Lavishly illustrated, which led me to regard this book with some suspicion, but in the end lots of interesting information of harem life and history. That the author has a family history that reaches back to the seraglio and that she has included a photo of her great-uncle with his odalisque is convincing in and of itself.
In 1790, one sale document reads, you could buy seven women slaves for 1,000 to 2,000 kurush. By way of comparison, one horse would cost you 5,000 kurush. Kidnapped or sold by their parents, the trip to the harem was one-way–once you went in you never came out. Unless the sultan didn’t like you or you refused to convert to Islam or failed to learn Arabic, in which case he could post you for resale on the medieval equivalent of eBay.
If in the rare event you became the favorite of the sultan, your troubles were not over. Your rivals might poison you or have you tied in a sack and thrown into the Bosphorous (one particularly mad sultan had his entire harem so disposed of). If you had a son, you became the automatic enemy of every other woman in the harem who also had a son with aspirations of succeeding to his father’s power.
The rest of your time, always supposing you survived, was spent in gossip, eating and smoking opium, and going to the baths.
The very first paragraph of the introduction is the most poignant, written by an anonymous woman of the harem:
I am a harem woman, an Ottoman slave. I was conceived in an act of contemptuous rape and born in a sumptuous palace. Hot sand is my father; the Bosphorus, my mother; wisdom, my destiny; ignorance, my doom. I am richly dressed and poorly regarded; I am a slave-owner and a slave. I am anonymous, I am infamous; one thousand and one tales have been written about me. My home is this place were gods are buried and devils breed, the land of holiness, the backyard of hell.
Life in a harem must have been unutterably boring. Seldom have I been so glad to have been born in the here and now.
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