5 Things To Know About Harems Before You Get One.
The Terrace of the Seraglio by Jean-Leon Gerome (1898)
You’ve heard about them. You’ve fantasized about them. You’ve dreamed about one day owning your own. But are you really mature enough to have your own harem yet? After all, who’s going to cook for your harem? Who’s going to feed ‘em? And a harem doesn’t just walk itself, you know. With great harem comes great responsibility. You might want to read the following five facts before you decide to invest in one.
The Primer: Just a Couple of Harems to Know Under Islamic law, a man can have as many wives as he can support, with the traditional number topping out at around four. However, concubines are unlimited and many harems grew into the thousands. Following are some of history’s largest recorded harems. At the top of the list is the 6th century BCE’s King Tamba of Banaras, whose harem numbered some 16,000 women. Not to be outdone, the 15-century Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din Kilji’s harem numbered 15,000 and required him to build a separate walled city to house them. Next, during the 1800s, King Mongkut of Siam housed his 9,000 women in a totally contained city with its own government, recreational facilities, and a theater. Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader in the 13th century, had four empresses and around 7,000 concubines. Every two years he would get rid of a couple hundred concubines and replace them with a fresh supply. Finally, Emperor Jahangir of India maintained a harem of over 6,300 women during the early years of the 17th century. However, Jahangir also kept close to a thousand young man-in-waiting for those times when his appetite tended toward the other gender.
Getting Some Order in Your Harem Contrary to the Hollywood view of scantily dressed beautiful women lounging around pools waiting for their romantic interlude with the sultans, harems were actually very elaborate and complex communities with rigid administrative and disciplinary system. A harem was under the leadership of the Valide Sultan, or the sultan’s mother. Directly responsible to the mother were the superintendent of the harem and a number of other female officials. Each of these officials had a number of younger harem members under their training for this and other future administrative assignments. Next in the pecking order after the sultan’s mother was the mother of the sultan’s heir apparent. After this came the mothers of the sultan’s other children, who were ranked by the favor they held with the sultan. These female relatives and other officials were responsible for recruiting new harem members and annually presenting them to the sultan, usually on the 15th day of Ramadan.
So You Want to Be a Eunuch? Sounds like an exciting life being left to live among hundreds, if not thousands, of the most beautiful women in the empire. Let’s look at some of the requirements. The first priority is castration. Most likely you’ll want to have this procedure done during your childhood. Next, expect to be a part of a dowry offered by your master when his daughter is given in marriage. Okay, you’ve passed the entrance exam, now expect to spend years working your way up with the ranks of eunuchs. Finally, you gain favor with the sultan and he makes you the chief eunuch. Your sole reason for being is meeting your master’s needs. You need to know the master’s mood and select his appropriate bedmate for the evening. You must also instruct the young lady on the master’s whim and fantasies and have the appropriate aphrodisiacs ready. As the chief black eunuch you have become the sultan’s most trusted servant and the third highest ranking official in his empire. You can enter the harem apartments, command the imperial army, and meet with the sultan. If you are the chief white eunuch, you get to run the bureaucracy and control all petitions, messages, and state documents sent to the sultan, but you cannot enter the harem. Why? Because unlike the black eunuch, who lost everything (anatomically), you still have bits and pieces left and pose a threat.
How to Furnish Your Harem The Arabic word harem means "the place of the women." The most important part of the harem was the zenana, or the inner sanctum where the sultan’s fantasies were played out. The zenana was designed to replicate paradise. Each woman was given her own ornately decorated apartment with its own garden, waterfalls, and running streams. Because the ladies of the harem came from many different cultures, the apartments were furnished to make them feel comfortable and satisfied with their position in life. After all, one must be ready and willing for an unexpected visit from the master. Similarly, the attire was erotic and arousing. The goal was to remain naked while being dressed by wearing translucent muslin and silk garments. The material was so light that many outfits weighed about an ounce. In keeping with the opulence, the garments were adorned with diamonds, gold, rubies, and pearls. Shoes were also covered with precious stones. Finally, the outfit was topped off with an ostrich feather headdress with ruby-covered plumes. Many a sultan spent most of the empire’s treasury keeping the ladies-in-waiting happy.
Keeping Your Harem Under Control During the late 1500s, Mehmed III ascended to the throne of the Ottoman Empire. His mother, Safiye, as the Valide Sultan or leader of the harem, became one of his most important advisers. While not allowed to be directly involved in state politics, Safiye was able to influence the sultan’s decisions, sometimes openly and directly. On one occasion, Safiye sat behind a curtain as Mehmed held a heated discussion with a leading mufti (religious cleric) and openly defended her son. As Safiye’s influence increased so did the ire it raised among the vizier, the mufti, the chief black eunuch, and the sultan’s favorite wives and concubines, who saw Safiye’s excessive influence as overstepping her role of Valide Sultan. Mehmed found himself having to restrain his mother and, on at least one occasion, had her removed to another palace. Safiye’s excessive greed, coupled with the ever increasing costs of the harem under her control helped bring about riots in Istanbul in 1600 over the devaluation of the empire’s currency.
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