Shemsigul's Story: Life as an Ottoman Slave


“Veiled Circassian Beauty” a painting by Jean Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Shemisgul’s story was told to the police in 1857.

Warning: This blog post contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault and violence.

Shemsigul was a girl born in the late 1830’s or 1840’s to a Circassian family in the Caucasus mountains. Shemsigul was sold to a wealthy slave dealer named Deli Mehmet, who operated out of Cairo, making frequent Mediterranean and Indian Ocean excursions in search of slaves. She was likely sold by a relative or local slave dealer to Mehmet.

Deli Mehmet wished to place Shemsigul into an elite harem, as a concubine, a position reserved for relatively few white slaves. Slavery in the Ottoman Empire had much to do with the slave’s geographic origins and gender: African female slaves were considered less desirable as concubines than slaves from the Balkans.

Slavery in the Ottoman Empire differed from many other  forms of slavery in that relatively few Ottoman slaves were agricultural workers. No matter the status of the slave, however, the conditions could often be brutalizing. Ehud Toledano translates a portion of Shemsigul’s testimony to police investigators about allegations against the slave trader, Deli Mehmet. Shemsigul was in her teens at the time she gave this testimony, which covers a two-year period.

“After I had stayed at Mehmet Ali Pasha’s palace for five months, it was suspected that I was pregnant. A midwife was brought in to examine me, and she verified that I was indeed pregnant. So they summoned Deli Mehmet and returned me to him.”

"The Reception" by English Painter John Frederick Lewis. This picture has many features of the common Western idea of a harem, which tended to focus on the erotic elements.
 Under Ottoman law, a slave who bore a child to her master would be freed upon his death. She could not be resold to another master, and the child was considered free. This meant that Semisgul’s pregnancy by Deli Mehmet, which we are informed was nonconsensual, would have cost Mehmet’s household a great deal of money. Shemisgul informs the police that Mehmet provided her with abortifacient drinks. Mehmet is confident that she is not pregnant, and sells her to the palace.

Many Europeans wrote fanciful and erotic stories of their visits to Ottoman harems; the reality was more mundane. Many wealthy Ottoman subjects maintained a harem, which comes from an Arabic root meaning “to protect”. Physically, the harem was separate area of the house, which sometimes contained full living quarters. In the Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman Sultan resided, the harem contained the living quarters for the entire royal family and was guarded by eunuch slaves.

After Shemisgul is sold, the wife of her owner realizes she is pregnant. The wife of Deli Mehmet sees her pregnancy and brings in a midwife to abort the child. The midwife refuses, citing Shemisgul’s advanced pregnancy. At this point, Shemisgul says,

“...the woman would not stop. She fetched a clothespress, hit me with it several times on my stomach and back, and [then] beat me with a mincing rod.”

Ottoman slaves could live in many different conditions, from squalor in the houses of poorer owners to opulence in Topkapi Palace. Yet no matter the grandeur of their housing, their very bodies were the property of their masters, who could do with them as they saw fit. There were legal protections for slaves in the Ottoman Empire; we know of Shemisgul’s story because it appears in a deposition. Ottoman slavery was a complex phenomenon that evolved over the 700 year existence of the Empire. 
 The story of Shemisgul is extracted from  Ehud Toledano's 1998 book Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East, published by University of Washington Press.

Toyotas of War

Diwaniyya Contributor