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July 2, 2024 30 mins

For centuries, westerners devoured lurid, embellished stories about the mysteries of Near Eastern culture -- and, chief amid their fascinations, the idea of the Sultan's harem. But what exactly was this thing, and how did it actually work? In the first part of this two-part episode, Ben, Noel and Max bust some myths about the harem system that continue, weirdly enough, in the modern day.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Ridiculous History is a production of iHeartRadio. Welcome back to

(00:27):
the show, Ridiculous Historians. Thank you, as always so much
for tuning in. Let's give a shout out to our
special guest, our super producer, Ben Sleeping Dog Hacket.

Speaker 2 (00:39):
Oh wow, you gotta let them lie. I hear the
sleeping dogs. You're supposed to let them let them lie.

Speaker 1 (00:44):
There are three of us, so would that make this
a three dog night?

Speaker 2 (00:47):
Apparently three dog morning, late morning, mid morning. I don't
know what do you call ten fifteen? It's always nighttime
to me. Man, I bet bullied. You are mister Noel Brown.

Speaker 1 (00:58):
And today we are diving into a very strange concept
that still is widely misunderstood in the West. What would
you say, guys, if someone came to you and said, Hey,
do you want to have a secret compound that is

(01:19):
just full of women that you are in love with?

Speaker 2 (01:22):
Where do I sign up?

Speaker 1 (01:23):
Right? That's what I'd say. I actually problems, and I
love the caveat.

Speaker 2 (01:28):
And I think you sort of stacked the deck a
little bit by adding that you are also in love
with right, Because I mean, let's be real, polyamory is
certainly a thing, you know, it requires consent, it requires
agency on the part of all participants. A harem ain't
that though.

Speaker 1 (01:46):
No, no, we will. We will dive in here with
this This episode maybe a two parter. It's about the
most famous harems in the Western world world, which are
the harems of the Automan Empire. But to understand how
dangerous and disturbing the harem of the Ottoman Empire was,

(02:08):
we have the first correct some myths about harems in general.
With a big shout out to our pals over at Britannica.

Speaker 2 (02:15):
Yeah, boy, do we love Britannica. Rural Britannica is what
I say. Let's change the slogan.

Speaker 1 (02:21):
We also have some exciting news about the Smithsonian.

Speaker 2 (02:26):
Right, let's keep it under everybody, get the our stovepipe paths,
which we are both definitely wearing right now. What is
a harem? To your point, Ben, very important to corrects
some myths and Muslim countries. The word harem refers to
a part of a home set apart for women of

(02:50):
the family, so you know, separated from all the kind
of sexual connotations and sort of the exoticized you know,
ideas of a harem is sort of a functional thing
that has to do with a cultural more, you know,
of the Muslim faith, which is not something that is
inherently bad at all.

Speaker 1 (03:09):
Right, yeah, well said. And the etymology harimi is used
collectively to refer to the to the occupants of the harem.
And there are different terms in different languages in different
parts of the world, right, Like what we'll call a
harem in India would be zenana or and a room

(03:32):
in Iran and in Persian this these just be like
places for women or the inside part of the house.
And we always associate harems in the West with Muslim practices,
but they definitely also existed before Islam in the Middle East,
and in the role of the harem right pre Islam,

(03:53):
it was a secure private quarters for women who still
still obviously played different roles in public life. The profit
of Islam did not originate the idea of a harem,
nor the idea of veiling or secluding women, but he
did co sign it pretty heavily.

Speaker 2 (04:14):
So in pre Islamic Assyria, Persia and Egypt, many of
the royal courts also included a harem, which consisted.

Speaker 1 (04:21):
Of the rulers wives.

Speaker 2 (04:23):
They're direct wives by marriage and also they're concubines, which
is another term that is loaded and interesting and sort
of bandied about, you know, in Western culture. I guess
a lot of times this uses a stand in for
sort of sex worker or even the more potentially problematic prostitute,
which I think is a term that has largely been

(04:45):
retired outside of using it as a term of abuse,
because of course, sex work is work, and you know,
many places it is becoming much more normalized, and it
is absolutely with agency and you know, safety, in all
a completely legitimate of earning a living. So this harem
was kind of like a separate domicile, you know, a compound,

(05:07):
let's call it, for all of these female members of
the court, including attendants, handmaidens, and of course who we
can't talk about this without talking about Unix, something that
I just find endlessly fascinating and disturbing.

Speaker 1 (05:22):
Yeah, we'll dive into the unique stuff just a bit,
because it is disturbing and endlessly fascinating. As you said, concubine,
the best way to think about it would be a mistress, right,
And in these in these social hierarchies, being a concubine

(05:44):
didn't have to be a dead end job. There was
always the potential that one could become one could ascend
to the role of wife or something like that.

Speaker 2 (05:54):
I believe it was even preferable in some cases for
a concubine to bear children. Yes, interestingly, I'd love to
get into the minutia of why that might be. But yeah,
and then of course, you know, it's interesting. It's almost
like a brothel in some ways, only it's not for sale.
It's all for.

Speaker 1 (06:14):
One dude and one customer.

Speaker 2 (06:16):
Yeah, and his homies. I imagine you gotta imagine he'd
bring no never never not. I mean, he has some pals,
he'd he spread it around a little bit.

Speaker 1 (06:26):
I just gotta send a member of his harem to
someone else, especially if they're cementing a political.

Speaker 2 (06:35):
Yeah sense, but never entry would be It's I just
find that hard to believe. There would never be exceptions.
But I trust you. That's that's. Oh, we don't we
don't know. As It's just if if it were me,
I'd be having parties, you know. It's it's it's weird,

(06:57):
and it just seems like a kind of that you'd
host like a bro down, you know. It just feels
that way.

Speaker 1 (07:04):
Members of the Sultan's family like male members of the
Sultan's family might be raised in the harem, right that
would be that would be a way around it. But
as far as like blowout ragers, the kind of it
ain't no fun if the homies can't have none sort
of vibe, that kind of thing. We don't have tons

(07:25):
of proof on because for a long time the West
didn't really understand what was going on in the arem,
you know, they didn't know it was a political engine.

Speaker 2 (07:37):
And we're joking around a little bit and maybe being
a little minor ely crass and not meaning to, but
let's not forget this is, at the end of the day,
not sex work. This is sex slavery, and this is
sex trafficking in many cases as well, although it's complicated
because many of the women that lived in these arams
lived not too bad lives. They were pampered, they were

(08:01):
able to kind of have all of the resources they needed,
but they were living exclusively at the behest of this
one dude, at the pleasure of this one dude, which
is jacked up if yes, just no matter how it's like,
it's like a gilded cage kind of situation, right, very.

Speaker 1 (08:18):
Much so, and in some cases, well we'll get we'll
get in well, this just you know.

Speaker 2 (08:24):
I just want to make sure we put that ahead
of everything else, because it's easy to joke about some
of the stuff, but it is, at the end of
the day, pretty serious. And there's a lot of you know,
very opportunistic, nasty, misogynistic themes in this.

Speaker 1 (08:38):
Story and the idea of that sort of the racy
sex parts. Sometimes they steal the headline from the function
of the harem, which was again a political engine. You
walk into a harem, especially in the Ottoman Empire there
and what you're going to find is uh game of thrones,

(08:58):
you know what I mean, success battle though yeah right,
it's well not always, but what I'm saying is is
a political engine, and that it was like pieces on
the board that could be used, you know, at the
discretion of the.

Speaker 2 (09:13):
Sultan. You know, like if you wanted to either get
or give from the harem, that could be a political tool.

Speaker 1 (09:20):
That could be a political tool. That's one piece of it.
The ultimate aim, the highlander esque part of this is
that you, as a member of the harem, if you
have a child and you can get your child to
be the favored successor of the assaultan then you essentially
have gained control of the empire all without necessarily leaving

(09:42):
the Harom.

Speaker 2 (09:42):
Machinations within machinations.

Speaker 1 (09:45):
So secession, Game of thrones type stuff, real courts, intrigue,
and often so. Yes, a lot of female members of
the harem may come from enslavement, right, or may come
from the horrors of war from an expansionist empire. But
a lot of other women in harems came from influential,

(10:06):
powerful families. They were politically, they were, uh, they were
the links in political alliances, and they sometimes were sent
to the harem with a mission.

Speaker 2 (10:17):
That's right, and to walk back my previous question or
sort of I don't know, I guess hypothetical of life.
Wouldn't they wouldn't the sultan bring his boys in? They
had their own. If they were of a level where
they were hanging out with the Sultans, and they were
of a powerful enough family, they had their own. And
it was very, very common.

Speaker 1 (10:37):
Uh.

Speaker 2 (10:37):
The Sultans was just the most bougie and and outrageous
and largest, But it was common in affluent households for
folks to have these, and even in slightly less affluent
households they'd still the norm would be for a male
to have multiple mistresses on the side.

Speaker 1 (10:57):
Well, if you could afford them, if you could, especially
once Islam propagated throughout this part of the world, there
are there were specific rules, so there are specific rules
for how those relationships should be pursued and maintained. And
I love that you're pointing out that this is kind
of like a It's kind of like saying the bathroom,

(11:20):
because most people have their own restroom. It's just some
people have super opulent, like stupid fancy restrooms.

Speaker 2 (11:28):
Yeah, exactly, gilded the toilets and the Japanese bidets, you know,
things like that.

Speaker 1 (11:35):
I love it.

Speaker 2 (11:35):
I love it.

Speaker 1 (11:43):
And the Ottoman Empire, specifically in Imperial Turkey, the sultan had,
like you said, fantastically complicated palatial harem or seraglio, and
they this thing had a staff that disciplinary administrative officers.

(12:03):
It was all overseen by a former Haram member themselves,
the sultan's mother, the Vali da Sultan. Wait, she's saying
she was like in charge kind of, She was in
charge of the harem, which was a common thing because
her son is the one who became the sultan's so
she got that key to that power.

Speaker 2 (12:23):
The structure, though, does remind me still of a brothel
where you have kind of the madam or whatever you know,
that's in charge and that sort of like keeps everyone
in check and make sure everyone's like, you know, going
the line or whatever.

Speaker 1 (12:35):
But in this case it's the sultan's literal mother. Yeah,
and kind of weird.

Speaker 2 (12:40):
She's the one that's making sure her son's sex pets
are doing. Okay.

Speaker 1 (12:46):
Again, a lot of it is not actually sex. It's
like it's politics, it's intrigue. It's a lot of backstabbing
put a lot of sex. There is, obviously there's sex
that occurs, but consider this, there are women in a
harem who may live the entirety of their lives there
and not interact with the sultan. That's in the case

(13:08):
of the Automan Empire, because it just it was so big.
We know that it wasn't just separated or dare I say,
segregated from the rest of the royal court, but from
the entirety of public life. It was purposely mysterious. It
was a black box. The women inside were either connected
to the sultan in that they were family members, or

(13:30):
maybe they were They did have some sort of romantic
or sexual relationship. They were. They were kind of forced
into this sequestered monastic existence. The idea was not it
was a guilded cage. As you said, you you could
wake up and say I want pomegranates or something, and boom,

(13:50):
they would appear for you. But if you woke up
and said I would like to walk to the market
and get pomegranates, uh huh.

Speaker 2 (13:57):
Yeah, these are kept women, you know, and the ling
and all of that stuff. I mean, and part of
that is I believe as a result of a religious belief,
right is it part or is that not quite intersecting
here yet? Ben like with the you know, you think
of the veils and the idea of not letting other
men see these women and all of that and keeping

(14:18):
them separate or even that part of the home. Doesn't
that stem from an Islamic belief?

Speaker 1 (14:23):
It predates Islam, but Islam does adopt that. Yeah, adopts it.
That's a great word for it. And then also yeah,
very like also this is an area the internal aspect
of the compound means that you don't necessarily have to
do that kind of stuff. You don't have to have
a veil. It's just the in group and the reality

(14:45):
of life there. For a long time, it was very
confusing here in the West because Western observers started reporting
about harems and other parts of life in the Ottoman
Empire in the eighteen hundreds. They weren't what we would
call pc. They were not especially careful nor sensitive in
their descriptions, and they went for the lurid stuff, you

(15:07):
know what I mean, Like how Europeans wrote crazy sex
fantasies about Native Americans when they came over to North
and South America. The Western writers about the Ottoman Empire
weren't really tracing the nuances of political intrigue. They were
more like sex house Ottoman and that's where we get

(15:31):
a lot of these images of decadence, debauchery, oppression of women,
and you know, the finest fabrics, the most succulent and
delicious of fruits and meats.

Speaker 2 (15:47):
Yes, fine linens and oils, lotions, yes, of course, exotic fruits,
you know, all of all of that sort. I do
want to shout out more piece from Escapus Scott s
k A p A s dot com on the Ottoman

(16:08):
Harem just a really, really great resource with lots of details,
and I was I was. I founded it when I
was trying to figure out, like how many are we
talking here, and it could be hundreds, right, This is
like a almost like a micro city and in in
and of itself in the.

Speaker 1 (16:26):
In the case of the Sultan's harem in the Ottoman Empire, yes,
it's it's kind of a hidden city. We could call it,
or at the very least a hidden town, just because
there are so many people. But there are obviously there
are other harems, right, They're just on this level.

Speaker 2 (16:42):
A million percent, like we were saying, you know, they
had they had their own There's also like within the
harems kind of a hierarchy, the concept. I found this
again on this Escapus article.

Speaker 1 (16:52):
Odalisks. Yeah, we get at the bottom of the cast system.

Speaker 2 (16:58):
They were at the bottom of this hierarchy, were kind
of more like servants or like handmaids again, and they
were kind of not necessarily seen as being attractive enough
to ascend to the level of being presented.

Speaker 1 (17:12):
To Let's jump to this part too, and well we'll
get back to the rest of the cast later. But
the Odelisque is a very interesting position to Haram because, uh,
these are slave children these are child female child slaves
who are purchased at a slave market and they're not
necessarily going to become full time or they're not going

(17:38):
to become Haram members for the rest of their life.
You have to be the most beautiful. We don't know
who judges that, maybe the Sultan's mom. You have to
be judged the most beautiful of the odelisque to be
trained in uh in sex work and then different like
it's like the Ottoman version of a geisha kind of thing. Yes,

(18:01):
what were going on? Entertainment etiquette, and then you would
be presented to the Sultan and if the Sultan like
your vibe, you could become a concubine. But if nine
years pass and the Sultan doesn't ask about you, then
you can leave the harem and you can get married.
So nine years though nine years long time, but again

(18:23):
they're enslaved since their children.

Speaker 2 (18:25):
Now that's right, right, right, So you could theoretically ascend
from the position of odolisk to becoming Yeah, so that's
it is like sort of like a ladder.

Speaker 1 (18:38):
Sort of chaos is a ladder. Sure, So during the
sixteenth and seventeenth century, one of the things that really
launched Western interest in the Harem, and specific was that
the Ottoman court was known for just balling out, for
being crazy, extravagant. If you are a if you are

(18:59):
another old leader and you meet with the Sultan, or
you travel there, or you send a dignitary there, they're
going to have the best time of their life, or
they might get murdered. So it's a real roll of
the dice, it's right, yeah, but they definitely knew how to.
I mean, you know, some of the kind of.

Speaker 2 (19:20):
Cliche to the point of almost being offensive images we
have of this era, you know, there is some truth
to them. These these wild, debauched displays of wealth, right,
and all of the uses of you know, fine materials,
you know, slit silks and all of that, the best
of the best, you know, all on display. This idea

(19:41):
of like, look, you know, behold my wealth. There is
there is truth to that. And then the idea of
exotic fruits even and these you know, seductive women scantily clad,
there is that. You know, there were times where they
might feel like that, right, yeah.

Speaker 1 (19:57):
And the sultan, given their unique position in the hierarchy
of the empire, the sultan had rights other people didn't have,
and one of those was one of those was the
right to possess as many women as he pleased, even
if only for a night. This reminds me of the

(20:23):
old oh gosh, the old fake story about the origin
of the word beat me her ben, the origin of
the word fornication under consent of the king. It was
the idea that the king had prima nactus.

Speaker 2 (20:40):
I think that was in Game of Thrones as well,
where that was depicted, the idea of that you could
if you so desired. Basically, I think you could either
deflower a woman on her wedding nights or something like that.
Then that sort of puts a real damper on the
proceedings or also literally just possess another man's wife and

(21:01):
you couldn't do anything about it. But as we know,
sometimes just because you can doesn't mean you should, uh,
And it doesn't necessarily bode well for you politically if
you start messing with other people's you know, wives in
this way, right.

Speaker 1 (21:15):
Yeah, no opp And then also the also you know,
we give democracy a hard time because it's far from perfect,
but it's a little better than this system.

Speaker 2 (21:26):
Ye say, yeah, yeah, one one one could certainly argue
that should we talk a little bit more about like
the kind of you know, cultural I guess vibes at
the time, right, or like the political you know system.

Speaker 1 (21:41):
Yeah, yeah, let's do this. So the court had, because
of the Sultan's unique sort of social superpower and cartoonish privilege,
the court had hundreds of what we're considered the most
beautiful women of the entirety of the empire locked away
just surveying the pleasure of the Sultan. They had a

(22:02):
lot of free time because the Sultan's one dude, and
they spent this free time pursuing one thing, to ascend
this hierarchy, to navigate this political these political headwinds, and
become more than a servant, someone who could, should the
dominoes fall correctly, someone who could basically have the power

(22:24):
of the Sultan. And these folks, you know, it's very
strange because a lot of them were there non consensually,
but they had more power than the average person outside
of the Harem. It's it's very it's very weird. We'll
get to some weird specifics here. We just need to
I think we're doing a good job showing that the

(22:47):
harem is not just a sexual playground for the Sultan,
it was, but it wasn't.

Speaker 2 (22:52):
Just that, No, Yeah, it was very multifaceted for sure.
To jump even you know, further beyond that point then
to take on the next level. There was actually a
period in the empire known as the Reign of Women
or the cot in Law Sultani, which saw Harem women
playing even more powerful roles in politics and wielding significant

(23:15):
political capital in the Ottoman Empire. And even you know
that of course, being the Ottoman Empire being what it was,
that extended out beyond the wider world around and often
led to some of these women having incredible power because
of their association. I mean, maybe we could dive a
little bit more into the Reign of women, but I

(23:35):
assume it was just because of their association. This whole
idea of being a favorite, or the sultan perhaps relegating
or delegating some of his power to this person who
has become so close to him, not just sexually but personally,
and there's a trust there and maybe it's like you
know what you do it, I'm gonna take a break,
and I don't know.

Speaker 1 (23:55):
Yeah, it's having the ear of the king, you know
what I mean? Like, yes, there's one guy who gets
to sit on the fancy chair. But when someone asking Yeah,
when someone asks him a question, he leans over to
you know, his his favorite wife, Vanessa and just says, Vanessa,
you know more about you know more about the trade

(24:17):
and balance of us in Austria Hungary than I do.
And she goes, oh, yeah, well you should do this.
And he's like, all right, well, guys, Vanessa says you
got to get out.

Speaker 2 (24:26):
Yeah, that's it. Power behind the throw. I mean, that's
you know, that's that's inherent in any political dynasty, orb
especially especially in the case of a more totalitarian or
dictatorial rule, because it is all coming from one individual
who can get their info or their counsel from whomever
they please.

Speaker 1 (24:47):
And with this, let's let's go to the cast of
the Haram Right.

Speaker 2 (24:50):
Yeah, we tease it a little bit, let's dig in
a little deeper, and we're going to get to UNIX
trigger warning. We're going to talk a little bit about
genital mutilation here. As you can imagine the process that
Lens will give another touristic trigger warning when it's actually
about yeah, yeah, it will be, and we won't be
super explicit, but it is important to know. So, uh,

(25:12):
the population of the harem falls into two groups, the
wives and relatives of a sultan. So you could, for instance,
be the sultan's aunt or be the sultan's niece, and
you live in the harem, right, and you're not attached
to the sexual nature at all. So it does still
occupy that place of the part of the home for women.

Speaker 1 (25:35):
Yes, yes, okay, we could even we could even argue
that the primary function a place, a specific place for
women in the home has been tainted by the success
of the sultan. And now he's leaning into maybe twisting
the idea of a little because the second serving. Yeah, the

(25:55):
second group, which is usually the larger group by by
a long by a country mile, is going to be
the group of slaves that are brought inside the harem
from multiple parts of the world. Like we said, the
new girls were called odalisque. They might get if they
they got the right vibe. They get taught poetry and
different dance techniques and erotic arts, the erotic arts. If

(26:21):
they don't succeed in this, they become servants. And if
nine years past, in some cases they can leave the
harem because sometimes to be honest, the Sultan just completely
forgot about people. Well, yeah, that sounds very callous, and
it kind of is.

Speaker 2 (26:38):
But it's also like this is about there's a curatorial
aspect to the harem, right, this idea of like keeping
it popping, keeping an interesting. Don't want to get too
stagnat if someone's not pulling their way. It's not like
they're taking out back and shot. They might just be
dismissed and allowed to live a normal life, you know,
and and then get married and have children of their own,

(27:02):
which you know, it's not a magnanimous act. It really
is kind of like a very callous act. It's like, well,
now that I've got no more use for you, I'm
going to let you go back out of the world.
But at least it's better than the alternative, which would
be like banishment or you know, execution.

Speaker 1 (27:20):
Yeah. Well, also, if you die in a harem, there
is a not insignificant chance that you die as a
result of another rival in the harem not liking you. Yeah,
like they would poison each other, they would try to
kill each other's children, et cetera.

Speaker 2 (27:38):
The political machinations within the harem itself, you know, everyone
vying for that top.

Speaker 1 (27:44):
Spot right right exactly, and then also vying for the
favor of Look, Harem's definitely had a mean girl's click,
so they're vying for the favor of maybe a more powerful,
more established Haram member, and if that means you have
to follow her vibe, Like if you know, if the

(28:06):
mean girl crew that you're trying to get with says, oh,
we don't like let's use Vanessa again as an example,
we don't like Vanessa, then if you want them to
like you, you have to also dislike Vanessa.

Speaker 2 (28:16):
This is very weirdly complicated, but it's also very weirdly
understandable relatable. If anyone's ever been in middle school, you
kind of get these same vibes just playground bullying and
like again, it's when you come up and you come
from nothing and you have this sort of attitude where
you want to survive. You're gonna glom on in that way,

(28:38):
even if sometimes it makes you go against your better
you know, the morals.

Speaker 1 (28:44):
Perhaps you know, it's like self preservation. If you say, well,
I think Vanessa isn't that bad, then you may become
the next object of bullying. That's right, or poisoning in
this case, yeah.

Speaker 2 (28:59):
And you know, even in middle school with her, where
there are those clicks, sometimes you join the mean girl
click just so yourself don't get bullied exactly, you know, Yeah, yeah,
I hate to see it, but there it.

Speaker 1 (29:11):
Is breaking news here in the Ottoman Empire and Harem's folks.
We are having such an immense time here. You know,
we were talking off air about whether or not this
would be a two parter. I think we defer to
Max the Sultan Williams, and we just got mured.

Speaker 2 (29:28):
He says he can neither confirm nor deny that he.

Speaker 1 (29:31):
Is a saultant. But I am here, now he is here,
and so we are going to call this a two parter.
There is so much more ridiculous history to get into.
We left it at a bit of a cliffhanger. We
don't want to leave you without a dope beat the
step two. So tune in Thursday for part two of
the Ottoman Empire's Notorious Harem System. Big big thanks to

(29:55):
our returning super producer, mister Max Williams, Big big thanks
to our guest producer Ben Sleeping Dog Hacket.

Speaker 2 (30:02):
Indeed, well geez.

Speaker 3 (30:04):
Thanks always to Christopherrasiotis and Eves Jeffcoat here in Spirit,
Jonathan Strickland, The quizt Aj Bahamas, Jacobs the Puzzler.

Speaker 1 (30:15):
Yes, Big, big thanks to doctor Rachel Big Spinach Lance Big,
thanks to Alex Williams who composed our soundtrack, and Noel
Big thanks to you.

Speaker 2 (30:24):
On you as well, Ben. We'll see you next time, folks.
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Noel Brown

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