Ah the harem. Such images are conjured up by that word. Images of wanton, lusty concubines, semi-clad in silken garments, draped on couches amongst tinkling fountains. We imagine a place of intrigue, whispers and plots. We picture the subtle political manoeuvring of eunuchs and courtesans and fancy to overhear their hushed conversations in perfumed gardens.
No doubt all of this went on, but the image above owes more to western imagination than to historical veracity. I have therefore been reading a little of harems of late, since I am about to thrust my heroine into one and I did not want to do so based purely on clichés, although I fully intend to incorporate all of the above and more besides!
The institution of the harem is an ancient one. At its most innocuous the word refers merely to ‘the women’s quarters.’ This dispels the great preconception that a harem was exclusively a den of pleasure for the ruler, stocked with exotic totty. Whilst this comprised an essential element of any harem worth the name, the term encompasses a far larger community, which included female members of the ruling family; mothers, wives and daughters as well as secondary wives and also concubines and numerous servants. The harem of the Persian ruler Khusrow II, for which my heroine is destined, allegedly contained 3000 wives and 12,000 concubines and other women. I find this a staggering figure. The harem was a city within a city, and however great the libido of the ruler, a great majority of the women kept within must surely never have graced the royal bed. Certainly this seemed to be the case in that most famous of harems; the Seraglio of the Ottoman Sultans. Here a girl was considered over the hill at just 22. If she had failed to catch the eye of the Sultan by the time she reached this age, she was effectively on the scrap heap; condemned to live out her days, a sad and forgotten thing, rotting in her gilded cage.
So much then for the orgies, what about the plotting?
Here we are on a surer footing. The keeping of a multitude of wives ensured that a ruler begat a multitude of heirs and rivalry between would-be queen-mothers inevitably ensued. One famous example of a harem conspiracy comes from the reign of Ramses III of Egypt; struck down at the instigation of one of his principle wives in a failed attempt to secure the succession of her son, who was not the preferred heir to the throne. The recent discovery of the large gash in throat of Ramses' mummy has revealed the likely cause of death.
When it comes to the art of intrigue we imagine the figure of the devious palace eunuch at the centre of every conspiracy. As the only ‘male’ trusted within the confines of the harem by virtue of his mutilation, the eunuch was in a unique position and there are many examples of these courtiers being drawn into or fomenting plots against their masters. The most infamous eunuch from the pages of history has to be Bagoas; who poisoned not one but two Kings of Persia before finally being undone in the act of attempting to poison a third, Darius III, who compelled the treacherous eunuch to drink the poison himself.
The harem certainly makes a fine setting for all manner of shenanigans and I am greatly looking forward to cooking up my own harem conspiracy.
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