Monday 8 April 2019

#HistoricalFiction author, Merryn Allingham, is taking a look at what life was like in an Ottoman imperial harem #History @MerrynWrites

Turkish Delight
By Merryn Allingham

In A Tale of Two Sisters I set out to send my heroine, Alice Verinder, to Constantinople in search of her sister, though at the time I had only the vaguest notion of Turkish society in the early years of the twentieth century. What I discovered surprised me.

When you read of the Ottoman period in European literature, stereotypes abound. Turkish wives are seen as slaves and chattels, locked away behind harem doors, but the truth was far more nuanced. The legal status of Turkish women of the time was better, in fact, than that of European wives. The Turkish wife had absolute control of her property and the law allowed her to do what she wished with it – either on marriage or if she later inherited. And she could act independently of her husband: maybe sue in court or be sued herself, without regard to him.  

Within their own homes, too, Turkish women had more power than was commonly thought and were treated with courtesy and respect. Outside the home, they were similarly respected. It was considered a sin to stare at women in public, for instance. And if a man behaved badly towards a woman, regardless of his position or religion, he would not escape punishment.

Women never went out alone, but were free from unwanted attention.

When Alice travels to Topkapi Palace to find Lydia – her younger sister has been teaching two young girls from the imperial family – she is housed in the harem and, at first, is scandalised by the idea. Yet the harem was not just a space in which women were guarded, it was a place of retreat to be respected. Although a husband had the right to enter the apartments of his wives at all hours, he rarely availed himself of the privilege, since the women would resent such an intrusion. Instead, one room of the harem was kept for the master and it was here he would meet his chosen wife.

Female and male parts of the house were therefore clearly demarcated. Children mixed freely with adults and were included as a natural part of harem activities, with Ottoman women being  devoted mothers. Victorian female visitors, accustomed to children being kept in totally separate quarters, often concluded that children in Ottoman families were overly indulged. Young boys remained with their mothers in the harem until they were seven, then would begin to participate in male company in the semalik, the male portion of the house. Girls remained in the harem until they married and took on the responsibility of running their own households  – from childhood they were trained to be wives and mothers.

Leisure time in the harem.

Good manners were prized in this society and personal cleanliness, too, was seen as essential. Baths and hammams abounded and the harem itself was clean and orderly. Wooden floors were covered with carpets beaten daily, and the rest of the house scrubbed every week. No dirt, dust or footmark was allowed – every man and woman, regardless of rank, would take off their outdoor shoes for indoor slippers. The cleanliness and order of the imperial harem is one of the first things that strikes Alice.

Bathing Ottoman style — the slave is attentive, read to assist.

The harem itself was a collection of spacious but sparsely furnished rooms. There was a large meeting room in the middle, with smaller rooms branching off – this was the anteroom where the women socialised, along with their female guests and female slaves. A gallery bordered the whole, with windows most often looking out onto the garden. Any windows that faced the street were covered with latticed shutters. In the homes of the wealthy, marble fountains were sometimes found in the anterooms.

Women spent virtually all their time within these rooms. If there was a garden, they would walk there regularly though always with a companion. If they went out publicly, it was with another woman or with one of their female slaves. Only elderly women could go alone! And so a natural modesty was assured. If a woman’s behaviour aroused the slightest suspicion she might be unchaste, she was despised and her husband and family humiliated. Even neighbours would feel their honour tarnished.
Ottoman women in the garden.

The slave system in the Ottoman Empire was very different from that of plantation life in the US and the Caribbean. Males could be either military or domestic slaves and females almost always domestic. Within the gender segregation, there was a racial hierarchy at work, too. African women were cooks and given menial work, while white female slaves performed more specialised tasks like making and serving coffee or attending dinner trays or acting as nursemaids. Nineteenth century European women visitors reported that slave women had an astonishingly large amount of leisure time and freedom of speech and action inside the harem. They saw the slaves’ lives as preferable to those of domestic servants in the West.

 The harem itself was an institution governed by a strict hierarch, extensively and intricately layered.
Also slavery was temporary. White women were obliged to serve as slaves for nine years but black women from Africa only seven, as they were thought less well-suited to a colder climate. When a woman was freed from slavery, she received a legally valid certificate of emancipation. She could ask to stay with her former master’s family for life and would be looked after, or she could request to be married. If she chose to marry, she was given a trousseau, jewellery, home furnishings and often a house of her own. The freed slave received a pension of life from his or her master and would keep strong ties with their former family. Many former slave women, particularly those trained in the harems of the elite, married men of high position.

As a result, it was possible to see slavery as a vehicle of upper mobility, a social ladder, rather than a badge of disdain. This is something that Lydia Verinder, a keen suffragette, finds almost impossible to understand. Many young girls from poor families volunteered to become slaves, or their families sold them into slavery, believing they would have a better future. Others might be captured during tribal raids and sold to slave dealers for profit.

In an imperial palace like Topkapi, most slave girls were not concubines – only those at the top of the palace training system, who excelled in intelligence, character and accomplishments as well as beauty, were eligible as concubine candidates. In addition to being a residence for the royal family, the imperial harem was a training institution – a kind of royal finishing school. The women destined to be concubines were often trained by the sultan’s mother herself. The Valide Sultan in A Tale of Two Sisters has complete control over every woman and every slave in the imperial harem.

 Dancing and music were some of the skills a concubine in the imperial harem would need. (A Harem by J.G. Delincourt).
Other young slave girls were assigned to an experienced slave woman who trained them in elaborate Ottoman etiquette. The girls would be taught to speak and read Turkish and also taught the basic beliefs and practices of Islam. They learned to sew and embroider and, if they had musical talent, taught to play an instrument or to sing or dance. Both Alice and Lydia are, at different times, entranced by the skills of the women they live with.

My heroines soon have their preconceptions shattered. Yet they both find Topkapi a mysterious and often threatening place. Never more so than when Alice shows herself determined to uncover her sister’s fate and by doing so, faces danger at every turn.

A Tale of Two Sisters

Separated by time and distance, two sisters seek answers for all they’ve lost.

When Alice Verinder’s beloved sister Lydia goes missing, Alice boards the Orient Express bound for Topkapi Palace in Constantinople, determined to find her.

Lydia was governess to the Sultan’s young children and though her letters spoke of exotic delights and welcoming hosts, the reception Alice receives is decidedly cold and answers unforthcoming.

Now, as Alice digs deeper into the secrets of a land foreign to her she has only Englishman Harry Frome to help her. But as their search uncovers unforeseen dangers and exposes an unexpected passion, is Alice ready for the truths they’ll uncover?

Pick up your copy of
A Tale of Two Sisters.

Merryn Allingham
Merryn Allingham was born into an army family and spent her childhood moving around the UK and abroad. Unsurprisingly it gave her itchy feet and in her twenties she escaped from an unloved secretarial career to work as cabin crew and see the world.
Merryn  still loves to travel and visit new places, especially those with an interesting history, but the arrival of marriage, children and cats meant a more settled life in the south of England, where she has lived ever since. It also gave her the opportunity to go back to 'school' and eventually teach at university.
She has written seven historical novels, all mysteries with a helping of suspense and a dash of romance - sometimes set in exotic locations and often against a background of stirring world events. Her latest novel, A Tale of Two Sisters, is set in Constantinople at the turn of the 20th century when rebellion within the Ottoman Empire is growing ever louder. Against this background the novel traces the fate of two sisters, Alice and Lydia Verinder, and explores themes of family, love and loss.
For the latest news of Merryn's writing, visit her website or join her on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. I found your article very interesting, Merryn; we do indeed have a lot of misconceptions in the West about the status of women in Ottoman Turkey. It was a surprise to me to discover how much influence and power they had.Thank you!

  2. Merryn, what a fascinating piece. As a dedicated Dorothy Dunnett fan, I remember reading up on the harem after I read Pawn in Frankincense and finding a lot of what I discovered confounded my preconceptions. Good luck with the book. It sounds great!

  3. Hi Anna

    Thank you for the good wishes. I think the more you delve into different periods of history and different cultures, the more you realise how much your knowledge is shaped by your own culture. The book was a delight to write - and a writer can't always say that!


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx