Illustrious Sulṭān, you are in the best of health.

My Illustrious Sulṭān, more precious to me than my eyes, my request to God Almighty is that He will preserve your noble person from all dangers and calamities, and keep you ever safe and sound for as long as Noah lived.

My Fortunate Sulṭān, my very life! If my Sulṭān was to enquire about the condition of his wretched slave, who burns with the pain of yearning and weeps copiously from the sorrow of separation, God knows that I pass all my time in melancholy, moaning at the pain of being parted from you. My Illustrious Sulṭān! God knows, I cannot express how I long to see the fine sight of you. My Sulṭān! God knows that night and day I burn at the pain of being separated from you. God knows, my Sulṭān, that I have not a moment’s, not a breath’s, peace. My condition is pitiable, being separated from you (lit. from the dust of your blessed feet.)

My Sulṭān and my Lord, I offer my kind regards to (lit. I kiss the eyes of) Prince Cihangir Shah. Then, my happiness! Hanım Peyk longingly offers her deepest respects (lit. wipes her face in the dust of your noble feet). My dear Peyk Kadın Hümashah Ayşe also offers her humblest respects. It is hoped these will be accepted. My Lord! If my Sulṭān asks about the state of the city, all praise be to God, all is quiet and peaceful; all the people pray for the Sulṭān’s welfare and long for (his return). My Lord! What else remains to be said?
Greetings, Your Humble Slave.[10]

The second is an example of a letter from a Sulṭān to one of his wives or concubines,  from Abdülhamid I to his wife Ruhshah. This letter, which was originally stored in the secret archives, is publicly known today, and contains nothing that would be considered contrary to Sharī‘ah. If the letters we wrote to our wives were made public, most likely they could not be claimed to conform to the rules of etiquette as much as did those of the most philandering of the Ottoman Sulṭāns. Abdülhamid I performed the five daily prayers as much as possible in the community in the mosque and only had lawful relations. One of his letters reads as follows: Abdülhamid truly has great devotion for Ruhshah (lit. may Abdulḥamid be Ruhshah’s slave and sacrifice). Do not put me aside because of a single fault. May God give me what I justly deserve if I leave you even when I have become dust.... I am yours and you are mine. God willing, we shall be together for as long as we live. My beloved, stay together with me. I wipe my face on your dainty foot.[11]

Regrettably, some writers have considered such expressions of love to be excessive and have attempted to show Abdülhamid I to be an amorist and slave of women. Does the ruler of a fifth of humanity who says to his wife, in accordance with what he has learned from the Qur’an and Sunnah, “May I be your slave and sacrifice,” signify respect for the woman and her rights, or does it suggest that, in his bondage to women, he neglected the affairs of state? I will leave reader to judge.[12]

201. Some assertions that the female slaves bathed naked in the pools in the Ḥarem gardens, and that the Sulṭāns frolicked with them in baths of milk

I have to say that it is true the Sulṭāns spent time with their wives, daughters, sons, the princes, and their wives and concubines, and like all families, discussed family matters or conversed and relaxed within the bounds of what is lawful. It is also true that they gathered together, particularly in the summer in the Sulṭān’s garden in the Ḥarem, or in Şimşirlik or Kağıtḫāne. But it was not a question of slaves bathing naked, but as described above, marquees and tents being erected solely for the use of the women, and special walkways, so that members of the different sexes outside the stipulated degrees of kinship should not mix.

The rulings in Islamic law concerning those parts of the body free women, women within the stipulated degrees of kinship, and female slaves have to cover, and that the masters of female slaves being able to look at only the slaves’ arms, heads, and legs below the knee have been astonishingly distorted by people uninformed about the matter.

I explained that, in Islamic law the term maḥremiyet covers several concepts, that female slaves (jāriye) could only display their arms and heads in their masters’ presence, and this was so that they could work freely. It was certainly not permissible for them to bathe naked, because other female slaves were not permitted to look at them in this state. This misundrestanding has arisen from not knowing the terms ʻawret-i ḫafifa and ʻawret ghaliẓa and that the term ʻawret has different meanings when referring to men, free women, women within the stipulated degrees of kinship, and female slaves. It has also arisen from the Sharī‘ah rulings on these not being taken into consideration.

The Sulṭān most maligned on this subject is Murad III, who was a Sufi by temperament, wrote a collection of poems in Persian, and was sufficiently knowledgeable about Islamic law to know that even if the concubines were lawful for him, they were forbidden to each other. We do know that the slaves played musical instruments within legal limits and that the men and women of the Ḥarem held entertainments separately and did not mix.[13]

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