The Concubine, the Princess, and the Teacher: Voices from the Ottoman Harem

The Concubine, the Princess, and the Teacher: Voices from the Ottoman Harem

The Concubine, the Princess, and the Teacher: Voices from the Ottoman Harem

The Concubine, the Princess, and the Teacher: Voices from the Ottoman Harem


In the Western imagination, the Middle Eastern harem was a place of sex, debauchery, slavery, miscegenation, power, riches, and sheer abandon. But for the women and children who actually inhabited this realm of the imperial palace, the reality was vastly different. In this collection of translated memoirs, three women who lived in the Ottoman imperial harem in Istanbul between 1876 and 1924 offer a fascinating glimpse "behind the veil" into the lives of Muslim palace women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The memoirists are Filizten, concubine to Sultan Murad V; Princess Ayse, daughter of Sultan Abdulhamid II; and Safiye, a schoolteacher who instructed the grandchildren and harem ladies of Sultan Mehmed V. Their recollections of the Ottoman harem reveal the rigid protocol and hierarchy that governed the lives of the imperial family and concubines, as well as the hundreds of slave women and black eunuchs in service to them. The memoirists show that, far from being a place of debauchery, the harem was a family home in which polite and refined behavior prevailed. Douglas Brookes explains the social structure of the nineteenth-century Ottoman palace harem in his introduction.

These three memoirs, written across a half century and by women of differing social classes, offer a fuller and richer portrait of the Ottoman imperial harem than has ever before been available in English.


The imperial harem of the Ottoman sultans has long fascinated outsiders as a mélange of sex, debauchery, slavery, power, riches, and sheer abandon—in short, the incarnation of the most attractive vices. Concealed behind its own veil of circumspection, the imperial harem formed an object of mystery even in Ottoman culture, as decorum demanded respect for the privacy of the institution whose name means “forbidden, prohibited, sacred” in its Arabic original.

Penetrating behind that veil, and beyond the image of the harem in the public's fancy, this book reveals everyday life in the Ottoman imperial harem through the memoirs of three women whose home it was between 1876 and the dispersal of the harem in 1924. The memoirs are those of the concubine Filizten in Ziya Şakir's biography Çirağan Sarayinda 28 Sene: Beşinci Murad'in Hayati [Twenty-Eight Years in Çirağan Palace: The Life of Murad V]; Princess Ayşe Osmanoğlu in her reminiscences, Babam Sultan Abdülhamid [My Father, Sultan Abdülhamid]; and schoolteacher Safiye Ünüvar in her record of life in palace employment, Saray Hatiralarim [My Palace Memories]. These works were selected for this translation because of the rich detail each provides, but also because of the divergent positions in the harem the authors possessed, which allows us to construct a portrait of the harem from diverse yet complementary sources.

The importance of the memoirs lies in their revelations of life in an institution still largely misunderstood today. For the veil that insulated the imperial harem during its existence has survived nearly intact, despite the death of the harem six years after World War One. Exploring the origins and persistently robust health of the harem myths lies outside the purview of this book, but surely an explanation of their persistence must cite the dearth

European writers probably played the lead role in creating and propagating the myths. For . . .

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