The harem is central to western popular perceptions of women and sexuality in Middle Eastern societies. In this context, it is often incorrectly perceived as a glorified brothel where a Muslim ruler or grandee keeps numerous women to slake his sexual desires. While some modern-day minor princes in the Persian Gulf and the Pacific Rim do maintain such establishments, the harem has historically been a far more complex institution geared toward family reproduction and preservation. A classic example of gendered space, it extended, under a variety of names, to Europe and Asia.
The word harem derives from the Arabic harim, referring to a place that is off limits, sacred, and/or taboo. Accordingly a residential harem is an interior space off limits to persons who do not belong to the household. In private residences and royal palaces alike, it is occupied by women and young children. However, the palace of a Muslim royal family in the medieval and early modern eras contained both a female harem and a male inner sanctum, accessible only to members of the family and personal aides. Behind such spatial arrangements, which were common to royal palaces throughout Asia in the Byzantine Empire, and in parts of Africa, lay the notion that a ruler demonstrates power through seclusion and inaccessibility rather than public visibility. Most Western European courts contained separate women's quarters, as well, although the degree of seclusion was generally not as pronounced.
Residents of the female harem included the ruler's mother, unmarried daughters and sisters, and wives. Islamic law permits a man to take up to four wives provided he can treat them all equally, although opinions differ as to what constitutes equal treatment. To these wives were added numerous concubines, usually slaves imported from non-Muslim lands and converted to Islam. A large staff of celibate female attendants, many of them slaves of the ruler's wives and mother, performed chores ranging from bookkeeping to washing clothes.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, the premodern harem was not a den of iniquity but resembled a separate female household run by the ruler's or householder's consort. In a royal palace, the harem regulated dynastic reproduction by supplying the ruler with women of reproductive age while providing a space for the rearing of progeny. A hierarchy prevailed, with the ruler's first wife, favorite concubine, or mother playing a major role in choosing other women for the harem and determining the ruler's access to sexual partners. The ruler could not enter the harem whenever he liked but ordinarily required the permission of the female household's head. Children, both male and female, were raised and educated within the harem until their teenage years; princes were then often sent to govern provinces whereas princesses were prepared for marriage, often to high officials or foreign rulers.
A harem in a private home or in the residence of a subordinate government official replicated the ruler's harem on a smaller scale, although it was not a major arena for reproductive politics. It could, however, serve as a political and economic safe haven. If the male household head ran afoul of a political rival, he might hide in the harem or deposit part of his wealth there. While an enemy might ransack the public areas of the house, he would usually refrain from violating the harem. As for a wife's property, under Islamic law, it remained hers throughout her life.
The tradition of a secluded quarter for royal women dates to antiquity in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. The concept was well-established in the Byzantine and Sasanian (Iranian) empires, which ruled the region at the time of Islam's advent in the early seventh century ce. In Iran, in fact, such quarters date back to the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550–330 bce). Elite women in the Byzantine Empire lived in restricted quarters, were served by eunuchs, and apparently veiled their faces during their rare public appearances. Far less is known about Sasanian harems apart from the fact that Byzantine and Sasanian chronicles alike mention thousands of wives, concubines, and female entertainers living in specially designated quarters of the Sasanian royal palaces.
The early Muslims probably adopted the harem institution from these prototypes after they began to conquer the territories of these two empires during the 630s. The harem remained largely an institution of the elite; for the lower and even the middle classes, it was economically unfeasible.
The first Islamic rulers known to have instituted a royal harem were the Abbasids (750–1258), who ruled the Middle East and North Africa from Baghdad. All subsequent Islamic polities before the twentieth century followed their example. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Iran's Qajar dynasty in the early twentieth century, however, the royal harem became a historical memory, although numerous conservative Muslim royal and elite households continue to maintain separate women's quarters. The closest contemporary analog to the Middle Eastern royal harem were the hougong, or inner quarters, of China's Qing dynasty. These were separate palaces for imperial concubines, as well as their female staff and eunuchs, located behind the palaces that served as private quarters for the emperor. This institution, however, came to an end with the Qing Empire in 1911.
Evidence on the structure and functions of the royal harem is most abundant for the Ottoman Empire. The sultan's harem was installed in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace during the reign of Süleyman I (1520–1566). By the end of the sixteenth century, it occupied an enormous complex on the western side of the palace; although figures are imprecise, its population at the time totaled perhaps 400, guarded by a nearly equivalent number of largely African eunuchs. Following Süleyman I's death, sultans no longer married but relied entirely on concubines to sustain the dynasty. In the early seventeenth century, the Ottomans abandoned the practice of sending princes to govern provinces, along with the custom whereby the new sultan had all his brothers killed. Ottoman princes now resided in a special suite of rooms known as the cage at the rear of the harem complex until they either took the throne or died. In this milieu, their mothers and the harem eunuchs were the chief influences on their education and attitudes.
The use of eunuchs, castrated male slaves, as harem guardians is seemingly as old and as widespread as the harem institution itself. Again the early Muslims would have adopted the practice from the Byzantines and Sasanians. The rationale for the custom went well beyond the alleged effects of emasculation on the male sexual drive. A eunuch could not found a family that would compete with the ruler for his loyalty, nor could he bequeath his wealth; when he died, the state confiscated it. Since all eunuchs in Islamic societies were imported slaves, they likewise lacked ties to the surrounding community. In theory, these qualities rendered the eunuch unfailingly loyal and trustworthy.
While the Byzantine and Chinese courts employed eunuch harem guardians who were ethnically similar to the harem residents, the Abbasids apparently set a precedent in employing eastern African eunuchs; meanwhile, eunuchs from Central Asia and Eastern Europe attended to the emperor's inner sanctum. This model was adopted to varying degrees by most Islamic empires, up to and including the Ottoman Empire. A variety of complex ethnoregional issues underlay this division of labor; it was not a simple matter of racial prejudice. The customs of the kingdom of Ethiopia may also have played a role that has thus far been ignored.
Inevitably the royal harem became an arena of political competition, giving rise to the misogynistic stereotype of harem intrigue. Competition was particularly fierce among wives or concubines who gave birth to sons. In an attempt to ensure her son's accession to the throne, a wife or concubine occasionally took measures against her rivals, even to the extent of having them killed. The mother of a daughter likewise sought a prestigious marriage for her child and might try to facilitate her son-in-law's professional advancement, as when Süleyman I's wife conspired with her daughter and son-in-law to have the grand vizier executed so that the son-in-law could succeed him. The chief harem eunuch served as a conduit of information into and out of the harem; thus, the ruler's consort or mother might ally with him to influence imperial appointments and policy.
Although reliable accounts of earlier harems are rare, the Ottoman harem is described in the reports of numerous European diplomats, few of whom ever gained access to it. Many of these are imbued with misogynistic prejudices, as are depictions by Orientalist painters such as Eugène Delacroix (1798–1868). However a handful of accounts by female visitors, notably Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762), provide a more balanced perspective. Ottoman statesmen wrote of imperial women with some degree of respect, but their opinions of the harem eunuchs varied from admiring to contemptuous, often depending on the political factions to which they belonged. Ottoman religious functionaries took a more misogynistic view of the harem women's influence.
Among modern-day secondary sources, N.M. Penzer's The Harem (1936) echoes certain of the misogynistic attitudes of the European diplomats, depicting the Ottoman harem as irremediably decadent. Turkish historians began to grapple with the Ottoman harem in the 1950s; though grounded in institutional history, their studies typically treat the influence of harem women as an obstacle to modernity and progress. Investigations of Muslim women that emerged from the women's studies movement, beginning in the 1970s, give a more sympathetic and nuanced picture of the harem, while Leslie Peirce's landmark The Imperial Harem (1993) is the first work fully to contextualize the harem as part of the Ottoman political system. Creditable recent studies likewise analyze the inner quarters of imperial China and palace eunuchs in the Byzantine and Mughal empires.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. 2003. Women and the Family in Chinese History. London: Routledge.
Montagu, Mary Wortley. 1993. Turkish Embassy Letters, ed. and annotated Malcolm Jack. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Penzer, N. M. 1936. The Harem: An Account of the Institution as It Existed in the Palace of the Turkish Sultans, with a History of the Grand Seraglio from Its Foundation to Modern Times. Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott.
Ringrose, Kathryn. 2003. The Perfect Servant: Eunuchs and the Social Construction of Gender in Byzantium. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.