There is nothing as authentic or enticing as reading the first hand accounts of imperial women who lived in the harem of the Ottoman Empire. So much o...moreThere is nothing as authentic or enticing as reading the first hand accounts of imperial women who lived in the harem of the Ottoman Empire. So much of what women were like at that time is gleaned from memoirs written by European women and men, as the Ottomans were noteworthy in their recordkeeping, but neglected to record and chronicle the lives of their women and harem. Thus, it is truly refreshing and enlightening to hear the voices of the women themselves.
Author Douglas Scott Brookes has compiled the personal memoirs of three significant women who lived in the palace harem of the ruling Sultan during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These women include the Concubine Filizten, who served during the brief reign of Murad V (he only reigned 3 months!), the Princess Ayse, daughter of Sultan Abdulhamid II, who ruled after Murad V, and the schoolteacher Safiye, who instructed the grandchildren and harem ladies of Sultan Mehmed V. Most compelling are the words of the Concubine Filizten who, along with deposed Sultan Murad V and his harem, was sequestered in Ciragan Palace for 28 years. Brookes has done a stellar job translating and compiling these memoirs.
The voices of these women show a picture very different from how Westerns view the harem life. These women were virtuous, devout, and serious about following the rules of their hierarchy. There was also much warmth and devotion among them, and an admirable feeling of respect and loyalty to the ruling Sultan. It is the first time I have read something by a non-Turkish author that sounds and feels like it was written by a native speaker and resident of Turkey. With all of their captivating details and intimate revelatory expressions, the reader is truly pulled into their world. (less)
Harem: The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier is a gratifying find among the many historical books written about the harem life of the Ottom...moreHarem: The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier is a gratifying find among the many historical books written about the harem life of the Ottoman Empire. A harem was not a hidden, decadent enclave of the Sultan’s stunning concubines. It was simply where the women lived in the palace. All of the women lived there, including the Sultan’s own mother, known as the “Valide Sultan.” She was the most powerful figure in the empire after the Sultan himself. Croutier doesn’t exclusively cover the Turkish harem, or Seraglio as it is known, and addresses the topic of the harem in general. However, since Croutier is Turkish and has a personal linkage to this past, naturally the majority of her book covers the Ottoman harem.
Reading this book is like watching a documentary. Decorated with lush photography and paintings, it animates the women who lived in this time and place. Croutier covers all elements of the harem life: the baths that were a quotidian ritual, the poetry of the women’s voices, an emotional life as multifaceted as the gems adorning them, the princesses, high-ranking concubines, and the eunuchs who surrounded them. There is also mention of the ordinary harem of domestic households. This rich history is laid out like a damask tapestry. The author’s first person narrative makes the prose all the more alluring.
The harem life was not easy. It was an imprisoned life, a segregated complex of buildings populated mostly by foreign slaves. A Muslim Turk could not be a consort to the Sultan as slavery was forbidden in Islam. Women were kidnapped or sold into the slave market just as cattle were. In some ways, the Turks are still ashamed of such a history, and it was abolished in the early twentieth century. Even Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revolutionary leader and creator of the modern Turkish republic, had said: “Is it possible that, while one half of a community stays chained to the ground, the other half can rise to the skies?” Women could rarely leave the walls of the harem, but as oppressive as it could be, it was still a place of rich culture where a network of women turned to each other for comfort and enjoyed as much of its splendor as they could.
Researched extensively, Harem offers a rare glimpse into the fascinating yet misunderstood heritage of women in the Ottoman Empire. (less)