While extensive armies and massive monuments have always served as traditional proof of the might of an emperor, yet another common way of underlining the ruler’s power and influence was keeping a large harem. Interestingly though the original meaning of harem did not imply a large collection of wives, concubines and female attendants fiercely guarded by male eunuchs. Originally a harem could indicate any specific area in the house or complex for the exclusive use of women and children. The exotic notion of harem was largely the product of European travelers and historians who were unfamiliar with the concept of separate living spaces for genders and thus embellished the concept of harems with extravagant and lascivious details, especially in relation to the large ones maintained by Oriental rulers. Here is a brief account of the some of the largest harems in history and the rulers who owned them.
- Grand Seraglio of Ottoman Sultan
The most famous harem in history is probably the Grand Seraglio of the Ottoman Sultans. The Sultans of the Ottoman Empire - which covered most of modern day Turkey – had typically many wives along with a large retinue of female attendants and servants. All these would be housed in a harem as would be the Sultan's mother, daughters and other female relatives. They all would be guarded by an army of eunuchs; since eunuchs were not fully male, only they would be allowed access to the harems which because of the principle of gender segregation could not be guarded by male soldiers.
The Imperial Harem of the Ottoman Empire occupied one of the large sections of the private apartments of the sultan at the Topkapi Palace which encompassed more than 400 rooms. While no official numbers exist on the number of its inmates, it massive size can be gauged on the basis of the fact at the height of its power, there were around six to eight hundred eunuchs serving in the harem1. After 1853, an equally lavish harem quarter was occupied at the new imperial palace at Dolmabahçe. The highest position in the harem was held by the Queen Mother or Valide Sultan, the mother of the Sultan, who may herself have been a concubine of the sultan's father and rose to the supreme rank in the Harem. No concubine could leave or enter the premises of the Harem without the explicit permission of the Queen Mother. The power of the Queen Mother over concubines even extended to questions of life and death, with eunuchs directly reporting to her. Next in rank came the female consorts of the Sultan and then the concubines. The concubine with whom the sultan shared his bed became a member of the dynasty and rose in rank to attain the status of Gözde (the Lucky), Ikbal (the Favourite) or Kadın (the Wife).
- Ismail ibn Sharif
Ismail ibn Sharif holds the distinction of fathering probably the maximum number of children in history – not surprisingly he also had one of the largest harems, housing more than five hundred concubines2. The Moroccan ruler was second in line of the Moroccan Alaouite dynasty and reigned from 1672 to 1727. Like other members of the dynasty, Moulay Ismail too claimed to be a descendant of Muhammad through his roots to Hassan ibn Ali. Known in his native country as the "Warrior King", Ismail fought the Ottoman Turks and gained respect for Moroccan sovereignty. Today though he is widely known for another reason, that of fathering more than eight hundred children.
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- King Tamba of Benaras The distinction for owning the largest harem in history could well belong to 6th century BCE King Tamba of Banaras. It is believed that his harem included some sixteen thousand inmates and was presided over by the chief queen Sussondi. An account of this king is given in one of the Jatakas3, a series of ancient text in Buddhism which describe the lives of Bodhisattvas or earlier reincarnations of Buddha.
- Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din Kilji
The 15-century Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din Kilji's harem numbered fifteen thousand4 and required him to build a separate walled city to house them. In fact, Jahaz Mahal, today one of the prime attractions of Mandu – a place in Central India – and designed like a ship is believed to have been constructed as a pleasure spot for the inmates of his harem
- King Mongkut of Siam
During the 1800s, King Mongkut of Siam housed his nine thousand women5 in a totally contained city with its own government, recreational facilities, and a theater. The 19th-century ruler was eventually featured in the autobiographical book Anna and the King of Siam, which became the inspiration behind the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I and a later film version, titled Anna and the King.
- Genghis Khan
One of the most feared warriors of all times, Genghis Khan is best known for founding the Mongol Empire which after his death became the large contiguous empire in history. However new research into the life of Genghis Khan shows that apart from being one of history’s biggest conquerors, he could well be one of the most prolific lovers of all times. Genghis Khan had six Mongolian wives, the first being Borte of the Onggirat tribe to whom he was affianced when only nine years old. Later, he went on to establish a large harem and he married many daughters of foreign kings, even though Börte would be his only empress. Apparently the inmates of his harem numbered anything between two to three thousand6. The myth is now borne out by science as well since after analyzing tissue samples in populations bordering Mongolia, scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences believe the brutal ruler has 16 million male descendants living today which is nearly 8% of the population of Central Asia7.
- Emperor Jehangir
The Mughal ruler, Emperor Jahangir of India maintained a harem of over one thousand women8 during the early years of the 17th century. At the same time, Jahangir also kept close to another thousand young man-in-waiting for those times when his appetite tended toward the other gender.
Ashoka, the great emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty in India, kept a harem of around five hundred women. The book A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th century by historian Upinder Singh9 mentions how once when a few of the women insulted Emperor Ashok, he had all of them burnt to death.
- Montezuma II
In Mexico, Aztec ruler Montezuma II, who met Cortes, kept four thousand concubines10. According to the reports given by Franciscans after the war with Aztecs, every member of the Aztec nobility was supposed to have had as many consorts as he could afford. This could number into scores among lesser, while extend to the hundreds among greater lords.
- Amenophis III
Amenophis III of ancient Egypt, who was also father of Akhenaten, started a harem with Tiy, his one Great Wife. Eventually he went on to add two Syrian princesses, two Babylonian princesses, one Arzawa princess, "droves" of Egyptian women, and two princesses from Mitanni, one of whom alone brought along 317 ladies-in-waiting. Later Egyptian kings would also follow the example of Amenophis III by making a "constant demand" of provincial governors for more beautiful servant girls.
- All About Turkey - The Ottoman harem
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- Sacred-texts.com – SUSSONDI-JĀTAKA
- The Hindu - Poetry in stone
- Howzit MSN - The Most Macho Leaders in History
- Howzit MSN - The Most Macho Leaders in History - Genghis Khan
- Mail Online - Genghis Khan: The daddy of all lovers
- Dawn.com - EXCERPTS: Life in a Mughal harem
- Upinder Singh (2008). A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th century. Pearson Education. p. 332. ISBN 978-81-317-1677-9.
- Michigan Today - Sex in History