views updated May 17 2018


ODALISQUE. The French term odalisque derives from the Turkish-Ottoman word odalik, which refers to a female slave owned by a Muslim male as his legal concubine. The odalisque became a favorite theme of European artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a symbol, in the European view, of Muslim sensuality and sexual practices. The topic of concubinage and slavery also preoccupied European Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu (Lettres persanes [The Persian letters; 1721]), who used the Ottoman practice to critique French absolutism while avoiding censorship under the ancien régime. Slavery was an important and well-developed institution in the Ottoman Empire from the fifteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. As a Muslim institution, however, it was little understood in the West.

According to Islamic law, a man had the right to have four legal wives and an unlimited number of concubines. In practice, however, probably less than 5 percent of Muslim men practiced polygamy in the Ottoman Empire. Concubinage, however, was more widespread since a man did not have to legally marry his concubines. Many upper-class and middle-class urban households, however, possessed one or two male and female slaves. Islam provided slaves with some legal rights and promoted the manumission of male and female slaves by their owner. The Koran encouraged Muslim men to treat their concubines fairly and even to conclude legal marriages with them. When a concubine gave birth to a child, Islamic law stipulated that she not be sold and that she become free after her master's death. A master could deny paternity according to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islamic law, but all schools of Islamic law encouraged the master to free the woman and then marry her. The children born to slave women and their masters were considered legitimate and free Muslims and inherited from their father except in cases when paternity was denied. The weight of the law discouraged many married Muslim men from sleeping with their female slaves. The Koran placed a ban on the prostitution of female slaves. Sometimes, however, greedy slave dealers, some of them women, as well as abusive masters, used female slaves as prostitutes. Guilds supervised the slave trade to control revenues and to curb such illegitimate practices as prostitution, misrepresentation of defects, and false enslavement. Female slaves from the Caucasus enjoyed special favor in Ottoman and Mamluk Egyptian households because of their beauty and skills.

It is important to note that slaves typically performed a wide variety of household chores, and many former slaves in time acquired property and even slaves of their own. Female slaves occupied an important position in the Ottoman imperial harem and ruling class households during the early modern period. They originated as captives of war, who ended up in the palace or in grandee households, or they were purchased in the slave markets of Cairo and Constantinople. By the late fifteenth century most Ottoman sultans ceased marrying aristocratic women from Christian and Muslim dynasties and began to confine their sexual relations to slave concubines. The shift away from marriage alliances was in line with overall centralization efforts, which included undermining the power of provincial dynasties and notable households. Within the imperial harem, the Ottomans followed a policy of one son per concubine in order to forestall a concentration of power in the hands of any one woman. The imperial harem, which housed hundreds of women, had its own hierarchy and seniority system headed by the valide-sultan (queen mother). Palace women received training in manners and comportment as well as in embroidery, music, and culinary arts, among other skills. They were paid salaries in accordance with their rank. Many palace women became very wealthy and established mosques, soup kitchens, hospitals, and other charitable foundations all over the empire. The imperial system of concubinage, and with it the image of the odalisque, became well established during the long reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (ruled 15201566). Much to the surprise and dismay of his subjects, he married his favorite concubine, Hurrem, known in the West as Roxelana (d. 1558). As the mother of four sons and one daughter, she had already been allowed to disregard the rule of "one concubine, one son." It is believed that Hurrem had refused to have further intimacies with the sultan, who had fallen in love with her, until he legally married her. Hurrem was the first imperial concubine to wield enormous power in the harem and in Ottoman politics.

See also Concubinage ; Harem ; Ottoman Dynasty ; Ottoman Empire ; Slavery and the Slave Trade ; Suleiman I ; Women .


Alderson, A. D. The Structure of the Ottoman Dynasty. Oxford, 1956.

Peirce, Leslie P. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York and Oxford, 1993.

Stevens, Mary Anne, ed. The Orientalists, Delacroix to Matisse: European Painters in North Africa and the Near East. New York, 1984.

Zilfi, Madeline. "Ottoman Slavery and Female Slaves in the Early Modern Era." In The Great Ottoman-Turkish Civilization, edited by Kemal Çiçek, vol. 2., pp. 714718. Ankara, 2000.

Fariba Zarinebaf


views updated May 23 2018

odalisque female slave, concubine. XVII. — F. — Turk. odalik, f. oda room (sc. in a harem) + -lik affix expressing function.