Harems, zenanas, cities of women… words that evoke scenes of flowing veils, mysteries and wealth. Hidden. Luxurious. Enticing. If you flew on a magic carpet over the walls of a Royal Harem, you would come to rest at a vast, central courtyard in the most private area of the king’s palace.
Gardens, apartments, and baths surround you. Water gurgles and splashes from fountains, tanks and waterways. Tapestries, mosaics, ornamented niches and casual treasures abound. Rare rugs cover marble floors. Soft cushions and low divans are placed near tables loaded with fruits and wines. Perfumed smoke rises from oil in silver lamps. Fresh flowers twist around columns. The ease and luxury is created for thousands of women who live here, supported by their king.
Contrary to common perception, the queens, concubines and slave girls with access to the king’s bed represent only a small percentage of the thousands of women within the Royal Harem. Princesses and sisters of the emperor and their slaves, attendants and artisans needed to satisfy every need also called the harem home. There are widowed relatives and their daughters and their servants and attendants; the retainers of a previous king’s wives who couldn’t be dismissed simply because their mistress died; female relatives of the king; widows of valiant soldiers and the many servants of each of these females. In addition, there are menial workers who maintain the dazzle of this Royal Harem.
But are the days spent hours idling in perfumed waters of the bath, battling with roses as weapons, being massaged with scented oils and powders, presenting and watching plays, listening really enough? Some women didn’t think so. Men knew so.
To examine the “mechanics” of a carpet we look at the knots on the underside of the design. To do the same for a royal harem, we look beyond the staggering opulence and examine the basic structure.
The second of these three articles on harems will explore the Royal Harem from the point of view of the men who created and maintained the institution. The third article is from the point of view of the women inhabitants. Some content. Some not.