persian harems -- 8/16/22

Today's selection -- from The Persians by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones. Persian kings were polygynous:

"For most Westerners, 'harem' is a word which conjures up a heady image of some kind of closely guarded Oriental pleasure palace, filled with scantily clad nubile virgins, stretched out on pillows in languid preparation for nights of sexual adventure in a sultan's bed. It is a world of scatter cushions, jewels in the belly button, gyrating hips, and fluttering eyelashes set above gauzy yashmak (face veils). These cliches find their most vivid expression in nineteenth-century Orientalist paintings and in popular movies. This vision of Eastern sensual excess has often led scholarship to dismiss the notion of the harem as a Western fabrication, an open sesame to an Arabian Nights fantasy world. If we want to utilise the word 'harem' in its correct context and use it to consolidate some legitimate facts about royal women in the Persian empire, we must dispense with the Orientalist cliches entirely and understand what, in historical terms, a 'harem' was all about.

"From a historical perspective, a harem was a physical space in a palace or house which was used by family members: women, children, servants, and close-kin men. A harem could also simply refer to women and their blood kin when grouped together since the concept of 'harem' does not necessarily need a defining space. Walls are not that important. 'Harem' has at its core the meaning 'taboo', and by implication it means a group into which general access is prohibited or limited, and in which the presence of certain individuals or certain types of behaviour are forbidden. The fact that, historically, the private quarters in a domestic residence, and by extension its female occupants, were also referred to as a 'harem' comes from the practice of restricting access to these quarters, espe­cially to males unrelated by blood kinship to the resident females. The word 'harem' is therefore a term of respect, evoking personal honour. In royal practice, 'harem' refers to a king's women and to all other individuals under his immediate protection -- children, siblings, in-laws, and slaves. In other words, the people who made up his inner court, or the royal domestic sphere, were the 'harem'. This is the way to think about the royal harem in its ancient Persian context (although it is impossible to know how the ancient Persians referred to a harem, and so, pragmatically, 'harem' has been adopted here for expediency).

The Reception, John Frederick Lewis, 1805–1875

"Separation is the key issue here. The modern Persian (Farsi) word andarūnī literally means 'the inside'. It is a term used by Ira­nians for the private family quarters of a home and for the people who inhabit it. It is used in opposition to birun, which refers to the public space and the part of a household used for welcoming and entertaining guests. In contemporary Iran, the andarūnī consists of all the males of a family and their respective wives, mothers, grand­mothers, and a whole array of male and female offspring ranging from babies to adolescents.

"It is important to get one thing straight: the royal women of Achaemenid Persia did not live in oppressive purdah, kept hidden away from all prying eyes. Nor did they inhabit a world of sultry sensuality. But they certainly did form a strict hierarchical struc­ture which moved in close proximity to the king. Therefore they followed in the peripatetic lifestyle of the court. There can be little doubt that their honour and chastity were carefully guarded, but this does not mean that royal women were dislocated from interaction within the wider court society or that they lacked any autonomy. Women rode horses on royal hunting expeditions, they attended banquets, and they engaged in sports, including archery and the throwing of javelins. We must not imagine that the royal women of Persia were imprisoned behind walls.

"However (and this is perhaps the most difficult point for a modern celebrity-obsessed audience to grasp), for women of the royal family, prestige and access to power lay in their separation away from the public gaze. There was no honour in being visible. In Persian antiquity, invisibility brought prestige. Yet the invisibility of Persia's elite women did not equate to a lack of freedom or a want of power. The mothers, consorts, and other women in the orbit of the Great King had real influence. Intimate proximity to the king imbued these privileged women with an opportunity to access genuine power. The royal harem was a vital component of Persian culture. It had profound political importance. The maintenance of dynastic power was directly passed through the harem as women gave birth to future heirs and vigilantly -- sometimes ferociously -- guarded their positions within the ever-changing structure of court hierarchy. We have noted how the Achaemenid dynasty was essentially a family-run business. At the heart of the operation was the harem.

"Achaemenid kings were polygynous -- that is to say, they had sexual access to many women: consorts, concubines, and even slaves. Women were gathered together within the Persian inner court to fulfill important social, cultural, and ritual roles and to undertake (it was hoped) important functions in dynastic continuity as mothers. The presence of so many women meant that the hierarchy of the Achaemenid harem was complex. In principle, it was headed by a chief queen, usually the king's mother or, in her absence, the most favoured (or influential) wife, who gathered about her the other royal and noble women -- secondary wives, royal sisters, royal daughters, and other females."



Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones


Persians: The Age of the Great Kings


Basic Books


Copyright 2022 by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones


171 - 176
barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment