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High Jinks in the Harem


You’re a write eejit when you’re visiting the harem of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and all you can think of is that life here must have been an endless Turkish soap opera.

Forget the sex—the depiction of the harem as a den of endless orgies and plump naked women lying around, ripe for the plucking is largely a construct of the Western imagination—can you imagine the intrigues and scandals that went down? One would give a major body organ (and some did) to be a fly on the wall in the harem.

Harem paiting

John Frederick Lewis

The harem was the main living quarters of the Sultan, his dear old Mum, sisters, wives, children, consorts, female servants, and of course his concubines. It was a world of women—with the exception of the Sultan’s most trusted eunuchs, and the young princes who remained there until they came of age. The name harem says it all: sacred inviolable place, or forbidden place.

Each group had their own buildings, clustered around a courtyard. For example, The Courtyard of the Concubines, The Queen Mother’s Courtyard, or the Eunuchs Courtyard. There was a strict hierarchy in play. Novices lived on the upper floors, while senior staff, and most favored lived on the ground floor. The chummier you were with the Sultan, the closer your proximity to his chambers.

The Sultan’s mother—and yes, that would make her the mother of all mother-in-laws—wielded serious political clout, as did his wives. These lucky few could bend the ear of the Sultan in a highly confidential setting.

Courtyard of the Favourites

Courtyard of the Favourites


As you wander around from one stunning, tiled room to another, you can’t help imagining what it must have been like to be a young concubine in the 17th century. For a start, you’d need the prerequisite bona fides even to be considered for concubinage: be well-brought up from a family eager to curry favor with the court (or a kidnapped prisoner), young, intelligent, and relatively attractive—no hairy mustache or body odor. On arrival at the palace, you’d be handed over to a strapping, black eunuch who’d show you to your living quarters at the very top of the harem complex, far away from the luxurious quarters of the most favored consorts, and even further from the wives’ quarters, and so far away from the sultan’s boudoir you barely ever caught a glimpse of him. You’re dreams (if you weren’t pining for that cute village boy you’d left behind) of becoming one of the sultan’s favorite wives and bearing him lots of fat sons, and eventually becoming a great and powerful lady, all while leading a life of leisure and opulence, would be fading fast. You’d probably be put in charge of an older concubine who’d “aged-out” or never made it to the big leagues. And it would be her responsibility to show you all the tricks of the trade. All around you, you’d hear snippets of gossip from your fellow novices, and chatter from the eunuchs overseeing the household: who was in favor, who had betrayed a confidence, who had tried to run away. And sooner or later you’d be sucked into the daily dramas and intrigues of the harem, and find yourself succumbing to petty jealousies. Why was that snotty cow from Ephesus picked to dine with the Sultan and not me? She’s got fat ankles. Or, why did that girl with fur all over her back like a bear get to dance for the Queen Mother? You might find yourself second-guessing your special abilities; maybe my singing voice is rather like the screeching of the gulls. Or comparing yourself unfavorably to those around you: My bottom will never bounce like Zeynep’s when I walk. Before you know it, you’re in a right funk and instead of rejoicing in the good fortunes of your fellow inmates, enjoying their camaraderie, and learning from their experiences, you’re envying their success, and mixing up herbal potions to give your rivals genital warts.

Okay, so you’ve probably guessed where I’m going with this—this world is not too different from the world of writers. As we struggle with yet another rejection, it’s hard not to occasionally look on the achievements of our fellow writer’s without a touch of envy.

Permit me to flog this Turkish harem analogy to its death. Let’s plunge into the Hamam or traditional Turkish bath house. Here, in a scene that could be lifted from a Fellini movie, luscious naked women of all shapes and sizes, lounge on the heated marble slabs. Once the steam has opened the pores, the women take turns scrubbing each other, and massaging away the tensions of daily life, leaving a healthy glow of bonhomie.

As a community of writers, instead of indulging in petty jealousies and insecurities, we should all learn to be back scrubbers and ego massagers, knowing that our turn will come, and oh, how good it will feel.

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