A Speech for General Audience at the
Anniversary of 700th Ottoman State
In order to understand the Harem and to correct the distorted
accounts of it, it is essential to be clear that the word Harem
refers to the Sultans homes and families: both local people
visiting Topkapı Palace and foreign tourists who have often been
deliberately misinformed about Turkey, suppose that the Ottoman
Sultans lived a life of pleasure and dissipation in the Palace. But
it was not like that, for within it were the official buildings that
for over 300 years housed the central government of the Ottoman
Empire. That is to say, it was the equivalent of both the
presidential palace, and prime ministers office, and key ministries,
and headquarters of the army, and so on. As is shown in detail in
the book together with documentary evidence and photographs, Topkapı
Palace consisted of three main areas:
The First was the Outer Palace (Bîrûn), which extends from the
Imperial Gate to the Gate of the White Eunuchs (Akağalar Kapısı),
where the standard of the Prophet (PBUH) (Sancak-ı Şerif) was kept,
and comprises two extensive courtyards. The Sultans apartments were
not in this outer area. In the early period, it included the office
of the Grand Vizier and the Council of State (Dîvân-ı Hümâyûn), and
The Second was the Inner Palace (Enderûn) and contained the
principal offices of the Ottoman state like the Treasury, the Palace
School, the headquarters of the army, and in the early period the
Sultans pavilion and apartments.
The Third was the Sultans home. The Ottoman Sultans lived here
with their extensive families in apartments which today would be
considered suitable only as flats for minor officials. Since it was
forbidden for men and others who were canonical strangers to enter
these apartments, they were called the Harem-i Hümâyûn, meaning
Imperial Harem. As is well-known, places it was forbidden to enter
were called harem by our forefathers. So what does it mean to use
the term Harem, which meant places that only people who were not
canonically strangers (nâmahrem) could enter, for places where the
Sultans caroused and held orgies, as certain writers have described
suitably to their own practices?
We may now consider the question of the Sultans personal lives and
that of the female slaves. What does the term female slave (câriye)
denote? It may be understood from the facts given later in the book
that in Islamic law this term refers only to female slaves. However,
there are two categories of cariye:
The First are female slaves the masters of whom could only benefit
from their daily labors, and with whom sexual relations were
prohibited; they could not be used as concubines. There was no
difference between these and what today are known as domestic
servants and cleaners and even permanent staff. They would go to
their masters houses early in the morning; do the cleaning, prepare
food, or look after small children. Their male owners relations
with them resembled those of any contract of employment. Although
they were only slaves, they were not lawful for their masters. In
any event, the majority of them were married to slaves like
themselves. Only, as is described later, female slaves of this
category in the Harem could not marry so long as they did not
retire from the Palace (çirâg[). Mankind has undergone various
stages; there was the era of captivity, then that of slavery, and
now is the era of wage-earning. Apart from the name and a few
restrictions, there was very little difference between slaves of
this sort and women servants of the present day.
Most probably you would not expect the daughters and wives of the
Sultan in the Sultans household, which was known as the Harem, to
cook their own food and wash their own clothes. Since they would not
do these tasks, there would have to be servants employed to do them.
Like such servants today, these would be women, not both male and
female. Since free women would not do this work, it would be women
who at that time were slaves, that is, cariyes, who would do it. The
female slaves in the Ottoman Harem then, who numbered sometimes
fifty, seventy, or even four to five hundred, were women servants of
this kind. However wrong it would be for the master of a house today
to have sexual relations with a woman servant or cleaner who comes
to the house, it would have been wrong to the same degree for the
Sultans to have sexual relations with female slaves of this sort.
Lists are extant of the numbers of female slaves who worked in the
laundry of the Harem, and in its kitchens, and so on. It is known
how many women servants are employed in the Turkish Presidents
Çankaya Residence at the present time; but it is similarly well-known
that the President does not have illicit relations with them; no one
can suggest such a thing.
The Second category of female slaves were those whose owners and
masters had the right both of their menial services and to use them
as concubines. Their status was that of a sort of wife. It was
prohibited for them to have sexual relations with anyone other than
their masters. Their masters were obliged to treat them as wives. If
they bore children they took the name of Ümmül-veled that is,
Mother of so-and-so, and could no longer be sold to anyone else.
They would be nominally freed on giving birth to the child of a free
man, and obtain their actual freedom on the death of their husbands.
They differed from free women in that so long as the marriage
contract was not concluded their number could exceed four. It was
permitted to conclude the marriage contract with them and give them
the status of wife. However, scholars of Islamic law, of chiefly the
Hanafi School, did not recommend this in the event of there being
free women available.
Very few of the women slaves in the Ottoman Harem were of this
category. More importantly, up to and including Sultan Mehmed the
Conqueror (848/1444-850/1446, 855/1451-886/1481), the Ottoman
Sultans married free women. With the exception of two or three
marriages, those succeeding him married not free women but slaves of
the second category above. Of these, some concluded the marriage
contract. One should mention that when doing this, they were
implicitly following the legal views of the Maliki School. That is
to say, from Mehmed the Conqueror onwards, the wives of most of the
Ottoman Sultans were female slaves of the second category.
Osman Ghazi (680/1281-?724/?1324) married two free women. Until
Mehmed the Conqueror, the Sultans pursued their family life with
from two to five women, some of whom were slaves. Those who came
after him had two, three, four, five, and as will be described below,
seven or eight and at the most eighteen. They may be listed as
The First Category: Kadınefendi; the Sultans married from one to
four of this rank, sometimes concluding the marriage contract, but
they mostly lived as wives without marriage being contracted. The
chief of these, that is, the First Wife, was called the
Başkadınefendi. Until the end of the 17th century they were also
called Haseki Sultan. This does not mean that all the Sultans had
four kadınefendis. For instance, Yavuz Sultan Selim
(918/1512-926/1520) had two.
The Second Category: İkbâl; towards the end of the Ottoman dynasty
despite having at the most four wives either free or slaves of
the above category, one or two but by no means all the Sultans kept
at the most four concubines of the category called ikbal. The first
of these was called the Başikbal, who if the marriage contract was
concluded with her became the Fifth Wife (Beşinci Kadınefendi).
There were Second, Third and Fourth İkbals respectively.
The Third Category: One or two of the Sultans kept slave-concubines
who were candidates for promotion to the rank of ikbal or
kadınefendi. At the most these could be eight in number. The first
four of these were called gözde and the second four peyk. The one,
or at the most two, Sultans, who kept these may be seen better from
list of Sultans and Their Wives in Part Five.
The following conclusions may be drawn from what has been written so
(1) With one or two two exceptions, the Ottoman Sultans had at the
fewest two and at the most four or five wives at any one time. But
over the periods of their lives, this number may have risen to
twenty at the most.
(2) The Sultans who took the Fifth Kadınefendi as wife were not
exceeding the limit of four, stipulated by Islam, for the majority
of these wives were slave-concubines with whom no marriage
contract had been concluded. The restriction to four wives refers to
women with whom the contract is concluded.
(3) It is noteworthy that although at the height of their power, the
Ottoman Sultans ruled over lands stretching over twenty-four million
square kilometers, they never threatened the honour of others, but
chose this way to satisfy their needs, which was not forbidden by
the Quran and was within the bounds of the licit. In the face of
all the immorality of the present time, it is a great error to
classify as shameful what I have described above.
(4) The gross misrepresentations of what the female slaves did in
the apartments known as the Harem, bathing naked and taking part in
orgies, are complete fabrications. If you make a tour of the Harem
apartments in particular, you will see on the walls of the Sultans
bedrooms, the princes rooms and everywhere suitable, Quranic
verses and Hadiths of the Prophet (PBUH) instructing in the proper
conduct of family life. That is, the Harem was a centre of
instruction for the women who were partners to the Sultan.
(5) It never occurred that a Sultan abducted any girl. On the
contrary, many daughters of noble families passed themselves off as
slaves although they were free, in order to enter the Ottoman Palace
and bear a child of the Sultan. All who came were not accepted; they
were tested by experienced and knowledgeable women psychologically
and for any corrupt tendencies, and were carefully selected.
(6) The Sultans taking female slaves as wives rather than free
women was entirely to prevent the leaking of secrets by means of his
family, for the Sultans bore the responsibility of governing lands
that stretched over twenty-four million square kilometers. It was
also to disallow the interference in state affairs of fathers and
sisters-in-law and other relatives of the wife. For the two
occasions Sultans took free women as wives, it indeed resulted in
such difficulties, although the father of one was the Shaykhul-Islam.
They therefore considered the practice to be inappropriate.