13 May 2008

Families & Children: At Home in the Harem

By Lisa Yarde

To step into an Islamic home in the Middle Ages was to enter an exotic but familiar world. Family life revolved around the sanctuary of the women. Known to the West as harem, the term referred to the inner sanctum of a house and its mainly female occupants. It was unlawful for men who had no close blood ties to the residents to enter and when the men were absent from the household, women, their families and female friends could venture where they pleased. Orientalism of the 18th and 19th centuries imagined that harems were nothing more than brothels where sensuous young women awaited the pleasure of their master. Most of the occupants found comfort and security behind the walls of their sanctuary, but some suffered a dull and restricted existence.

Harems varied in size dependent on social stature. One of the largest and most opulent was the harem of Topkapi Palace, home to the female relations and servants of the Ottoman Sultans. Begun by Sultan Mehmed II, the Topkapi complex comprised among four main courtyards and several smaller buildings. At the height of its construction, Topkapi's harem boasted three hundred rooms, including the residence of the ruler's mother, the Sultan Valide. Her apartments featured a dining room, bedchamber, reception and prayer rooms, featuring colorful glazed tiles and porcelain. Marble baths, gold lattice work and honeycombed glass ceilings completed the splendor of the harem.

Upper and middle class harems featured their own luxuries. Sofas arranged around three walls of a reception room in the harem, were covered with silk cushions. Mattresses and rugs from Persia adorned the wooden or tiled floors. Costly fabrics, such as embroidered satin and silk became decorative window and wall curtains. Carved wood, porcelain tiles and terracotta ornamentation were used to beautify the house. Copper braziers and perforated incense burners provided warmth and gave a sweet-smelling odor to any harem. Even practical items such as cosmetic containers, and ewer and basin sets were fashioned in brass or glazed pottery.

Within the harem, the women ruled. But without the status that motherhood conferred, a woman's position could not be assured. Motherhood has been a badge of honor in Islamic society and from its earliest days, tradition held that, "Paradise is at the mother's feet." In particular, the mothers of sons were esteemed. Death in childbirth and other complications were always possible. The midwife, a respected and valued member of Islamic communities, facilitated a safe delivery and maintained the health of the mother. When children were born, the Muslim call to prayer and confession of the faith were whispered in their ears. Feasting always followed the birth of a son. The new mother could not leave the harem for forty days afterward, but in most societies, her female friends traditionally visited her on the seventh day after the birth. Rich women could afford the services of a wet nurse. In Saudi Arabia today, it remains a custom that the children of women suckled by the same wet nurse are considered "milk brothers and sisters," allowed to interact without many of the societal restrictions.

Children remained with their mothers in the sanctuary of the harem; at the age of seven, boys were more likely to be drawn into their father's social sphere. Boys were circumcised by at least the age of five. Most harems were staffed by nursemaids and slaves, who served an important role in rearing and tending to children. The boys and girls played a variety of games and had toys; part of the modern celebrations at the end of the Ramadan fast is the presentation of gifts to children. There were dolls for girls, at least from the eleventh century onward, and hobby-horses for boys.

With the onset of puberty, girls had greater restrictions placed on them. They typically began to wear veils at eight or nine. Gold coins, which were given to them at birth, decorated the cloth. Their interactions with males were limited to their fathers and brothers. Sometimes they were also permitted to talk to the sons of other close blood relatives, but a potential husband could be found among first cousins. The girls learned the household arts from their mothers, until they married and perpetuated the circle of harem life.