Thought it may seem to have been associated with the Ottomans, the history of the Harem dates back to the Assyrians. The veiling of women which is known to have ever existed in various pre-Islamic civilizations of the Middle-East and the Mediterranean, has become a way of life, changing among communities in the course of time.

In 1299, with the appearance of the Ottomans in the stage of history, the harem life, the seclusion and veiling of women or various institutions and customs such as poligamy and keeping concubines became a natural part of the islamic way of life. Still, the houses which adopted such institutions were always the residence of the monarch, the grand viziers and clergy, for the most part.


The literal meaning of the word Harem is restricted place, house of peace and serenity. From the ordinary household to the Royal Court, they all included a harem consisting of wives, concubines and children under the virtual authority of the man of the house. While the harem with its private gardens served as the living area for women, men lived in different areas of the household called selamlık.


Members of the Royal Court, who earlier used to marry the princesses of Christian origin, later began to take women from neighboring countries' dynasties and princedoms regardless of faith. After the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent (1495-1566) this practice was completely abandoned and the Ottoman Dynasty restricted the harem only to women of concubine origins. In earlier times, concubines were women from Balkan countries, but later they were mostly chosen from Circassians and Georgians famed for their beauty. Those women were raised in the palace in the best possible way. Those who grew up to become pretty women were qualified for the service of the monarch as odalık (odalisques) and quite a large number of them were employed in the general services of the palace. Private Odalisques were chosen among them and the one chosen by the monarch himself would become the gözde (favourite). Than if the (favourite) gave birth, she was promoted to the rank of haseki or ikbal (wife) and all the way up to kadınefendi. So the concubines with power could be promoted up to Valide Sultan (the Sultan's Mother), so to become the most powerful woman of the Empire.


It was haznedar ustas who were responsible of organizing, maintaining and proper functioning of the harem There were a large number of service concubines. These ustas supervised many masters, craftsmen and concubines. Those in charge of many private services to the monarch, were also engaged in other services such as preparation of the bathroom, dressing up the monarch, laundry, arranging dinner tables, coffee services and keeping the royal cellar. The concubines responsible for conducting general services, were engaged in bathing, clothing, warming up the hamam, arranging weddings and feasts, delivering babies, and childcare services for all the inhabitants of the harem. All the masters, craftsmen and concubines were entitled to receive a daily allowance based on professional experience. They could leave the harem at the end of their ninth year at the palace and those wanting to get married, could attain their freedom after receiving a duly prepared permission given by the sultan himself.


The harem was administered under certain laws and rules and women could leave the premises only under special circumstances provided they have obtained a leave permission which would allow them to, for example, visit another place or hamam. On rare occasions, they could go for a stroll accompanied by a black eunuch. Protecting and guarding the harem was carried out by the chief black eunuch or harem chief who was also a black eunuch.


In the harem, education in reading, writing, history, geography and mathematics was provided-if women wants to learn-and particular care was given to reciting the Koran. Music and dancing classes were open to all women ; female composers, musicians, singers and dancers played a considerable part in the harem.


The harem quarters of the Topkapı Palace, one of the largest in the Empire has been continuously enlarged starting with Süleyman the Magnificent's era and reached to 400 rooms. Changing from time to time there were between 200 and 1000 people living in the harems of different palaces.


The harem life which has become the focal point of enchanting eastern fables and oriental fantasies throughout generations, has come to an end in 1923, by the foundation of Turkish Republic.


In 1924, the Topkapı Palace was transformed into a museum.