AskDefine | Define harem

Dictionary Definition

harem n : living quarters reserved for wives and concubines and female relatives in a Muslim household [syn: hareem, seraglio, serail]

User Contributed Dictionary



From Turkish harem, from Arabic (ḥaram) ‘something prohibited; sanctuary, women’; and later also from (ḥarīm) with same meaning, both from (ḥaruma) ‘be forbidden or unlawful’. (Eng. usg. 1623)



  1. The private part of an Arab household. In traditional Arab culture, this part of the household was forbidden to male strangers.
  2. A group of women, wives and/or concubines in a polygamous household.
  3. A group of female animals (cows) herded and controlled by a male animal (bull) of that species for breeding purposes. Such behaviour is exhibited by bovids including cattle and buffalo as well as moose, elephants, seals, sea lions, sea elephants.


See also



harem s (p: haremi)
  1. harem



hr-noun m



harem s (p: haremi)
  1. harem

Cyrillic spelling



  1. harem

Extensive Definition

Harem (Turkish from Arab Ḥarām, forbidden) refers to the sphere of women in a usually polygynous household and their quarters enclosed and forbidden to men. It originated in the Near East and came to the Western world via the Ottoman Empire. In more modern usage, it may also denote a number of women followers of a man.
Other languages, the term serraglio (Italian from Persian sarāy "palace, enclosed courts") carry similar meanings.


The word has been recorded in the English language since 1634, via the Turkish harem, from the Arabic Ḥarām (forbidden), originally entailing "women's quarters," literally: "something forbidden or kept safe," from the root Ḥarama "he guarded, forbade." The triliteral Ḥ-R-M is common to Arabic words entailing forbidden. The word is cognate to the Hebrew Ḥerem, rendered with Greek ’anáthema when it applies to excommunication pronounced by the Jewish Sanhedrin court - all these words mean that an object is "sacred" or "accursed".
Female privacy in Islam is emphasized to the extent that any unlawful breaking into that privacy is Ḥarām "forbidden". Contrary to the common belief, a Muslim harem does not necessarily consist solely of women with whom the head of the household has sexual relations (wives and concubines), but also their young offspring, other female relatives, etc.; and it may either be a palatial complex, as in Romantic tales, in which case it includes staff (women and eunuchs), or simply their quarters, in the Ottoman tradition separated from the men's selamlik.
It is being more commonly acknowledged today that the purpose of Harems during the Ottoman Empire were for the royal upbringing of the future wives of noble and royal men. These women would be educated so that they were ready to appear in public as a royal wife. No forms of sexual activity took place in those Harems.


The harem of the Turkish Great Sultan, which was in the Topkapı Palace serraglio, typically housed several hundred - at times over a thousand - women including wives. It also housed the Sultan's mother, daughters and other female relatives, as well as eunuchs and slave girls to serve the aforementioned women, and of course dancing girls and pleasure slaves for the Sultan. During the later periods, the sons of the Sultan also lived in the Harem until they were sixteen, when it might be considered appropriate for them to appear in the public and administrative areas of the palace. The Topkapı Harem was, in some senses, merely the private living quarters of the Sultan and his family, within the palace complex.
It is claimed that harems existed in Persia under the Ancient Achaemenids and later Iranian dynasties (the Sassanid Chosroes II reportedly had a harem of 3000 wives, as well as 12,000 other females) and lasted well into the Qajar Dynasty.
The women of the Persian royal harem played important though underreported roles in Iranian history, especially during the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. However, this claim is disputed by some Persian historians.
Harem is also the usual English translation of the Chinese language term hougong, 後宮 "the palaces behind." Hougong are large palaces for the Chinese emperor's consorts, concubines, female attendants and eunuchs. The women who lived in an emperor's hougong sometimes numbered in the thousands.

Depictions in Western culture

The institution of the harem exerted a certain fascination on the European imagination, especially during the Age of Romanticism (see also Orientalism), due in part to the writings of the adventurer Richard Francis Burton. Many Westerners imagined a harem as a brothel consisting of many sensual young women lying around pools with oiled bodies, with the sole purpose of pleasing the powerful man to whom they had given themselves. Much of this is recorded in art from that period, usually portraying groups of attractive women lounging nude by spas and pools.
A centuries-old theme in Western culture is the depiction of European women forcibly taken into Oriental harems - evident for example in the Mozart opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail ("The Abduction from the Serraglio") concerning the attempt of the hero Belmonte to rescue his beloved Konstanze from the serraglio/harem of the Pasha Selim; or in Voltaire's Candide, in chapter 12 of which the old woman relates her experiences of being sold into harems across the Ottoman Empire.
The same theme was and still is repeated in numerous historical novels and thrillers. For example, Angélique and the Sultan, part of the bestselling French series by Sergeanne Golon, in which a 17th Century French noblewoman is captured by pirates, sold as a pleasure slave to the King of Morocco and installed in his harem, she is dressed in exotic clothing and prepared for the king's pleasure. But when the king has her brought into his bedchamber and tries to make love with her she kills him with his own dagger and stages a dramatic and successful escape.
H. Beam Piper used the theme in a science fiction context, portraying a gang which kidnaps girls from a Western-dominated, technologically advanced timeline and sells them to a Sultan's harem in an Asian-dominated timeline (see

Sources and references

  • Mohammed Webb: The Influence of Islam on Social Conditions Paper, World Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1893
  • Historical Web-site.
  • Leslie P. Peirce: The Imperial Harem : Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire Oxford University Press, USA; New Ed edition (September 2, 1993 ISBN 0-19-508677-5
  • Suraiya Faroqhi: Subjects of the Sultan : Culture and Daily Life in the Ottoman Empire I. B. Tauris (November 10, 2005) ISBN 1-85043-760-2
  • Billie Melman: Women's Orients : English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918 University of Michigan Press (July 15, 1992) ISBN 0-472-10332-6
  • Alan Duben, Cem Behar, Richard Smith (Series Editor), Jan De Vries (Series Editor), Paul Johnson (Series Editor), Keith Wrightson (Series Editor): Istanbul Households : Marriage, Family and Fertility, 1880-1940 Cambridge University Press; New Ed edition (August 8, 2002) ISBN 0-521-52303-6
  • Emmanuel Todd: The explanation of ideology: Family structures and social systems B. Blackwell (1985) ISBN 0-631-13724-6
  • Oleg Grabar: The Formation of Islamic Art Yale University Press; Rev&Enlarg edition (September 10, 1987) ISBN 0-300-04046-6


  • Etymology OnLine
  • N. M. Penzer: The Harēm : Inside the Grand Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans Dover Publications (May 13, 2005) ISBN 0-486-44004-4
  • Alev Lytle Croutier: Harem: The World Behind the Veil Abbeville Publishing Group (Abbeville Press, Inc.); Reprint edition (July 1998) ISBN 1-55859-159-1
  • Alev Lytle Croutier: The Palace of Tears Delta; Reprint edition (January 2, 2002) ISBN 0-385-33491-5
  • Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen, editors: Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey Seal Press; Reprint edition (March 12, 2006) ISBN 1-58005-155-3
  • The Mughal Harem
  • Inside the Seraglio: Private Lives of the Sultans in Istanbul: The Sultan's Harem Penguin (Non-Classics); New Ed edition (July 3, 2001) ISBN 0-14-027056-6
  • M. Saalih : Harem Girl : A Harem Girl’s Journal Delta; Reprint edition (January 2, 2002) ISBN 0-595-31300-0
  • Fatima Mernissi: Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society Delta; Reprint edition (January 2, 2002) ISBN 0-253-20423-2
  • N. M. Penzer, M.A., F.R.G.S.: THE HARĒM an account of the instiitution as it existed in the Palace of the Turkish Sultans with a history of the Grand Seraglio from its foundation to modern times Dorset Press (1993) ISBN 1-56619-255-2
  • Andrew Rippin: Muslims (Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices) Routledge; 2 edition (November 30, 2000) ISBN 0-415-21782-2
  • Malise Ruthven: Islam: A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press, USA; New Ed edition (June 15, 2000) ISBN 0-19-285389-9


  • Alum Bati: "Harem Secrets", Trafford, 2008, ISBN 978-1-4251-5750-0
  • Dora Levy Mossanen: Harem: A Novel Touchstone (July 30, 2002), ISBN 0-7432-3021-3
  • Colin Falconer: The Sultan's Harem Crown (July 13, 2004) ISBN 0-609-61030-9

External links

harem in Czech: Harém
harem in Danish: Harem
harem in German: Harem
harem in Spanish: Harén
harem in Esperanto: Haremo
harem in Persian: حرمسرا
harem in French: Harem
harem in Korean: 하렘
harem in Croatian: Harem
harem in Indonesian: Harem
harem in Italian: Harem
harem in Hebrew: הרמון
harem in Kurdish: Harem
harem in Latvian: Harēms
harem in Lithuanian: Haremas
harem in Hungarian: Hárem
harem in Malay (macrolanguage): Harem
harem in Dutch: Harem
harem in Japanese: ハレム
harem in Norwegian: Harem
harem in Polish: Harem
harem in Portuguese: Harém
harem in Russian: Гарем
harem in Slovak: Hárem
harem in Finnish: Haaremi
harem in Swedish: Harem
harem in Turkish: Harem
harem in Ukrainian: Гарем
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