The Harem: Enslavement and Luxury within the Sultan's Palace

Prior to the period of reform know as the Tanzimat (1839-1876), slavery was alive and well within the Ottoman Empire, and in fact, was necessary to ensure the inner machinations of the Ottoman government, administration, and military for nearly four centuries.  The methods used in the acquisition of slaves by the Ottoman Empire varied between the different regions used to acquire them, but generally the Turkish government relied upon the capture of slaves in warfare, the buying of slaves in the market, and their acquisition through trade.  Within the palace of Topkapi in Istanbul, the seat of power and usual preferred residence of sultans, a very regimented and traditional picture of slavery existed in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Slaves, though robbed of their freedom, possessed opportunities unknown to the majority of commoners within the Ottoman Empire.  There existed there a hierarchy of slaves, with some at times wielding power comparable to the sultan himself.  In this Hub, I will focus on certain aspects of slavery within the last two centuries of the Ottoman Empire, particularly life within the sultan’s harem, and briefly discuss its ultimate demise.  

While the acquisition of slaves through warfare arguably garnered the largest numbers,by the early 19th century its practice was discontinued.  This decision was largely influenced by England and France, who were at the time, allies against Russia in the Crimean War.  Prior to this though, slavery through warfare was sanctioned by the state and was largely successful.  The defeat of an Austrian army by the Ottomans in 1788, for instance, resulted in the staggering capture of 50,000 women and children.  The slave trade, particularly with African countries, saw the importation of hundreds of thousands of slaves.  It should be noted that due to the negative outlook on slave-breeding,  the opportunities afforded slaves to eventually become free members of society, and the Islamic prohibition of enslaving Muslims, a constant influx of slaves was necessary for Ottoman slavery to continue to exist.  Given this reality, the importation of slaves was enormous.  Ehud Toledano, in his book, Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East, estimates that “the average number of slaves imported into the empire every year during much of the first seventy years of the nineteenth century (the apex of traffic) ranged from 16,000 to 18,000.”

Slave Market in 13th Century Yemen
Slave Market in 13th Century Yemen
Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey
Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey

Female slaves of African origin who found themselves within the TopkapiPalace or elite households in Istanbul were predominantly employed domestically, and were the overwhelming majority within the slave class. A good portion of these were acquired from the country of Libya, with Tripoli and Benghazi being major centers of slave trading. In Darfur, the lucrative business of slave-breeding was being practiced, as related by a Tunisian traveler during the early nineteenth century:

Certain rich people living in the town have installed these blacks on their farms, to have them reproduce, and, as we sell sheep and cattle, so they, every year, sell those of their children that are ready for this. There are some of them who own five or six hundred male and female slaves, and merchants come to them at all times, to buy male and female slaves chosen to be sold.

While African-born females performing domestic duties comprised the majority of those enslaved within the Ottoman Empire, white women were equally sought after, though were not needed in such large numbers. These women, usually from the Caucasus region, were employed not just in menial labor, but often concubinage within the sultan’s Imperial Harem.

The harem, a word deriving from the Arabic haram which means “unlawful” or “forbidden,” was born out of the desire for segregation of the sexes, and was a common divider among men and women of more elite households, particularly those whose male patriarch had more than one wife (he was permitted up to four under Islamic law). The Imperial Harem, far from legendary western notions of an orgiastic lair of debauchery, was a hierarchical structure, forming the veritable nucleus of the sultan’s palace.  In this inner court, intrigue and political posturing often took precedence over sex and indulgence, and those slave girls who played their cards right could, in time, wield power rivaling and at times surpassing that of the sultan himself.

Portrait of a Young Circassian Woman, by Frank Millet
Portrait of a Young Circassian Woman, by Frank Millet

The majority of girls destined for the Imperial harem were bought from the slave market.  Extremely young and non-Muslim,  the girls most eagerly sought after were those with pale complexions, usually hailing from the Caucasus Region.  Circassian women were of particular interest to the Sultans, possessing those qualities deemed most desirable: Blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin.  After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent expiration of its Imperial harem, a rare public appearance of the harem was described by Francis McCullagh in The Fall of Abd-ul-Hamid: “It is well known that most of the ladies in the harems of the Turkish Sultans were Circassians, the Circassian girls being very much esteemed on account of their beauty and being consequently very expensive.”  Often, these young girls were sold willingly by their parents, in hopes of a better life under slavery rather than freedom.  

            The life of a harem slave began with the title odalisque, which implied a general servant status.   Beginning her apprenticeship under a woman known as an oda, the odalisque, depending on certain skills, abilities, or exceptional beauty, would be trained appropriately. (An attractive girl, for instance, may be trained to dance.  One with dexterous fingers on the other hand, may be trained to play a musical instrument).  In time, an odalisque could potentially rise to the rank of oda, and with it a title such as “Mistress of the Robes,” “Reader of the Koran,” and so on.  If at any time an odalisque caught the eye of the Sultan, she would most likely receive an invitation into his bed chamber, and upon this event receive the title of concubine under a pompous ceremony.  If the outcome of this sexual union was a male child, the concubine received the coveted title of kadin, and had the potential of someday running the harem as Vilade Sultana.

The Chief Black Eunuch
The Chief Black Eunuch

Under the harem’s leader and mother of the sultan, or Vilade Sultana, was the Chief Black Eunuch, a sort of prime minister position. This was one of the most powerful positions to be held for a slave in the Ottoman Empire. The Chief Black Eunuch was in charge of a group of eunuchs who were employed as the harem guard. Duties for these men included barring anyone from the outside from entering the harem, locking the door in the evening and unlocking it in the morning, and keeping an eye on all activity within the harem. The employment of eunuchs in the harem was, to the Turks, a logical action. These men, purchased as eunuchs by the Ottoman government (Islamic law forbade castration), were lacking in sexual desire, or at least, the ability to impregnate a harem resident, and were thus one of the few men in all the empire to gaze upon the inner court of the Imperial harem.

The acquisition of eunuchs was of particular interest to the Ottoman elite, and thus the prices for castrated slaves were considerably higher than for those who were not, usually double the price or higher. Boys between the ages of eight and ten were those chosen for castration, and great care was taken to insure infection did not take the life of the valuable eunuch. Swiss Arabist J.L. Burckhardt, who traveled throughout Upper Egypt and witnessed the eunuch slave trade firsthand, wrote this on the subject:

(In Zawiyat al-Dayr was) the great manufactory which supplies all Europeans, and the greater part of Asiatic Turkey with these guardians of female virtue….The operators…were two Coptic monks…who had a house in which the victims were received. Their profession is held in contempt even by the vilest Egyptians; but they are protected by the government, to which they pay and annual tax…A youth on whom this operation is performed is worth one thousand piastres at Siout; he had probably cost his master, a few weeks before, about three hundred.

Eunuch Guard during the Ottoman Empire
Eunuch Guard during the Ottoman Empire

While it is true that the life of an enslaved harem concubine or eunuch was often easier, and afforded more opportunities, than that of his or her life prior to enslavement, there were nonetheless horrid atrocities and great injustices committed against them while within the halls of the sultan’s palace.  The disposal of harm concubines was carried out with impunity, and generally for reasons of the sultan’s suspicions of a subversive plot against his life or that of the government.  During the reign of Sultan Ibrahim however, the entire Imperial harem, over three hundred women, were bound, stuffed in weighted sacks, and thrown into the Bosphorus, for no other reason than the enjoyment Ibrahim would experience in acquiring an entire new harem.  

            The decline, and eventual abolition of slavery in the Ottoman Empire was largely due to European pressure, primarily from England, to end the practice.    While the Empire went through the sweeping reforms of the Tanzimat, a subject that was brought under more and more scrutiny was the issue of slavery.  While this reformation period was more concerned with modernization and protecting Ottoman borders against further territorial encroachment by European and Russian powers, the slave trade was destined to change as well.  Steps in the direction of abolition however, were not taken as an ethical measure by the Ottoman government, but rather to appease an increasingly influential and powerful Britain.  In fact, many such measures, while appearing to favor abolition of slavery, were rather intended to preserve the institution in the face of growing international condemnation of it.  There was however, an Imperial edict, or firman issued in 1830 that ordered those slaves of Christian origin who had since enslavement retained their faith be emancipated. 

Harem area today- Topkapi Palace
Harem area today- Topkapi Palace | Source

Reasons for Ottoman unwillingness to abolish the slave trade were, in a way, understandable.  For one, slavery was deeply intertwined into the culture of the Ottoman Middle-East, so much so, in fact, that complex laws outlining its governance had been laid out.  For millennia, slavery had been a part of the daily life of  commoners and elites alike, and beyond how culturally comfortable Middle-easterners may have been with the practice, it was not only allowed under Islamic law, but practically endorsed.  The Koran, after all, “assumes the existence of slavery…it regulates the practice of the institution and thus implicitly accepts it.”  Two of the most important prohibitions within Seriat law, the enslavement of fellow Muslims and the act of castration, were easily circumvented by the Ottomans,  and most slave markets within the Ottoman Empire were regulated against human rights abuses.  Circassian parents, for instance, were willing participants in an institution that could almost guarantee a better life for daughters previously raised in poverty. 

Abdulmecid, Sultan from 1839 to 1861
Abdulmecid, Sultan from 1839 to 1861

In light of these considerations, dialogue between England and the Ottoman government on the issue of the abolition of slavery was practically non-existent during much of the Tanzimat era.  The British ambassador to Istanbul, Lord Ponsonby, in an attempt to coerce the Ottoman government to discontinue the slave trade in 1840, was met with an apathetic attitude:

I have mentioned the subject and I have been heard with extreme astonishment accompanied with a smile at the proposition for destroying an institution closely woven with the frame of society in this country, and intimately connected with the law and with the habits and even the religion of all classes, from the sultan himself down to the lowest peasant…I think that all attempts to effect your Lordship’s purpose will fail, and I hear they might give offence if urged forward with importunity.  The Turks may believe us to be their superiors in the Sciences, in Arts, and in Arms, but they are far from thinking our wisdom or our morality greater than their own.


            Despite slavery’s cultural and economic intertwining within the Ottoman Empire, steps were taken, as a show of good faith to Britain, to curb its practice, or at least, appear to curb its practice.  In December of 1846 Istanbul’s slave market was officially shut down by order of the Sultan.  Though it was implied that this was a humanitarian gesture carried out by a sultan concerned with the plight of potentially mistreated slaves, the fact that private slave-dealings went unchecked, and increased in not only quantity but in lack of supervision put into question his true motives.  Somewhat ironically, human rights abuses increased after the ban of the Istanbul slave market, as dealers worked underground, and slaves moved from state-sanctioned protection to black market exploitation.  But if the desired affect was in fact the appeasement of the British government, the sultan was successful.  Lord Palmerston, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, expressed his pleasure with this action, “The suppression of the slave markets throughout the Turkish Empire and the measure against the African slave trade in the Gulf were the best things to have happened to conciliate the good will of the British Nation for the Porte.” 

The Crimean War
The Crimean War | Source

Britain, which was around this time also pushing for an end to slave trade in the Gulf region, again applied pressure to the Ottoman government in its abolition.  Britain had been engaged in negotiations with Gulf leaders since 1841 concerning its slave trade, but had come to realize that Ottoman involvement was necessary to make abolition in this region a reality.  The Ottoman government, having little of vested interests within the Gulf region, cooperated, and January of 1847 “the Sultan sent a ferman to the Vali of Baghdad enjoining him to prohibit the slave trade in the Gulf under the Ottoman flag.”  

            Britain’s strong influence upon the Ottoman Empire’s policy-making was due in large part to the increasing and declining strength of their respective empires.  Britain had also proven to be an invaluable ally against an encroaching Russia, and its assistance to the Ottomans during the Crimean War (1853-1856) was invaluable.  Therefore, it was in the Ottoman government’s best interests to appease Britain in its constant pressures for a complete abolition of the slave trade.  Although slavery in the Gulf was eventually stifled, it continued almost completely unhindered in Arabia until the later nineteenth century.  After Egypt was occupied by Britain in 1882, an increasingly influential Western presence throughout the region made the public sale of slaves nearly non-existent, and like the slave market of Istanbul before it, the slave trade, now underground, continued. 

            During the Crimean War, the acquisition of white slaves from the Caucasus region was considered immoral by both France and England, especially as many slaves of Georgian origin were of the Christian faith.  As crucial allies to the Ottomans against Russia, these countries used their status as bargaining power, and again pushed for the abolition of this trade as well.  The Ottomans, recognizing that the slave trade in this region had increased during the war and merely hoping to curtail, not end its practice, issued a ferman prohibiting the sale of Georgians; a decree which was promptly removed upon the cessation of hostilities in the Crimean peninsula.  

The final blow to slavery in the 19th century in the Ottoman Empire was the ratification of the Brussels Act, which, after much hesitation, was ratified by the Sultan in 1891. One of the purposes of this act, as stated in article 62, was to “prohibit the importation, transit and departure of African slaves as well as the trade in them by organizing the strictest supervision.”This was one of the final blows to the black slave trade within the Ottoman Empire, although further reform, concerning both the black and white slave trade would be carried out in the next century.

Elitist slavery in the Ottoman Empire during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was, by modern standards, unethical and abhorrent. However, for many it represented opportunities unattainable in the daily life of an average commoner. Families residing in the Caucasus region could be ensured a daughter would be provided for, and African eunuchs could potentially spend their days surrounded by the pinnacle of opulence and luxury, never to be hungry again. In today’s Western culture, it is easy to condemn the practice as barbaric and primitive, but the structure of slavery in the Ottoman Middle-east was a complex one, governed by Islamic law, and accepted by all those who willingly or unwillingly participated in it. Obviously, the imprisonment of one against one’s will can be construed as unethical, and few will debate that fact today. Yet just over one century ago, an Empire thrived on this principle, and believed it to be not only the natural recourse of mankind, but to be result of the blessing of God.

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Comments 10 comments

WannaB Writer profile image

WannaB Writer 5 years ago from Templeton, CA

A great history lesson, well told.


jreuter profile image

jreuter 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks for taking the time to read this WannaB. I'm not sure I would have done the same! ;)haha


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

Whoah. Intense! I really appreciate the thorough history you've gone into here. Being PC and all, public schools don't go into a lot of detail about things like this, so this is all new info to me! Great Hub.


jreuter profile image

jreuter 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks Simone! It was a topic I'd only ever heard near-mythical legends about, and was surprisingly one with very little source material to glean from. So to say the least, it took some time putting this all together. Thanks for taking the time to read this very long Hub!


mysunsuion profile image

mysunsuion 5 years ago

I enjoy reading your hub buddy. Very informative and very detail

http://www.topkapi-palace.org


BobbiRant profile image

BobbiRant 5 years ago from New York

Every man's dream, to have a harem. Good hub.


jpcmc profile image

jpcmc 5 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

This is a well researched and well written hub. There's so much that I have learned from this hub. Great job!


Woody Marx profile image

Woody Marx 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Awesome insight into one of the mysteries of culture and tradition.


dxusman profile image

dxusman 4 years ago from pakistan

great article on the history of slavery .. great work dear


sh 3 years ago

great job

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