Eunuchs in the Imperial Harem




 Eunuch guarding a Harem in Tunis

The harem was a complex and multifaceted institution, and in order to fully understand the way it functioned, we must not only attempt to understand the plight of the female slaves who resided within the many harems scattered throughout the palaces in the empire, but also through an understanding of the eunuch, a group of castrated males, who were responsible for guarding the harem and more importantly the women within. The role of the Eunuch was more than a job appointment; it was inexorably linked to both the royal family and the political tidings of the Empire.

The information that has been gathered on the eunuch comes from the Register of the Biographies of the Imperial African Eunuchs, which chronicled the life of the eunuch, both in regards to the details of the royal family’s acquisition of the eunuch as well as the nature of their former slave positions. What remains unclear is where the process of castration took place. There were three ways in which castration of the Eunuch of the Ottoman Empire took place: the removal of the penis and the testicles, the removal of the testicles alone, and the removal of the penis alone.  The former practice was the most common within the Ottoman Empire, and while the practice varied the result was all the same—the inability to sexually reproduce as well as long lasting physical and psychological repercussions. The belief was that, since he would always be childless, he would have no need to be disloyal to the Empire through his access to the harem.


The roles of the eunuch on a day-to-day basis included locking and unlocking the doors of the harem, keeping watch over those who entered and left, and ensuring that outsiders did not enter.  Upon recruitment and initiation into the harem eunuchs were trained in a “school for eunuchs” where they were taught, “their practical duties, introduced to palace etiquette, and accustomed to the life of an eunuch.” The newly inducted eunuchs were at the bottom of the hierarchy; however, as one ascended the ranks of power they were unofficially given a large role in the Ottoman political system. Most notable is the influence of the African eunuchs whose rise to power beginning in the sixteenth century, and lasting well into the eighteenth is termed the “Sultanate of the African Eunuchs". During this period over 70 Africans advanced to the status of Chief Black Eunuch. Due to the eunuch’s role as confidant to the master, which was generated through the innate trust which was placed in the eunuch, they exerted a lot of influence over the Empire which has been cited as playing a role in the decline and fall of the Empire. Yet, as close as the eunuch was to the master, it was highly unusual for a chief harem eunuch to hold that office until his death and as such would be removed from the center of political power.

Despite the power that was acquired by the eunuch through the nature of his position, the eunuch could never escape what it meant to hold this position in court—While retirement and manumission was recorded among eunuchs, the eunuch was subject to being reappointed to an active role when their services were needed.  Ultimately he was rendered handicapped and would forever be classified in this role.

 Quotes are taken from Ehud Toledano's article "The Imperial Eunuchs of Istanbul: From Africa to the Heart of Islam" found in Middle Eastern Studies, Vol 20, Number 3(Jul. 1984). pp 379-390.

Ariel Brickman

Diwaniyya Contributor

3 comments:

  1. What was the relationship was between the eunuchs and the ever powerful women of the harem, specifically the Valide Sultan and the Kadins who were quite influential in their own right. I am also curious if there was a difference in status between the The Chief Black Eunuch (Kizlar Agha), mentioned above and further elaborated on in the previous post, and the The Chief White Eunuch (Kapi Agha) and whether or not their was a change in their respective roles over the long history of the Ottoman empire.

    Looking forward to your next post!

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  2. The reasoning behind the distinction made between the European and African eunuch is still not fully understood. Initially white eunuchs from the Balkans, Hungary, and the Caucasus were largely responsible for guarding the Harem. With the Ottoman's conquest of the Mamluk sultanate, the Ottomans were given easy access to the trade in African slaves. Consequently, large numbers of Abyssinian and other eastern African eunuchs became more prominent in the Ottoman palace. Interestingly, white Eunuchs remained responsible for guarding the front the sultan's audience chamber while the position of Chief Harem Eunuch was dominated by African eunuchs. Some have conjectured that the distinction was correlated to imperial endowments and their stipulations for who would be responsible for the supervision of the endowment.

    In addition to eunuchs and female-slaves , the harem was also the place of residence for the sultan's wives and other women of the imperial family. As such, they had the ability to exert an unprecedented degree of influence not only on palace affairs but on imperial policy. Most significantly, until the time that Ottoman princes were called to the throne, they resided in special rooms of the Harem referred to as the "Cage". This meant that the sultan's mother had large influence on the prince's education and political outlook. This power rose dramatically in the first half of the seventeenth century and as such it has been termed “The Sultanate of the Women." The rise in the influence of the Harem in Ottoman politics is directly associated with the influence of the women of the Harem. The rise in power of Harem women directly correlated with the rise in influence of eunuchs. Ehud Tolenado's research showed that "generally speaking, the more powerful the ladies of the Court were the more influential the eunuchs became."

    Hope this information helped answer your questions.

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  3. Thank you for such a thorough and enlightening answer! How interesting! From my understanding, the Jews, for much of the empire's history enjoyed cultural and economical prosperity. I wonder whether this meant that the Jews, in addition to the Muslims also owned slaves, and whether or not they were allowed to own non Jewish slaves as well. We often view the Jews as a single unit, especially when under the rule of such a powerful monarchy, but I'd also be curious to see if you can find significant differences, both economically as well as with regards to the Jewish intellectual materials that were produced, between the different geographical provinces within the empire.

    Thanks again for replying to my last post. Looking forward to hearing from you.

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