Odalisques blog

The Female Slave Market in Constantinople (1 Mar)
From the slave market to the sultan's bedchamber (17 Feb)
Buying a new slave for your harem (4 Feb)
Odalisquian books list now on Odalisques.com (29 Jan)
Edward Lane's descriptions and drawings of female clothing (27 Jan)
more posts...


"The Arab Scribe" by J.F. Lewis, 1852
"The Bath" by J.L. Gerome, in the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
"Odalisque" by Max Nonnenbruch
"By order of the sultan" by Antonio Fabres
"Idle Moments" by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1875
more pictures...


more books...

© Tanos

Melek Hanum "Thirty years in a harem"

Melek Hanum was the wife of Mehmed Emin Pasha, who was the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire three times in in the 1850s and 1860s. She was accused of participating in a criminal conspiracy while in his harem, convicted , imprisoned, and then exiled. She spent the last years of her life attempting to clear her name and recover property from her ex-husband. "Thirty years in a harem" was published as part of this campaign, and was both sensationalist and highly critical of the Ottomans and their harems.

In chapter 13, the discusses the acquistion, training, and sale of female slaves destined for harems:

The greater number are poor Circassians; the remainder comprise Arabs, Persians, and others. They are sold to the slave-merchants, either by agents, who have brought them up, or by the parents themselves. The latter look upon their daughters as a means of raising money ; they also think that by selling them they are contributing to their happiness. It is a fact that the women in Circassia spend anything but an agreeable existence, being employed in the most laborious field work, and looked upon as mere beasts of burden by their fathers and husbands. All the household duties also devolve upon them. The men would scorn to abase themselves by doing anything useful: they are warriors, and that is all.

In Constantinople, the slave-merchants generally inhabit the district of Top-hane. When anyone wishes to buy a slave, he applies to these gentry, and they exhibit, for his selection, a band of young peasant-girls, scantily clad, who have only left their mountain homes a few months previously, and speak none other than the barbaric language of their tribes. They sell for various prices, according to the degree of beauty qualifying them for engagements as dancers, musicians, bath-women, femmes-de-chambre, or odalisques. The amount ranges from about four thousand up to twenty thousand francs, or thereabouts (£160 to £800). They must be of extraordinary beauty to come up to the last mentioned figure. If they are not good-looking, they are only employed in duties that do not necessitate their appearance in the presence of their masters, in which case their value does not exceed from fifteen hundred to two thousand francs. They are sold usually at about twelve or thirteen years of age, but there are cases of sales at the early age of six or seven. This happens, however, only where a lady wishes to bring them up as her slaves, either to accustom them to her service, or to re-sell them at a profit when they are older. Their mistress makes them dress becomingly, teaches them to conduct themselves properly, and to speak the Turkish language. Their attention is bestowed on the cultivation of the particular talent by which they are to distinguish themselves; such as music, dancing, hairdressing, etc. If their charms seem to justify their aspiring to the dignity of odalisques, they learn to deck themselves gracefully; to observe the usages recognised in Mussulman society; to offer sherbet or coffee; to salute with greater or less formality, or to seat themselves higher or lower, according to the rank of the person paying or receiving a visit; to accompany their mistresses, etc.

When they have received this primary education, their value is proportionately augmented, and it is at this period that they are re-sold. The singers, the performers on the guitar, flute, tabour, or tambourine, the dancers and castanet-players, then enter the harems of great ladies, whom they are required to entertain. These are held in the highest estimation. They cost from six to eight thousand francs.

If any lady possesses a pretty-looking slave, the fact soon gets known. The gentlemen who wish to buy an odalisque or a wife, make their offers. Many Turks, indeed, prefer to take a slave as a wife, as, in such case, there is no need to dread fathers, mothers, or brothers-in-law, and other undesirable relations.

A girl can never be sold for a wife or an odalisque without her own consent.

The purchase of a slave is transacted in the following manner: After having examined her from head to foot, the intending purchaser, male or female, agrees on the price. The bargain concluded, next day the girl is sent to his or her house, accompanied by an old woman, who never lets her out of her sight. She remains several days, in order that it may be ascertained whether or not she has any material defect. A mid-wife is called in to make sure that the newcomer has never previously had intercourse with anyone. It is after this examination that the purchase-money is paid, and the sale legalised by a formal receipt, called petcheh.

In every house which a slave enters she is nearly equally miserable. Wives and odalisques comprise the superior class. If their master is rich, they enjoy all the refinements of luxury : carriages, excursions, banquets, servants of all kinds. But it frequently happens that, after being for some time the only wife, the husband introduces another, as her associate in his affections.

Whatever may be her condition, slave or free, the new wife reduces the first to the second rank. If she be equally a slave, the on]y result is jealousy ; but if she be Avealthy, and of a family which the husband holds in respect, then the poor slave-wife has to put up with all the annoyances, all the humiliations that a jealous and all-powerful rival can invent. Her life is one long martyrdom, which frequently reaches a tragical termination.

When a slave enters the harem of a lady of high rank, her situation is truly deplorable. As has been described in the establishment of Nazly-Hanum, she is usually compelled to spend her nights standing, attendant on the riotous excesses of her mistress. From sheer caprice, they often find themselves condemned to be scourged by eunuchs, armed with curbatches or whips of elephant's skin.

On the other hand, these unhappy creatures are often subjected at once to the desires of their master and the terrible jealousy of their mistress. Threatened with perpetual celibacy, excited by the idea of being chosen either as odalisques or as wives of the second grade, frequently taken advantage of by force, everything contributes to their downfall. As soon as their mistress has an inkling of any intrigue, all the vials of her fury are poured out. Her husband, his patience being at length exhausted, abandons his victim to the resentment of his wife, who proceeds to get rid of her rival forthwith, by selling her.

If the unhappy girl finds herself enceinte, she cannot be sold while in that condition. Moreover, she cannot be sold if she gives birth to a son. Her mistress, therefore, takes her to a mid-wife, in order to procure abortion.

Slaves, however, have occasionally a dismal kind of solace. They may please their mistress without attracting the attentions of their master. If they are in the Seraglio, or in some great house, they may become Kjaja-Kadin (first lady), or Haznadar-ousta (treasurer), in which case they have separate apartments, with carriages and servants at their disposal. These are great ladies. The treasurer to the Valideh-Sultan had more than two hundred slaves or eunuchs under her orders.