He saves a Russian slave girl, Rusalka, from drowning when she jumps overboard from a slave ship close to his palace. She’s determined to escape from his harem; he’s equally determined she will not. Against the convention of the time, Orhan falls in love with Rusalka, whom he renames Süreyya, and loses interest in the other women in his harem. Süreyya must negotiate the intrigues and jealousies of the harem. Fate steps in when Süreyya’s Russian family arrives in Istanbul on a quest to find and free her.
The Sixteenth Century Harem
The women of the harem were all slaves, purchased in the Constantinople slave market by the Chief Eunuch of the harem. They were usually captured in Tartar slave raids in Eastern European countries. The most beautiful ones were taken to the harem of the sultan or one of his sons. They were examined to make sure they were virgins before being trained as odalisques. Non-virgins were returned to the slave market to be sold to brothel owners.
The sultan and princes were expected to have children with many different women in their harems, to ensure the succession. They rarely married and even if they did, Islam allowed them four wives.
When an odalisque caught the sultan’s eye and he spent the night with her, she might be elevated to a title: ikbal–favourite.
If she gave birth to a prince, the sultan (with only a few exceptions) never made love to her again. However, she was now haseki—mother of a prince. Her responsibility was not to please the sultan, but to raise their son as a worthy Ottoman prince.
The birth of a princess gave her hope that the sultan would request her again and this time, she might conceive a son. She was still elevated above the other odalisques, because she was the mother of a royal child.
The Organisation of The Harem
The women were divided into categories according to their skills and looks. Some became servants who could rise to the position of Kalfa and become Mistress of the Robes, Mistress of the Jewels, and other high positions. The Kalfas often lived in the harem for a period of ten years, then were allowed to marry a court official or a Janissary soldier and leave the harem.
All the women were taught to speak, read and write the Turkish language and adopt Islam as their religion.
Those who weren’t servants became odalisques (harem women) and learned dancing, singing, embroidery and courtly behaviour. After a period of time, if they hadn’t caught the eye of the sultan or prince, they could request to leave the harem. They would be offered as first wives to wealthy court officials or army officers.
Occasionally the family of a woman who had been captured by slave traders would travel to Constantinople searching for her. If they believed she was in the harem, they could petition the sultan for her release. This was usually granted.
The Valide Sultan (pronounced Valideh)
The harem was ruled by the mother of a sultan or prince. In the sultan’s harem she had the title Valide Sultan and was extremely powerful. She oversaw the corps of eunuchs who waited on the harem women. They in turn were ruled by the Chief Eunuch or the Kizlar Ağası–the person in charge of the girls.
The harem could be a dangerous place of intrigue and jealousies which makes it a wonderful subject for a novel.
Istanbul or Constantinople?
The Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453. The city was no longer the brilliant city it had been. However, the Byzantine Greeks fought bravely to defend their city, but eventually it fell, after the third raid, to Mehmet II, whom the Turks refer to as Mehmet the Conqueror.
In the early Turkish documents, the scribes refer to Constantinople as Konstantiniye, a Turkish version of the name. Istanbul became the official name of the city only in 1935, but the two names had been interchangeable for centuries.
Below are photographs of the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, which is now a museum, to give you, my readers, some idea of what life would have been like for the harem women.