Odalisques (virgins), were at the bottom of the female hierarchy within the Sultan’s harem followed by concubines (“one night stands”), ikbals (favorites), and kadins (favorites “wives”). Likely odalisques were presented to the Sultan and after that one night (at which time they became concubines), might never see the Sultan again unless they became pregnant and delivered a male child or attracted his attention. At the birth of her child, she would become an ikbal (favorite) to the Sultan.
Tradition allowed only four principal kadins but an unlimited number of concubines. Kadins were the Sultan’s favorite women. They were equivalent in rank to that of a legal wife, and were given apartments, slaves, and eunuchs. The amount of properties, clothing, jewelry, and allowances given, was a measure of the affection the Sultan held for them.
Not many of the ladies stayed in the Harem all their lives. The sultan might grant them their freedom, after which they would often marry powerful men who wanted the company of these well-educated women and palace connections. The greatest honor a Sultan could bestow upon a male guest was to present him with an odalisque from his court who had not yet become his concubine. The women were coveted for their beauty, talent, and links to the sultan and the harem hierarchy. Check out some more 19th century Orientalist paintings.
Tomorrow, A Sultan Takes a Wife Rita Bay