In selecting a concubine, a Sultan held a regular weekly levee at which the virgins of the harem were brought in for his inspection; he dropped a hankerchief at the feet of the one who pleased him most, indicating she was “gozde” and might hope for a summons to the royal bedchamber. When this came she was dressed in silk and jewels, and perfumed with ambergris, with kohl on her eyes and henna on her fingernails, and conducted to the Sultan by the Chief Black Eunuch, all in strict secrecy so that the other women wouldn’t be waiting to scratch her eyes out the moment she got back.
The Sultan’s bed had wrought silver bedposts topped with crystal lions holding in their teeth a gold cloth canopy. He liked the idea of owning a bed, like European rulers,but he slept, as his ancestors did in their tents, on a mattress spread on the floor. Two old Moorish women stood at his head with burning torches so that he might have light to say his beads at the last and the first hours of prayer, as the Koran frowns upon praying in the dark.
A concubine arriving to spend the night was required to enter the bed from the foot, inching her way up from under the covers until she lay level with the Sultan. This performance was also expected of husbands of the Sultan’s daughters. These princesses, who wore a silver dagger at their belts to remind their consorts of whom outranked whom, were in no demand at all as brides, for their husbands not only took orders from them, but could claim no special familiarity with their father-in-law. Children of such unions were not allowed at court at all, and the princesses’ dowries could not be inherited by husband or children but reverted to the sultanate, as, indeed, did all the wealth of even the greatest pashas in this slave state.
Eventually, the strange life of the Seraglio began to languish after the destruction of the janissaries and the at least partial exposure to Western culture that the Sultan’s could no longer avoid. After 1851, the old Seraglio was used only to house the harems of Sultans who had died. One of the last official events there took place in 1909, after Abdul Hamid II had been deposed and forcibly retired to Adrianople together with fifteen hundred concubines, a guard of eunuchs and his favorite cat. A public notice appeared in the newspapers, stating that anyone having a relative who was a member of the Imperial Harem might, by calling at the Seraglio, reclaim her.
On an appointed day, the entire harem, all twelve hundred, were assembled without veils while hundreds of Caucasian mountaineers and other Christian people from outposts in the Turkish Empire filed through seeking to recognize in these elegant ladies their daughters and sisters. Not all were claimed or wanted to be. Some had been spoken for by rich pashas who were anxious for beautiful and delicately bred wives; some nobody came for; some quailed at the prospect of a peasant’s life and chose to spend the rest of their days in reduced but genteel circumstances there in the old Seraglio, which thus ended as an old ladies’ home.