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Harem (Turkish, from Arabic حرم ḥaram 'forbidden place; sacrosanct, sanctum', related to حريم ḥarīm 'a sacred inviolable place; female members of the family' and حرام ḥarām, 'forbidden; sacred') refers to the sphere of women in a usually polygynous household and their quarters which is enclosed and forbidden to men. It originated in the Near East and came to the Western world via the Ottoman Empire.

The term serraglio (Italian from Persian sarāy "palace, enclosed courts") carries a similar meaning.

In modern colloquial (and humorous) English, "harem" may denote a number of female followers of a charismatic man.


Harem interior, possibly the former summer palace, burned in 1863.
Engraving after a drawing by A.I.
Melling (1811)
A Turkish bath provided for a harem.
The word has been recorded in the English language since 1634, via Turkish harem, from Arabic ḥaram 'forbidden', originally implying 'women's quarters', literally 'something forbidden or kept safe', from the root of ḥarama 'to be forbidden; to exclude'. The triliteral Ḥ-R-M is common to Arabic words denoting forbidden. The word is a cognate of Hebrew ḥerem, rendered in Greek as anathema when it applies to excommunication pronounced by the Jewish Sanhedrin court; all these words mean that an object is "sacred" or "accursed".

The 'harem' does not refer to a sanctuary for the wives of a polygynous person. It is simply a resting quarters for women.Female seclusion in Islam is emphasized to the extent that any unlawful breaking into that privacy is ḥarām "forbidden". Contrary to the common belief, a Muslim harem does not necessarily consist solely of women with whom the head of the household has sexual relations (wives and concubines), but also their young offspring, other female relatives, etc.; and it may either be a palatial complex, as in Romantic tales, in which case it includes staff (women and eunuchs), or simply their quarters, in the Ottoman tradition separated from the men's selamlık. The Greek gynaeceum and Persian zenana were comparable institutions.

It is being more commonly acknowledged today that the purpose of harems during the Ottoman Empire was for the royal upbringing of the future wives of noble and royal men. These women would be educated so that they were ready to appear in public as a royal wife. No forms of sexual activity took place in those harems.


The word harem is strictly applicable to Muslim households only, but the system was common, more or less, to most Oriental communities, especially where polygamy was permitted.

The Imperial Harem of the Ottoman sultan, which was also called seraglio in the West, typically housed several hundred - at times over a thousand - women, including wives. It also housed the Sultan's mother, daughters and other female relatives, as well as eunuchs and slave girls to serve the aforementioned women, and of course dancing girls and pleasure slaves for the Sultan. During the later periods, the sons of the Sultan also lived in the Harem until they were sixteen, when it might be considered appropriate for them to appear in the public and administrative areas of the palace. The Topkapı Harem was, in some senses, merely the private living quarters of the Sultan and his family, within the palace complex. It is said that the harem of Abdul Hamid II (1876–1909) contained about 1000 women, all of whom were of slave origin.

It is claimed that harems existed in Persia under the Ancient Achaemenids and later Iranian dynasties (the Sassanid Chosroes II reportedly had a harem of 3000 wives, as well as 12,000 other females) and lasted well into the Qajar Dynasty.

The women of the Persian royal harem played important though underreported roles in Iranian history, especially during the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. However, this claim is disputed by some Persian historians.

Ancient Egyptian pharaohs are said to have made a "constant demand" of provincial governors for more beautiful servant girls. In Mexicomarker, Aztec ruler Montezuma II, who met Cortes, kept 4,000 concubines; every member of the Aztec nobility was supposed to have had as many consorts as he could afford.

Harem is also the usual English translation of the Chinese language term hougong, 後宮 "the palaces behind." Hougong are large palaces for the Chinesemarker emperor's consorts, concubines, female attendants and eunuchs. The women who lived in an emperor's hougong sometimes numbered in the thousands.

Depictions in Western culture

The institution of the harem exerted a certain fascination on the European imagination, especially during the Age of Romanticism (see also Orientalism), due in part to the writings of the adventurer Richard Francis Burton. Many Westerners imagined a harem as a brothel consisting of many sensual young women lying around pools with oiled bodies, with the sole purpose of pleasing the powerful man to whom they had given themselves. Much of this is recorded in art from that period, usually portraying groups of attractive women lounging nude by spas and pools.

A centuries-old theme in Western culture is the depiction of European women forcibly taken into Oriental harems - evident for example in the Mozart opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail ("The Abduction from the Serraglio") concerning the attempt of the hero Belmonte to rescue his beloved Konstanze from the serraglio/harem of the Pasha Selim; or in Voltaire's Candide, in chapter 12 of which the old woman relates her experiences of being sold into harems across the Ottoman Empire.

The same theme was and still is repeated in numerous historical novels and thrillers. For example, Angélique and the Sultan, part of the bestselling Frenchmarker Angélique series by Sergeanne Golon, in which a 17th Century French noblewoman is captured by pirates, sold as a pleasure slave to the King of Morocco and installed in his harem, she is dressed in exotic clothing and prepared for the king's pleasure. But when the king has her brought into his bedchamber and tries to make love with her she stabs and wounds him with his own dagger and stages a dramatic and successful escape.

H. Beam Piper used the theme in a science fiction context, portraying a gang which kidnaps girls from a Western-dominated, technologically advanced timeline and sells them to a Sultan's harem in an Asian-dominated timeline (see[147687]).

Much of the plot of "The Janissary Tree" - 2006 historical crime novel by Jason Goodwin, set in Istanbulmarker at 1836 - takes place in the Sultan's harem, with the main protagonist being the eunuch detective Yashim. The book in many ways seeks to overturn the above stereotypes and rooted conventions. For example, in one scene the Sultan groans inwardly when a new concubine is brought to his bed, since he does not feel sexual at all and would much rather send her away and curl up with a book. He does not, however, have that option; were he to reject the concubine, "she would spend the whole night crying bitterly, by the morning the whole palace will hear that the Sultan has become impotent, by noon all Istanbul will know it, and within a week the rumour will reach the entire empire."

Harem art

Harem art
Image:The terrace of the seraglio.jpg|Terrace of the Seraglio, Gérôme, Jean-Léon, 1824–1904, FrenchImage:Swoboda-shopping in harem mid19th.jpg|Shopping in the Harem, Swoboda, Rudolf, 1859-1914. AustrianImage:Quintana Blas Olleras-Harem Scene.jpg|Harem Scene, Blas Olleras y Quintana, 1851-1919, ItalianImage:HaremPool.jpg|Harem Pool, Gérôme, Jean-Léon, 1824–1904, FrenchImage:John frederick lewis-reception1873.jpg|The Reception, Lewis, John Frederick, 1805-1875, EnglishImage:Frederick arthur bridgeman-harem fountain.jpg|The Harem Fountain, Bridgeman, Frederick Arthur, 1847-1928, AmericanImage:Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres 008.jpg|Ingres, Odalisque with a SlaveImage:Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814.jpg|Ingres, Grande OdalisqueImage:Odalisque.jpg|Lefebvre, OdalisqueImage:Carl Spitzweg 055.jpg|Spitzweg, Im HaremImage:Trouillebert-servante du harem.jpg|The Harem Servant, Trouillebert, Paul Desiré, 1829-1900, FrenchImage:Geromeslavemarket.jpg|The Slave Market, (c. 1884), painting by Jean-Léon GérômeImage:Manuscript of the Zanan-nameh by Fazil-Yildiz in the University of Istanbul.jpg|A Harem bathhouse, from manuscript of the Zanan nameh by Fazil Yildiz in the University of Istanbulmarker.

See also

Sources and references

  • Mohammed Webb. The Influence of Islam on Social Conditions Paper, World Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1893.
  • Historical web site.
  • Leslie P. Peirce. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, new ed. Oxford University Press USA, 1993. ISBN 0-19-508677-5
  • Suraiya Faroqhi. Subjects of the Sultan: Culture and Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire. I. B. Tauris, 2005. ISBN 1-85043-760-2
  • Billie Melman. Women's Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918. University of Michigan Press, 1992. ISBN 0-472-10332-6
  • Alan Duben, Cem Behar, Richard Smith (Series Editor), Jan De Vries (Series Editor), Paul Johnson (Series Editor), Keith Wrightson (Series Editor). Istanbul Households: Marriage, Family and Fertility, 1880-1940, new ed. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-52303-6
  • Emmanuel Todd. The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structures and Social Systems. B. Blackwell, 1985. ISBN 0-631-13724-6
  • Oleg Grabar. The Formation of Islamic Art, rev. & enlarged ed. Yale University Press, 1987. ISBN 0-300-04046-6


  • Hans Wehr. A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic: (Arabic-English), 4th ed. Spoken Language Services, 1994, s.v. حرم.
  • Etymology OnLine
  • N. M. Penzer. The Harēm : Inside the Grand Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans. Dover Publications, 2005. ISBN 0-486-44004-4
  • Alev Lytle Croutier. Harem: The World Behind the Veil, reprint ed. Abbeville Publishing Group , 1998. ISBN 1-55859-159-1
  • Inside the Seraglio: Private Lives of the Sultans in Istanbul: The Sultan's Harem, new ed. Penguin (Non-Classics), 2001. ISBN 0-14-027056-6
  • M. Saalih. Harem Girl : A Harem Girl’s Journal reprint ed. Delta, 2002. ISBN 0-595-31300-0
  • Fatima Mernissi. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society, reprint ed. Delta, 2002. ISBN 0-253-20423-2
  • N. M. Penzer. The Harēm: An Account of the Institution as it Existed in the Palace of the Turkish Sultans with a History of the Grand Seraglio from its Foundation to Modern Yimes. Dorset Press, 1993. ISBN 1-56619-255-2
  • Andrew Rippin. Muslims (Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices), 2nd ed. Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0-415-21782-2
  • Malise Ruthven. Islam: A Very Short Introduction, new ed. Oxford University Press USA, 2000. ISBN 0-19-285389-9



  1. Harem - LoveToKnow 1911
  2. Retrieved on 04-13-07
  3. Sex in History, March 1994 Michigan Today

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