The women of the harem were so shrouded in mystery that they became a source of great fascination for the world in general. Many were imported from Georgia and Caucasia for their looks, or were prisoners of war, captured in Hungary, Poland or Venice. Upon entering the harem, they would become the charges of the haznedar usta, who would teach them how to behave towards the sultan and the other palace inhabitants. The conditions in which most of these women lived were dangerously unhygienic, and many died of disease, or from the cold of an İstanbul winter. Those women who were chosen to enter the bedchamber of the sultan, however, were promoted to the rank of imperial odalisque, given slaves to serve them, and pleasant accommodation. If they bore a child, they would be promoted again, to become a favourite or wife, and given their own apartments. If the sultan subsequently lost affection for one of these women, he could give her in marriage to one of his courtiers.

The most renowned of the harem women was Haseki Hürrem, or Roxelana as she was known in the West, wife of Süleyman the Magnificent. Prior to their marriage, it was unusual for a sultan to marry at all, let alone to choose a wife from among his concubines. This was the beginning of a new age of harem intrigue, in which women began to take more control over affairs of state, often referred to as the “Rule of the Harem”.

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