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Harems and eunuchs

The word harem is Arabic for 'forbidden', and the harem (zenana in Persia, seray or seraglio in Turkey) has been particularly a feature of Muslim societies. But it has been characteristic also of other communities - above all the Chinese empire.

In these societies the harem becomes like an alternative court. It has its own hierarchy (the wives above the concubines above the slave girls who do the menial work, but also, as in the real world, the favourites above everyone else). And it has its own officialdom (the eunuchs, who communicate with the outside world).


It is a common misconception that women in a harem are entirely isolated from public life. In royal harems the senior wives watch court events and assemblies from behind screens, hearing all but saying nothing, seeing but unseen - good qualifications for exerting well-informed influence when the ruler is later relaxing in their company.

The women even have business interests in the outside world, conducted by correspondence - or sometimes in person, when on a journey outside the palace screened from sight in a palanquin. Again, to see and not be seen can be an advantage in a negotiation.


Royal harems depend on eunuchs - castrated as slaves or criminals, or mutilated in adolescence by their families in the hope of material gain. The power and wealth of eunuchs is a familiar characteristic of harem societies. Their disability, ironically, gives the eunuchs certain very real advantages.

The eunuchs form a small party, membership of which is both evident and irreversible. United by the rejection of others, undistracted by the demands of children or even, presumably, by the lures of the flesh, but blessed with exclusive entrée to every corridor of power - as a qualification for a self-interested pressure group, this can hardly be improved upon.


The power of the eunuchs in a royal harem derives from knowing the ruler intimately from his infancy, in a hothouse atmosphere of gossip and intrigue. A ruler who stays in the harem until succeeding to the throne, as happens at certain periods in China, Turkey and Persia, is unlikely to be well qualified to govern.

In China, with its love of bureaucracy, the eunuchs are the officials within the palace while the Confucians are the officials outside. Power struggles between these two groups are a recurring theme of Chinese history.


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