Life Within A Harem by Michelle Willingham

When I was researching my novella “Innocent in the Harem,” I’ll admit it came out of my own fascination with the secret world of the harem. What sort of world allowed a man to keep hundreds of odalisques, and what would it be like within the forbidden interior?

I used the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, as my setting, and when researching potential sultans, I found that Suleiman the Magnificent (also spelled Süleyman, 1494-1566) was the best candidate. He had several sons, whom he sent off to various provinces within his kingdom, in order to avoid rivalry between the heirs. When one of his sons posed a threat by allying with an enemy, Suleiman had him killed. Palace life was not for the faint of the heart, and sons of royal blood could easily be caught within intrigues and murder plots. The blood of princes could not be spilled, so poisoning and strangling were the preferred methods of execution. I created a fictional son for Suleiman, based on what I learned about the princes (in reality, Suleiman had eight sons by his wives).

In “Innocent in the Harem,” Prince Khadin’s life is in danger because Suleiman sees him as a threat to his heir. When Khadin rescues the beautiful Laila Binte Nur Hamidah from a slave market, he knows he may only have days left before his own execution. He takes her within the world of the harem, and Laila is awakened to the sensual environment.

Within the harem, bathing within the hamam was a popular pastime. The walls and floors were made of tile, and women would wear special sandals called pattens to prevent their feet from being burned from the heated marble. Body hair was considered sinful, and depilatory creams were used, the hair being scraped away with sharp shells. Slaves scrubbed the odalisques with loofahs and rinsed them off with water poured from gold and silver bowls. The women were massaged and perfumed daily, and after bathing, the women would recline in the tepidarium, where they would drink coffee and listen to stories.

The harem was strictly governed by the valide sultana, who was typically the sultan’s mother. The valide sultana would choose which women would share the sultan’s bed, and the women took turns. One unfortunate woman tried to trade her turn on the royal couch and was executed for it. And yet, the harem environment was one where women were treated as valuable, exquisite creatures. The concubines were well-educated, versed in music, languages, writing, sewing, and other arts. If an odalisque pleased the sultan, and particularly if she became pregnant, he might elevate her to the status of his wife.

Eunuchs protected the women and held valuable positions within the harem. Although they were castrated, some would still risk having illicit affairs with the women. The chief black eunuch, the kizlar ağasi held a political position and was often the foreign minister.

“Innocent in the Harem” follows the journey of Laila, a Bedouin horse whisperer, after she enters the harem and is brought to Prince Khadin. They share sensual nights together, even knowing that each night may be their last. And though Laila longs for her freedom, the longer she remains with her prince, the more she longs for both of them to escape the dangers of the palace.

(photographs courtesy of Michelle Styles)

You can read an excerpt from “Innocent in the Harem” at . I’ll be giving away a free download of “Innocent in the Harem” to one lucky commenter.

Any questions about life within the harem? I’ll do my best to answer!

About diane

Diane Gaston is the RITA award-winning author of Historical Romance for Harlequin Historical and Mills and Boon, with books that feature the darker side of the Regency. Formerly a mental health social worker, she is happiest now when deep in the psyches of soldiers, rakes and women who don’t always act like ladies.
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19 Responses to Life Within A Harem by Michelle Willingham

  1. Diane Gaston says:

    Welcome, Michelle! This one sounds sexy and exciting!!

  2. Thanks, Diane! It was really fascinating to find out just how dangerous it was back then.

    Another question for readers, if you have no questions about harems–what’s the most interesting setting you’ve read in a romance? My top three were China, Al Andalus (Spain), and the Caribbean. 😉

  3. Kat says:

    Sexy romance,exotic location,and intrigue. Sounds like a winner.

  4. Alison says:

    I have to say it sounds a perfectly dreadful existence! I’m glad I have slightly more control over my own destiny! I just read a romance set in 19thc Japan (or was it China?) – The Concubine by Jade Lee and it too depicted a harem-style setting.

  5. Aloha, Michelle!

    When I think of Harems, I think of Barbara Eden as I Dream of Genie!

    The most interesting settings I’ve read have come from Loretta Chase – she’s written books set in Albania and Egypt. I claim to be her only fan who has visited both places courtesy of living in Europe via the Air Force.

  6. Alison–I don’t know that I’d want to live subject to someone else’s whims. I suppose for some women, if they had no family and money whatsoever, it might not have been so bad.

    Kim–the Air Force definitely takes you to some exotic locations, doesn’t it? I envy you being in Hawaii!


  7. Welcome back, Michelle.

    It’s easy to forget that women were thought of as property for centuries and it seems to me that living in a harem might be preferable to, for instance, the European concept of marriage. I started writing a historical erotica where a woman was “rescued” from a harem by two well meaning gents taking the Grand Tour and was very annoyed about it.

  8. Kylie says:

    The synopsis sounds great! Can’t wait to read it!

  9. Janet–From historical accounts, I think some women were perfectly happy living in a harem. Not all women shared the sultan’s bed, so for them, they had their meals, their expenses–everything taken care of. 🙂 But I’ve read accounts about many poisonings, so I imagine you had to be extremely careful about who you trusted.

  10. kandace says:

    thanks for sharing some of the history. That’s always interesting to know. Did you include the history at the end of the book the way some books do?

  11. Enid Wilson says:

    This seems sexy, dangerous and sad. Fascinating. I hope you give Laila and the prince happy ending.

    Steamy Darcy

  12. Mitzi H. says:

    The very 1st book I read about Harems was Kadin by Bertrice Small. That was many years ago and I was fascinated by the power structure within the Harem and the competition between the wives.

    This may seem like a stupid question…..but I’m curious….What did they use to rid themselves of hair???? As far as I know, there is no product on the market today that will do that…except a razor or hot wax? Also, why was their body hair considered sinful…as it’s something that all bodies have?

    Is it also true that white women were kidnapped and sold into their harems and had great value to them???? There have been many books written with this plot…but was it something that actually happened??? I often thought of this plot as one that was made up/imagined by the authors and wasn’t sure if it bears historical accuracy or not???…But I have little actual knowledge of this time and place.

    I do like these type of stories and your book sounds wonderful and I’d love to read it!!!

    mitzihinkey at sbcglobal dot net

  13. Kandace–since this was for Harlequin Historical Undone, I had to keep it short, so unfortunately no way to do history at the end. I tried to weave it throughout.

    Enid–yep, they got a happy ending.

    Mitzi–according to Jean Thevenot’s Travels into the Levant (1656), the paste was made of a mineral called rusma, beat into a powder, and with lime and water made into a paste. They applied it to their skin and in less than 30 minutes, they would put hot water on their skin and the hair came off. If they left it on too long, it would corrode the flesh. They also used something called ada, which was a candy-like paste, made of lemon and beet sugar. They would bring it to bubble over a low heat until it reached a soft ball stage. Then they would putty it over the hair and then take it off, like waxing. (ow!)

  14. Mitzi–As for the white women kidnapped and sold into slavery…I suppose it COULD have happened, but it wasn’t very likely. In the Mediterranean, there were plenty of women taken as spoils of war from surrounding countries (which included Russia, Ukraine, and there were white women from those parts). I don’t think they’d have to go as far as England! 🙂 Maybe if a London lady were taking a Tour of the Continent as a companion and happened to go into an area where slavers had their ships docked, it’s possible.

    Personally, if the characters are well drawn, I can suspend disbelief. 🙂

  15. Susan/DC says:

    When I visited Istanbul last year, one of the most fascinating aspects was learning about the royal harem. It was certainly beautiful and the women were pampered. The sultan never slept with many of them, and sometimes one of the excess concubines would be given in marriage to someone the sultan wanted to reward. Nonetheless, it was not always an easy life. If one was an official wife who was fortunate enough to bear the sultan a son, you never knew if that son would survive. We were told that Suleiman’s son Mustafa was considered the best and most talented of Suleiman’s offspring, but Roxelana, the favorite wife, wanted one of her own sons to succeed his father. She spread rumors that Mustafa was conspiring against his father, and so Suleiman had Mustafa killed. Roxelana was definitely a piece of work, and in her old age she supported a large number of charities, possibly in an effort to counterbalance all the intrigue and mayhem she’d instigated when younger.

  16. Susan–yes, Roxelana was a piece of work, wasn’t she? But Suleiman really loved her, so they said. She was already dead by the time my story starts (1565), but she sure left a legacy!

    Mustafa’s story is one that inspired me to put my own prince in a similar danger. What’s sad is that Suleiman killed Mustafa when S. believed the forged letter written to the shah of Persia, saying that Mustafa wanted to dethrone his father It’s hard to believe that a father would kill his own son, but this history is definitely dramatic! You couldn’t make this stuff up.

  17. Mitzi H. says:

    Thank you for answering my questions!!! I’ve been gone all week and just got back. Fascinating!!!

  18. Venus says:

    Hello, Michelle! You’ve done a lot of research leaning about life in harem.Do you know how life in royal harem of Al Andalus looked like? I am interested in 14 century Granada rulers harem life.

  19. Venus–no, all of my research was confined to the Topkapi Palace and customs surrounding that harem. Sorry I can’t help with Al Andalus!

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