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The Concubine, the Princess, and the Teacher

Voices from the Ottoman Harem

Translated and edited by Douglas Scott Brookes

Publication Year: 2008

In the Western imagination, the Middle Eastern harem was a place of sex, debauchery, slavery, miscegenation, power, riches, and sheer abandon. But for the women and children who actually inhabited this realm of the imperial palace, the reality was vastly different. In this collection of translated memoirs, three women who lived in the Ottoman imperial harem in Istanbul between 1876 and 1924 offer a fascinating glimpse “behind the veil” into the lives of Muslim palace women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The memoirists are Filizten, concubine to Sultan Murad V; Princess Ayse, daughter of Sultan Abdulhamid II; and Safiye, a schoolteacher who instructed the grandchildren and harem ladies of Sultan Mehmed V. Their recollections of the Ottoman harem reveal the rigid protocol and hierarchy that governed the lives of the imperial family and concubines, as well as the hundreds of slave women and black eunuchs in service to them. The memoirists show that, far from being a place of debauchery, the harem was a family home in which polite and refined behavior prevailed. Douglas Brookes explains the social structure of the nineteenth-century Ottoman palace harem in his introduction. These three memoirs, written across a half century and by women of differing social classes, offer a fuller and richer portrait of the Ottoman imperial harem than has ever before been available in English.

Published by: University of Texas Press

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pp. viii

My sincere thanks to Hamid Algar and Selim Kuru for their generous assistance with particularly abstruse sections of the texts, to Hakan Karateke for his incisive comments on the manuscript, and to Hakan Erdem and Ehud Toledano for their insights into the nature of Ottoman concubinage. Very ...

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pp. 1-11

The imperial harem of the Ottoman sultans has long fascinated outsiders as a mélange of sex, debauchery, slavery, power, riches, and sheer abandon—in short, the incarnation of the most attractive vices. Concealed behind its own veil of circumspection, the imperial harem formed an object of mystery even in Ottoman culture, as decorum demanded respect for the ...

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PART ONE. Concubine Filizten

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pp. 12-120

The memoir of the Concubine Filizten constitutes one of only three known memoirs by slave women in the Ottoman palace harem.1 This alone makes her memoir noteworthy, but of additional interest is that this lady spent twenty-eight years confined in Çırağan Palace along with her deposed master, Sultan Murad V, and the other members of his entourage. ...

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PART TWO. The Princess Ayşe

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pp. 122-193

... At the overthrow of her father in 1909, the Princess followed her parents into exile at Salonica. Th e next year she returned to Istanbul, where she married and started a family, but later she divorced and subsequently remarried. At the expulsion of the imperial family in 1924 she left Turkey and resided in Paris. Her mother, on the other hand, chose to remain ...

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PART THREE. The Teacher Safiye

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pp. 194-272

... Hers is the unique perspective of an educated, inquisitive, perspicacious adult hired from outside the palace to fill a specific job within the harem, schoolteacher to the monarch’s grandchildren. As Safiye herself tells us, she was not only the first palace instructor with a degree, but also the first to reside within the harem instead of coming to the palace each day to teach. ...

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pp. 273-275

When considering the portrait of life in the imperial Ottoman harem that emerges from these memoirs, intriguingly enough we can conclude that the authors both corroborate and dispel the picture of harem life that flourished in the popular imagination then as now. For while in some aspects life in the harem differed wildly from that experienced by anyone not living in an Ottoman palace, in most ways the existence portrayed here ...

Glossary of Names

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pp. 277-291

Glossary of Terms and Places

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pp. 293-300


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pp. 301-303


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pp. 305-314

E-ISBN-13: 9780292793903
E-ISBN-10: 0292793901
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292718425
Print-ISBN-10: 029271842X

Page Count: 324
Illustrations: 28 b&w illus., 1 map
Publication Year: 2008