The Harem and the Black Eunuchs

You take a rushed tour with fifty or more other tourists around the Topkapi and Dolmabahçe Palaces. In 16th century Topkapi you file around a rabbit warren of courtyards, beautifully tiled rooms, baths, and dank, dark and musty corridors. In 19th century Dolmabahçe you see enormous dowdy drawing rooms, all ready, apparently for visitors for tea. The harem is almost as big as the palace itself. When, in 1909 the Young Turks expelled Sultan Abdul Hamid and opened up his harem to the world, they found over nine hundred women who had been bought in the slave markets of the Ottoman Empire. Most had never ever seen the Sultan, let alone become his concubine. Messages were sent around what was left of the Empire for brothers and fathers to come and fetch their sisters and daughters.

Harems started as a way for Ottoman warriors to “protect” their women when away from home for long periods, and eunuchs would act as guards. The system was adopted by the Sultanate, and every member of the harem was a slave, thus every Sultan was the son of a slave, in the same way that every member of the Janissary guard was a slave, at least until the 17th century. Slaves, whose lives depended on the Sultan, would be easier to control than free Muslim women, who by law had certain rights.

The Sultan should be happy with a variety of partners chosen from the prettiest and healthiest slavegirls of all the Empire, and, as long as all was functioning well with him, they would provide a reserve of possible male heirs. Sundry heirs would be eliminated. Mehmet II, Conqueror of Constantinople, recommended: “Whichever of my sons inherits the Sultan’s throne, it behooves him to kill his brothers in the interest of the world order [the Ottoman Empire]. Most of the jurists have approved this procedure. Let action be taken accordingly”. Of course, this was done in order to prevent wars of succession, such as took place in Austria and Spain. Mehmet executed his two brothers; Selim I had two brothers, three sons and four nephews strangled. On the accession of Mehmet III in 1597 nineteen of the new Sultan’s brothers were taken out of the harem, circumcised and strangled with a silken handkerchief. In the history of the Ottoman Empire some 80 princes were killed, usually strangled with a bowstring, in order not to spill the sacred Ottoman blood. Such apparent callousness as Richard III’s murder of his brother, two nephews and sundry counselors was relatively commonplace.

We know little about life in the Harem. Only in the 19th century were girls giving some kind of formal education. Before that they learnt certain skills such as embroidery, coffee making, and the organization of a community of up to a thousand women would bring out the management skills of some, but few learnt the complex Ottoman script, and there was no real education, at least until the harem’s final throes in the second half of the 19th century. Occasional outings, veiled of course, and attended by eunuchs. The greatest regular pleasure was probably the bath. Naturally lesbianism existed, but all cucumbers had to be sliced before they could enter. An occasional Lothario might try to pass a billet doux and might suffer the whip of the eunuchs. Few had the luck of Pierre Loti, or at least the fictional Loti, whose affair with Azyiadé, member of a harem,  told in the novel of the same name, evoked the mystery and romance of the veiled women of the harem to the readers of Western Europe at the end of the 19th century.

Once the concubine had produced a male heir she had served her purpose and would not be visited again, and she would devote the rest of her life to the furthering of her son’s future possibilities. Some who failed to attract the attention of the Sultan were married off to civil servants; others were relegated to the Eski Saray, the Old Palace, and gathered cobwebs until they died, alone, forlorn and forgotten.

But not all were. In the late 16th and right through the 17th, centuries the Queen Mother, the Sultan Validé, and occasionally a concubine herself, rose to prominence. Suleiman the Magnificent, or the Lawgiver, as her is known in Turkish, under whose reign from 1520 to 1566 the Ottoman Empire was at its most extensive, almost reaching Vienna, did the almost unthinkable and actually fell in love with a Russian slavegirl, Hurrem, or Roxelana, who gave him a son. He even enjoyed discussing affairs of state with her. But she was only the second Sultana, and Gülbehar, Rose of Spring, had already produced a son, and there was a strict precedence in the harem. The two women fought. Rose of Spring scratched Roxelana’s face. Roxelana refused to visit Suleiman because of this disfigurement. This won him Suleiman over, and Rose of Spring and son Mustafa were transferred to the provinces. The Queen Mother died, Roxelana now ladied it over the harem and demanded Suleiman marry her. Despite the general astonishment, the festivities were sumptuous, and now the Harem was at the centre of power. Roxelana persuaded Suleiman that his friend the Grand Vizier, the chief minister, was menace to his power and had him strangled, and then, nine years later, she had Mustafa, his son by Rose of Spring, also strangled, so her son, Selim, could be next Sultan.

Thus began the period of the Reign of the Women, the Kadinlar Sultanati, when, for some 150 years, the Harem ruled the Empire, and a continual battle was waged between the Sultan Validé, the Chief Kadin, or wife, and often the Chief Black Eunuch. As N. M. Penzer, in The Harem, writes, “While the Sultans were indulging in orgies of drink or vice, according to their taste, it was the women who crept to the secret grilled window of the Divan, listened to State secrets, and played their cards accordingly” (p.186).

My friend George Junne is studying the black eunuchs of the harem. They were often Abyssinian slaves who had been emasculated by removal of penis and testicles. But at least on one noted occasion the operation was botched, as just one testicle was removed. Despite the absence of a penis, it was still possible to produce sperm and impregnate, and on this occasion, this actually happened. A European traveler to Egypt reported seeing a eunuch being taken back to Istanbul in chains to be punished, as a dark child had been born in the harem.

African eunuchs were noted in the Byzantine Empire and their roles continued under the Ottomans. The White European eunuchs were first in charge of the harem and the religious foundations, the vaqfs, and the Sultan himself. The Black African eunuchs had been planning to usurp the powers of the White eunuchs but had to wait until the death of the powerful Chief White Eunuch, Gazanfer Aga (d. 1587). Beginning in the late 1570s, the Black eunuchs made their move, taking over the power and roles of their European counterparts. Chief Black Eunuch Mehmed Aga (c. 1587-1590) consolidated the position to the extent that those African eunuch slaves following him in office became the third most powerful men in the Ottoman Empire after the Sultan and the Viziers.

From 1587 until the end of the Empire, over 70 Africans advanced to the status of Chief Black Eunuch. Because he and the other 200 to 400 other Black eunuchs were the closest physically to the sultan and his family, and because they supervised the education of the Sultan’s sons as well as handling the Sultan’s and family’s personal treasury, the eunuchs exerted a lot of influence over the Empire. On a couple of occasions, they were involved in running the Empire. The amount of money the Chief Black Eunuchs controlled would run into the tens of millions of dollars today.

During the 1800s the city of Athens was under the direct control and supervision of the Chief Black Eunuch. They were also responsible for the eunuchs working at the mosques at Mecca and Medina. Further, they were responsible for relics of the Prophet kept in the Topkapi Palace. Some built mosques in Istanbul and elsewhere and also, provided funds to convert churches into mosques. They also built fountains, many of them still in use today.

After the creation of the Republic of Turkey, several of the last of the Black eunuchs purchased houses together around the city. Many people can still remember them in the coffee houses of Pera in the 1970s.

My thanks to George Junne


7 Responses to “The Harem and the Black Eunuchs”

  1. Will Sutton Says:

    That’s fabulous stuff. Deserves to be turned into a string of exotic novels.
    xxx Will Sutton

  2. Anne P. Says:

    This is fascinating!
    Can we see any traces of the Black Eunuchs in Turkey or Greece today? And while I’m at it, another question: If the harems were opened after the collapse of the Ottoman empire, what happened to the women in them? In the NYT archives, I read of an Armenian-American man who, around 1920, went back to Asia Minor to try to find his wife and daughters, who had been taken to harems.

  3. Otto Zutz Gente - Isaac Says:

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  4. Bibiana Says:

    This article was fascinating.I have always found the Ottoman harem so intriguing. I wonder what happened to some of the harem women afterwards? I am sure that many of them had no relatives to claim them;.and I am equally sure that many of them DIDN’T want to go home. Lets face it: those girls were living in luxury even if most of them never met the Sultan.

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  6. Glynn Christian Says:

    Do you have any sources that explain what happened to the eunuchs of the Istanbul palaces after the sultan left – I believe many of his family took eunuchs with them. I’d like to find first ha d accounts,memories and the like . . . Any help would be a great favour. Thank you. Glynn Christian

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