Ihsan: The Tale of an Imperial Eunuch

Warning: This post contains references to genital mutilation




The Chief Black Eunuch at Topkapi Palace, approx. 1912

Eunuchs held a special role within the Ottoman Empire. These slaves were not viewed as capable of sexuality, and so were often used as guards of the harems in elite households. 


Castration is illegal according to the Hanafi school of Islamic law, and eunuchs could not be created by Muslims. Ottoman Eunuchs were thus created either outside of Ottoman jurisdiction or by religious minorities, primarily Coptic Christians in Egypt. The practice of keeping eunuch slaves dates back to the time of the Babylonian Empire; it is unclear how the keeping of eunuchs came to the Ottoman Empire. 


There was an official distinction between White and Black eunuchs in the Imperial Palaces, based on their skin color and region of origin. White eunuchs were from the Balkans and were not allowed in the harem after 1582, when they became instructors at Imperial schools. The Black eunuchs came mostly from Sudan and Ethiopia. As guardians of the harem, they were often the center of palace intrigue, and the Chief Black Eunuch was considered in many periods of the Empire to be one of the most powerful figures in administration.


Ihsan was a eunuch from Ethiopia. As a child, he was seized by slave traders due to his father's debt. 


Ihsan was made a eunuch by the slave traders. Other slaves would be brought to Egypt, where the castration would take place. The survival rate for the procedure was approximately ten percent, making these eunuchs extremely valuable in the slave market. 
In Jidda, now Saudi Arabia, Ihsan was purchased by Omer Nasif Efendi, the agent of the Sherif (guardian) of Mecca, who then gave him to Ali Pasha, the grand vizier (adviser to the Sultan). Pasha passed him into the royal household, where he eventually served Murat V, who would be cast out of the palace in 1876 by the ascension of Abdulhamid II. When Murat V was deposed, the freed Ihsan and five other slaves, who were sent to Mecca, to work in a special eunuch corps at the Kaaba shrine. 





The Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Ihsan worked at the Kaaba for about three years, but was then suddenly transferred to Medina, where his income was cut off. Running out of money, he decided to ask for permission to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, then fled to the British consulate in Jidda, where he managed to convince the British authorities that he would be mistreated if recaptured by the Ottomans. Eventually the British authorities acceded to his request for protection, and he was transported to Egypt, where he presumably lived out his life. 


He was approximately 19-20 years old at the time of his escape.


This story of Ihsan is taken from Ehud Toledano's book As If Silent and Absent: Bonds of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East. Copyright 2007, Yale University Press. 

Toyotas of War

Diwaniyya Contributor

2 comments:

  1. good histroy record in simple writing on eunuch of arabia. i was studying about it. thanks admin and allow me to share it in my blog. thanks Ben Silsbee

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    1. @Mahadzira, thank you for the compliment and please feel free to share this piece on your blog!

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