At Home in the Harem, by Lisa Yarde

Posted by on Jun 24, 2013 in Historical Research, Historical Tidbits, Muslim Societies | 8 comments

AHIH1To step into an Islamic home in the Middle Ages was to enter an exotic but familiar world. Family life revolved around the sanctuary of the women. Known to the West as harem, the term referred to the inner sanctum of a house and its mainly female occupants. It was unlawful for men who had no close blood ties to the residents to enter and when the men were absent from the household, women, their families and female friends could venture where they pleased. Orientalism of the 18th and 19th centuries imagined that harems were nothing more than brothels where sensuous young women awaited the pleasure of their master. Most of the occupants found comfort and security behind the walls of their sanctuary, but some suffered a dull and restricted existence.

AHIH2Harems varied in size dependent on social stature. One of the largest and most opulent was the harem of Topkapi Palace, home to the female relations and servants of the Ottoman Sultans. Begun by Sultan Mehmed II, the Topkapi complex comprised among four main courtyards and several smaller buildings. At the height of its construction, Topkapi’s harem boasted three hundred rooms, including the residence of the ruler’s mother, the Sultan Valide. Her apartments featured a dining room, bedchamber, reception and prayer rooms, featuring colorful glazed tiles and porcelain. Marble baths, gold latticework and honeycombed glass ceilings completed the splendor of the harem.

Upper and middle class harems featured their own luxuries. Sofas arranged around three walls of a reception room in the harem, covered with silk cushions. Mattresses and rugs from Persia adorned the wooden or tiled floors. Costly fabrics, such as embroidered satin and silk became decorative window and wall curtains. Carved wood, porcelain tiles and terracotta ornamentation beautified the harem. Copper braziers and perforated incense burners provided warmth and gave a sweet-smelling odor to any harem. There were even practical items such as cosmetic containers, and ewer and basin sets fashioned in brass or glazed pottery.

AHIH3Within the harem, the women ruled. Without the status that motherhood conferred, a woman’s position could not be assured. Motherhood has been a badge of honor in Islamic society and from its earliest days, tradition held that, “Paradise is at the mother’s feet.” In particular, the mothers of sons enjoyed a greater level of respect. Death in childbirth and other complications were always possible. The midwife, a respected and valued member of Islamic communities, facilitated a safe delivery and maintained the health of the mother. When children were born, Fathers whispered the Muslim call to prayer and confession of the faith. Feasting always followed the birth of a son. The new mother could not leave the harem for forty days afterward, but in most societies, her female friends traditionally visited her on the seventh day after the birth. Rich women could afford the services of a wet nurse. In Saudi Arabia today, it remains a custom that the children of women suckled by the same wet nurse are considered “milk brothers and sisters,” allowed to interact without many of the societal restrictions.

Children remained with their mothers in the sanctuary of the harem; at the age of seven, boys were more likely to spend more time in their father’s social sphere. Boys underwent circumcision by at least the age of five. Nursemaids and slaves served an important role in rearing and tending to children and staffed most harems. The boys and girls played a variety of games and had toys; part of the modern celebrations at the end of the Ramadan fast is the presentation of gifts to children. There were dolls for girls, at least from the eleventh century onward, and hobbyhorses for boys.

With the onset of puberty, girls had greater restrictions placed on them. They typically began to wear veils at eight or nine. Their interactions with males were limited to their fathers and brothers. Sometimes they could talk to the sons of other close blood relatives, but a potential husband might exist among first cousins, so the practice was curtailed. The girls learned the household arts from their mothers, until they married and perpetuated the circle of harem life.

Lisa Yarde, June 24, 2013. You can read more about the harem in Yarde’s Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy.


  1. Interesting post, Lisa. I was fascinated on my visits to Arab countries with the whole women-retreating idea, which is still present in some ways. What would women in the West be like if we weren’t always in the presence of men? What if the things we can do that they can’t (like give birth) were celebrated? The hareem can be a suffocating existence, and it’s certainly going to change thought and behavior!

  2. When I used the word “harem” in my first draft, my beta readers went to lurid places in their minds, so I switched to “women’s quarters,” and that got the point across better. Thanks for this informative post!

  3. I enjoyed visiting Topkapi palace in Istanbul. Your details and “real” history about the inner workings is a lovely expansion of that view into this world. Thanks!

  4. I think it was Gertrude Bell, if not another female adventurer, who visited a smallish harem and was appalled with the sheer boredom and lack of intellectual stimulus, the pettiness of grievances among the women and the suffocating lack of hope.

  5. Fascinating post, Lisa. The concept of “harem” has certainly been worked over by Hollywood. Think of the look on the actress’s face when Rudolph Valentino stepped into his harem.

  6. Thanks Peg, Jessica, Iva and Suzanne for commenting. A big harem, especially like the one in Topkapi, had rules and administrators, but it’s still interesting how the word calls to mind lurid images. The Ottoman harems are more fascinating to me for the intrigues which went on behind the walls, the plots to kill often hatched by the jealousies of women in the harem.

  7. Judith, you have no idea how jealous I am right now! I’ve never been inside Topkapi. The plan was to be in Istanbul when my Turkish translations come out in September, but Turkey makes me very nervous right now. I won’t rule it out for the future though.

    • Lisa, I think you should feel okay about going to Turkey. Be smart about it, but go. I actually know a woman, Sevil, who is an excellent guide. That might be a good way to feel safe. Her background is art history and archaeology so she’s a good fit for history folk like us. Her company is called Cultural Trails. Here’s a link to her website.
      Do tell her I sent you because we had fun together and it will cue her that you’re another history nut! I dragged my husband and 2 grown kids–and they all had fun too, although my son suggested when we were looking at HIttite ruins that we should go to less ruined ruins. Sacrilege! (Not a problem with Topkapi which is gorgeously whole)