The harem has always been a source of curiosity for historians, having acquired an air of mystery and secrecy, in addition to its alleged role in influencing historical events. During the nineteenth century, specifically the beginning of Muhammad Ali’s reign in Egypt, there was what was known as “The Higher Harem,” housed by women of Ottoman governors and nobles, and the remains of the harems of the Mamluks after Muhammad Ali executed their Sultan.
The distinctive lifestyles the Ottoman Empire Harem had been imported to Egypt during Muhammad Ali’s regime, through Turkish nobles, and pashas’ palaces. They had families and officers in the Ottoman army, and served in state establishments, before they were hired by Muhammad Ali to build the army and the state. Some of them permanently resided in Egypt, after obtaining plots of lands in 1830. They learned Arabic, married Egyptians, and built palaces and houses in Cairo and Alexandria.
The “Higher Harem” system was present in royal family palaces, and in Muhammad Ali’s family palace as well. In the homes of Egyptian notables, however, there were only a few numbers of odalisques, they did not have a similar system to “Higher Harem”.
English voyager Sophia Lane Poole, sister of British Orientalist Edward Lane, was able to unveil this secret world, through visiting the royal family, nobles, and pashas’ palaces. She would later recount this world in her three-volume work, The Englishwoman in Egypt. The book was made up of letters to a fictional female friend, outlining the inner workings of this world in the period between July 1842 and March 1846.
The First Lady
The system that organized the harems of the nobility was similar to that of a small statelet, each with its own governors and staff. The first lady occupied the highest rank directly after the householder, known for being called “Hanim”, or more accurately “Khanum”, which literally translates to “your highness.” It was not unusual for some women to be honored with men’s titles as a sign of respect. At top of the ladder of women befitting this title was the blood relative of the ruler, the “Sultana”, and the women who birthed his offspring. The title was also granted to the wives of the topmost vizier, as well as those in the top circles of the king’s court.
The mother of the paterfamilias was considered the first lady of the harem, and if she was not alive, the sister held the title, followed by his favorite wife. Preference between the wives of one man was organized such that if the first wife gave birth to one of his children, she would maintain her higher ranking over any wife that followed her. However, if she did not give birth, the title was transferred to a wife who was more fortunate, and thus more deserving of his love and honor. The rest of the wives’ ranks were subjected to the husband’s prediliction towards them.
Each higher-ranked wife had her own separate wing and posse, especially as jealousy could erupt between the wives. Among some of the highest nobles, it was not unusual for each wife to have her own palace. Yet, whether in one large palace, or several smaller ones, nobles’ harems comprised most of the premises, fenced in by towering walls surround the garden. This ensured the protection of the Turkish noble’s harem, preventing access to any unwanted visitor, unless a visitor used a ladder to climb the high walls or snuck in different way.
Inside the harems of the Egyptian nobility during the reign of Muhammad Ali
Intrigue, decadence, and jealousy... the inner workings of an Ottoman harem in Egypt
If a man had to enter the haram to perform some menial task or labor, he had to first announce his presence in the tunnel by chanting loudly several times. Under no other circumstances were men allowed to come close to the harem’s place, except for the “saqqa” (the water distributor). Men are also very careful to avoid the harem, and the women were sure to veil their faces in the presence of any men.
The patriarch could be prevented from seeing his harem for several days due to the stringency in controlling the harem; for example, if one of his wives ordered a pair of mules (shoes without a back) to be placed on the doorsteps, as an indication that there are female visitors inside the harem. However, if the female visitors exceeded their welcome, the husband could order an end to such visitation. Nonetheless, in doing so, he risked a great deal of grief from his wives.
A concierge would guard the exterior entrance of the harem, and eunuchs would guard them from the inside, while a group of concubines would guard the second entrance.
The Schemes of the Servants
A large harem required “slaves” to maintain its venerable status; such harems required the presence of male guards, while laws and customs dictated that they had to be eunuchs. They also require female maids, according to Poole’s book, and if these maids were not slaves, it often caused dissidence within the household that could ultimately lead to death, as a result of the maids’ schemes.
White, and Black Concubines
Poole explained that dark-skinned concubines were often housed in the anterior rooms of the interior wing, where they were delegated menial services. Past these rooms were the “white” concubines, whose task was to greet visitors with silver bottles containing perfumed water, silver censers, coffee, pipes, sherbet, and other desserts.
They varied in ranks between the extraordinary beautiful white concubines, according to the author, while some of them oversaw the harem’s arrangements. Pleasure reigned among these beautiful prisoners, Poole recounted, although they were not allowed to mingle with the opposite sex, with the exception of their master and his closest relatives. In the rare case that a stranger tried to pass the first entrance, the consequences of his recklessness would likely be his death.
The husband and master was generally known to treat his wives and concubines in the palaces with compassion and kindness. In many cases, concubines were believed to be in a better position than the wives, who were in constant fear of being divorced, while selling a concubine who had been with the family for long was considered shameful, unless it was caused by financial distress. If a concubine bore a child from her master, and he chose to acknowledged it, then selling the concubine was considered a breach of norms.
The Marriage of Concubines
Many of the concubines that were cruelly snatched from their parents at early age, yet found kind parents in their new buyers. Their food and clothes were usually of a good quality, and they enjoyed a great degree of affection and pampering. If a concubine behaved well, her master was likely to marry her off to a person of status, and she would enjoy a great wedding ceremony.
A notable nobleman often married several of his concubines to grooms of his choice. While such decisions could hurt the concubines’ feeling, as they prefered remaining in the houses they had grown up in, such a marriage was nonetheless considered a source of pride.
The concubine would be dressed in opulent attire during her wedding day, in cashmere shawls, and fabrics embroidered with gold and silver threads would cover the harem floors, for her to walk on. Singers, and dancers are also hired for the occasion, along with girls holding censers and spraying perfumes surround the bride.
Poole countered the widely held belief over the atmosphere of permissiveness and promiscuity that was said to be prevalent in harems. While it is true that the first lady had significant power that she could abuse, nonetheless her concubines were under strict surveillance. The system that the young girls in oriental harems were kept under is comparable to the rules of nunneries. Any deviation from the absolute standards of decency would result in fatal punishments.
Very few women knew how to read or write, and so the main activities in the harem was weaving using a rectangular frame on four legs, as well as supervising the kitchen, the concubines, and the servants in general. Higher-ranking women usually prepared their own favorite meals, as well as different kinds of drinks.
Weaving was considered to be divinely beautify, bearing a similarity to the ornate decorations in Arab architecture. Its beauty lies in the colors, and the gemstones used in it, specifically diamonds, pearls, emeralds and rubies.
The women of the harem spent long hours gossiping and exchanging anecdotes over their hookahs.
Sons’ Carnal Desires
It was not unusual for a well-behaved teenage boy with a bright future, around the age of fourteen or fifteen, to be accosted by talk of marriage from the women of his father’s harem, before his mind was tainted by lust. His mother would push him into getting married, and eventually the boy would consent, mesmerized by the prospect of manhood, which would allow him to obtain his own harem, and to get married. Suddenly, after marriage, his nature would shift, and he would become selfish and lustful. Every effort would be made to guarantee his full attention towards his harem, through offers of luxury and temptations
In some cases, after few years the victim could regain his senses and become a good husband, but in most cases, he remained a slave to untameable desires all his life.
The Grudges of Sons
One prevalent cause for tragedy stood out inside the harem, caused by the lack of harmony and cohesion between children in a harem that housed several mothers. Although the wives had their own private quarters, children from different mothers were not separated. They met in public salons, in gardens, courtyards, and squares, and their quarrels grew with time, often devolving into serious disputes between the young sons. Envy and jealousy expounded, and if they or their mothers were subject to preferential treatment, it could turn into pure hatred, awaiting any opportunity to unleash revenge.