The Dark Side of the Harem

Life in the harem was not always glamorous. The women were often at risk from those who were jealous of their position or the favor of the sultan or master. The Seraglio could be deadly. The higher ranking women used tasters to avoid poisoning. Alliances were forged among the women of higher rank and lower rank, harem mistresses and the eunuchs that made life in the harem complicated and, at times, deadly.

The sons were also at risk. The mother of the son who survived to adulthood and became sultan would wield immense power. Until 1566 the sultan’s male relatives and brothers were murdered on his succession to the sultanate. After 1566, the princes were isolated in the Kafes (The Cage) in the palace near the harem. The kafes was a two-storied building without windows with only the company (the women were sterile). If for some reason the heir did not survive, the Empire was left with unprepared successors.

Then there was the danger to the women from the Sultan and the Chief Eunuch of the Harem. One of the Chief Eunuch’s responsibilities deliver any wayward harem residents to the executioner who would tie the woman in a sack and toss her into the Bosphorus. An angry Sultan who suspected one of his women had been unfaithful had several women tortured to discover the culprit. When he couldn’t find the guilty one, he had all of the 280 women in his harem (except for his mother and the kadins) tied into sacked and thrown into the Bosphorus. Only one managed to survive and swim to a friendly ship where the crew saved her.

Tomorrow, The End of the Seraglio Rita Bay

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