During the 16th and 17th centuries imperial harems of the Ottoman emperors greatly contributed to the spread of politics and religion. However, these were, at the same time, completely misunderstood and misrepresented by the West (Peirce, 1993:viii).
Throughout history, from Arabia to Turkey to the Mogul India, influential and financially capable men kept concubines that helped in increasing the population. Slavery was an integral part of Ottoman society and as late as 1908 women slaves were still sold in the Empire (Source). The last Mogul emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar had “four wives and numerous concubines”. He died in 1862 so till that time concubinage was openly practiced in India. It is recorded that Mogul kings slept with as many as 300 concubines in their lifetime. Similarly, till 1960s in Saudi Arabia concubinage was an ‘open secret’. King Ibn Saud had between 80 and 100 offspring from the many views and concubines.
In the Mogul and Ottoman empires, the royal harems contained as many as 12,000 women (wives, daughters, concubines, slaves, and sisters) and their quarters were guarded by strong women and the royal eunuchs:
“Eunuchs at the Ottoman court were preferably taken from Africa, especially Sudan. Since lighter skin was considered more aesthetic than dark skin, the sultans felt the chances of an affair developing between their, mostly Eastern European, concubines and their dark-skinned eunuch caretakers extremely low” (Source).
Peirce (1993:20) observes that while political maturity for males began with the “onset of fathering children”, the maturity for concubines was marked by the “cessation of childbearing” which Peirce calls the “postsexual status”. Each concubine was allowed to bear only one son. After the birth of the son the emperor would stop sleeping with her and she would live the rest of her life training her son to become the royal throne’s successor. The sons would learn literature, art, archery, fencing, politics and all subjects that make a man out of a man. In the second half of the 16th century princes were caged in the royal harem in the Ottoman Empire – “The Ottoman harem was often called “the golden cage”. Male princely heirs lived in a part of the palace that was called kafes, which translates as “cage” from Ottoman Turkish. Here the princes had to live in seclusion until they were either executed so as not be a threat to the crown prince, or be released once they become sultans” (Source).
Klein (2007: 63-83, in Campbell et al.) notices that the Ottoman emperors hardly ever required more than one wife with the abundant supply of beautiful European concubines and during the 15th and 16th centuries marriage of emperors in the Ottoman Empire had become obsolete. This happened in early Abbasid period as well when “after the death of the Abbasid Harun-al-Rashid, the caliphs apparently only rarely married relying instead on their concubines to produce children” (Kennedy, 2006). The harem system lured non-Muslims towards Arabization – in Spain during the reign of Abd-al-Rahman II “the lure of the language, literature, religion and institutions of the conquerors – including the harem system – had become so strong that a large number of urban Christians had become Arabized” (Hitti, 1970).
Thus, concubinage was very much a part of elite male life throughout history. With the modern view and desire for mutual respect, equality of genders, and equitable sexual morality there is dislike for sex outside ‘legal’ marriage and hence we like to perceive concubinage as a deviation from the standard (which is only a recent phenomenon) and even like to pretend that it never existed. Yet, harems and concubinage had a lot more to do than just sex. The Golden Cages produced strong women and great leaders who were former concubines and sons of those concubines. More than sex there was the politics of reproduction at play.
Campbell. G, Miers. M, and Miller, J.C. (Eds).(2007). Women and Slavery, Volume One – Africa, the Indian Ocean World, and the Medieval North Atlantic. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Hitti, P. K. (1958). History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present. London: McMillan.
Kennedy, H. (2006). When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty. Da Capo Press.
Peirce, L.P. (1993). The Imperial Harem – Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press