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
The Harem at Topkapi was known as the Seraglio. It was the private living area of the sultan and his family. The harem was ruled over by the Valide Sultan – the sultan’s mother who came to the harem as a slave and gained power through bearing a son who would be an heir to the Sultan. The Valide Sultan was very powerful – she could give orders directly to the grand vizier, influence the sultan, select of his wives and concubines, and influence matters of state.
The sultan was allowed by Islamic law to have four legitimate wives, who received the title of kadın (wife). In the 15th century the sultan set the custom of keeping four chosen concubines who were slaves who did not have legal and political difficulties of a legal wife. The women of the Harem had to be foreigners, as Islam forbade enslaving Muslims.
Young girls, called odalisques, were bought as slaves or were received as gifts from nobles and potentates and initially were servants under the harem mistresses. On their arrival, the girls were schooled in Islam and Turkish culture and language, as well as the arts of make-up, dress, comportment, music, reading, writing, embroidery and dancing. Those that were of extraordinary beauty and talent, were seen as potential concubines, and trained accordingly.
The Valide Sultan was responsible for the maintenance of order and peace inside the harem and decided who was presented to the sultan, her son. Since no woman was allowed to show herself to the sultan without specific orders, the sultan wore slippers with silver soles so that the clatter of the silver soles warned residents of the sultan’s approach, allowing them to disappear from his sight.
Tomorrow, More on the Sultan’s Harem Rita Bay