Jane Hathaway, The Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Harem: From African Slave to Power-Broker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Jane Hathaway (JH): The inspiration for this book goes back to my dissertation research some thirty years ago. In those days, I was investigating administrative households in Egypt during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I spent a great deal of time reading mühimmes, i.e., copies of sultanic orders, in this case addressed to the governor and/or chief judge of Ottoman Egypt and other key officials in Egypt. To me it seemed that every other mühimme began, “The Ağa-yı Darüssaade [“Agha of the Abode of Felicity”] has submitted a petition to my imperial threshold.” I had no idea who this personage was. When I learned that this was the Chief Harem Eunuch, I was amazed that he knew exactly what was occurring in Egypt, and who the chief political and economic actors were. Ultimately, I included a chapter on the Chief Eunuch’s influence in Egypt in my first book, which was a substantially revised version of my dissertation. At the time, I decided that one day, I would write an entire book on the Chief Eunuch. However, other projects and issues intervened, and I am only now publishing the promised book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JH: This is the first book-length study of the development of the office of Chief Harem Eunuch from its inception in the late sixteenth century through the Young Turk Revolution and the deposition of Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909), which brought the harem institution to an end. I try to demonstrate that the development of the office of Chief Eunuch paralleled the trajectory of the Ottoman Empire as a whole during this period. A key point is that the Chief Eunuch’s career was not limited to the palace or, indeed, to the imperial capital but extended throughout the entire empire. This circumstance resulted from the Chief Eunuch’s supervision of the imperial pious foundations for the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which derived income and grain from endowed lands and properties throughout the empire. The office of Chief Harem Eunuch was officially created in 1588, when the sultan appointed the acting head of the harem eunuchs to this position.
At just this time, however, the empire was entering a dynastic crisis that dramatically increased the Chief Eunuch’s influence within the palace. In the early seventeenth century, a series of underaged sultans took the throne and died early, leaving no heirs or only young children. In this atmosphere, the harem, where underaged princes were raised, became a key locus of political authority, and the Chief Harem Eunuch, along with the sultan’s mother, became a force shaping imperial policy. The Chief Eunuch was also embroiled in the frequently ugly and violent struggles among competing palace factions rooted in the harem.
Things stabilized in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as the empire emerged from the crisis and the Ottoman economy began to grow again. During this period, the Chief Harem Eunuch supported commercial relations with western Europe, above all France, and sponsored the expansion of the imperial capital and court consumption of European luxury goods. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the Ottoman grand vizier and the bureaucrats around him were becoming increasingly professionalized and, in that capacity, presented a growing challenge to the Chief Harem Eunuch and similar palace officials whose duties were not so rigidly defined by their positions.
The westernizing reforms of the nineteenth century represented a turning point for the Chief Harem Eunuch, as they did for the entire empire. As a result of these reforms, the imperial pious foundations for Mecca and Medina were “modernized” into a Ministry of Pious Endowments, and the Chief Eunuch’s supervision of the endowments was abolished. Henceforth his influence was largely restricted to the harem. With the deposition of Abdülhamid II in 1909 and the dismantling of the harem, the institution of the Chief Harem Eunuch came to an end.
My book attempts to integrate the “palace” part of the Chief Harem Eunuch’s career with the wider range of his influence and interactions. One chapter explores his connections to Egypt, which informed his entire life and career. Another seeks to explain why the overwhelming majority of harem eunuchs came from East Africa by exploring the East African slave trade and East Africa’s relations with the Muslim world more broadly, from antiquity through the Ottoman expansion into the region. In this context, the details of the eunuchs’ enslavement and castration receive due attention. One of the final chapters broaches the subject of the Chief Eunuch’s self-fashioning as reflected in miniature paintings and in tombstone placement and inscriptions.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JH: As implied in my answer to the first question, the project derives, in some respects, from my earlier scholarship on Ottoman Egypt. The focus on the Ottoman palace, particularly in the book’s middle chapters, is, however, entirely new, as is the investigation of the harem eunuchs’ connections to East Africa. Chapter ten, focusing on the nineteenth-century reforms and the empire’s twilight, drew me decidedly out of my comfort zone. Likewise the emphasis on visual sources in Chapter eleven, “Memorializing the Chief Harem Eunuch,” is something of a departure, even though I have emphasized images and symbols in an earlier book on factionalism in Ottoman Egypt and Yemen.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JH: To be perfectly honest, I dare to hope that this book will become the definitive study of the Ottoman Chief Harem Eunuch. I hope, of course, that students and scholars of the Ottoman Empire will read it, but I also hope that it will be of some use to scholars of other Muslim empires and of non-Muslim empires that employed eunuchs. I would also like to believe that this book has something, however minute, to say to scholars of Africa, of comparative slavery, and of gender. Finally, I would be very pleased if the occasional non-academic finds it interesting.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JH: I am preparing the second edition of The Arab Lands under Ottoman Rule, 1516-1800. The first edition was published by Pearson/Longman in 2008; the second edition will be published by Routledge.
For my next major research project, I plan to return to the Cairo Geniza, the massive collection of documents related to Cairo’s Jewish population over numerous centuries. I worked on the medieval Geniza very briefly at the beginning of my Ph.D. studies. While the focus of most Geniza research is the documents from the tenth through the thirteenth centuries, the not insignificant materials from the Ottoman period have remained virtually unstudied. This will be a return not only to the Geniza but to the kind of social history in which I was trained as an M.A. student many years ago.
J: Why should general readers care about eunuchs?
JH: Today, most people think of eunuch-ism as a wildly outlandish and even barbaric institution. Castration, they believe, must have been a dastardly punishment for which the victims ceaselessly sought revenge. Yet from at least the tenth century B.C.E. until some 300 years ago, the eunuch institution was ubiquitous in much of the Old World outside western Europe. Many of these regions belonged to empires whose absolute rulers were strictly secluded from the mass of their subjects. Under these circumstances, eunuchs were the ideal servants of the ruler’s inner sanctum: enslaved and removed from their home territories and (at least in the case of East Africans) from their families of origin, and unable to produce offspring, they had no “grass roots” ties that would dilute their loyalty to the rulers and dynasties who employed them. Castration, in this context, functioned as the pre- or early-modern equivalent of a security clearance. Operating around the margins of the major institutions of absolute empires, eunuchs made it possible for these institutions, and more broadly for the empires of which they were a part, to function. In sum, they were an important part of human history.
Excerpt from the Book:
Chapter 12: Conclusion (pp. 276-279):
What allowed the Chief Harem Eunuch to exert such a degree of influence over the 252 years between 1574 and 1826? The critical factor was the essential role that he played in dynastic reproduction in an era when Ottoman princes were borne by concubines and raised in the harem. Generally speaking, in absolutist empires such as the Ottoman, Mughal, Ming, and Qing, the harem or inner sanctum was the site of dynastic reproduction, where the emperor’s wives and/or concubines bore and reared the successors to the throne. The Chief Eunuch was an integral part of this process because of his status as the quintessential guardian, remarked at the end of the last chapter. His was a “life in-between,” literally marginal, policing the boundary that separated the harem from male-gendered spaces even as he policed the sexuality of its inhabitants.
It was this liminality that enabled him to perform this function. His inability to procreate, combined with what we might call his permanent state of pre-pubescence and the “otherness” of his color and geographical origins, removed any threat he might have posed to the space occupied by imperial women and children. At the same time, his outwardly male gender enabled him to function in the space inhabited by the sultan and his pages, on the one hand, and the grand vizier and his bureaucrats, on the other. His could thus mediate among all these spaces while never belonging to any of them.
Thus empowered, the Chief Eunuch helped to reproduce the Ottoman dynasty literally by guiding concubines, often selected by the sultan’s mother, to the sultan’s bedchamber. Perhaps more importantly, though, he aided dynastic reproduction figuratively by overseeing the princes’ education, on the one hand, and by aiding the sultan’s mother, grandmother, or favorite concubine in her political struggles, on the other – whether with other harem residents, with the sultan and his pages, or with the grand vizier.
But this concern for reproduction and generational continuity extended far beyond the palace harem. Through the various educational institutions that he founded throughout the empire by means of pious endowments – Qur’an schools, madrasas, schools for the study of hadith – the Chief Eunuch achieved intellectual and religious reproduction by shaping a new generation of Sunni Muslims. In eunuch-founded Qur’an schools, these newly-educated young Muslims were usually orphans, meaning that the Chief Eunuch really did help to give definitive confessional shape to a mass of unformed human raw material. These institutions by at least the early eighteenth century came to stress indoctrination into the Hanafi legal rite, which had become a key marker of Ottoman confessionalization. This was in line with a hardening of attitudes toward the Twelver Shi‘ite Safavid dynasty and its self-proclaimed savior, Nadir Shah, in Iran and with a desire to emphasize the Hanafism of the imperial court against that of provincial notables. Through these endowments, then, the Chief Eunuch’s doctrinal and intellectual goals meshed with his provincial and foreign policy aims.
The Chief Eunuch’s concern with ensuring generational continuity applied not simply to the Ottoman dynasty nor even to the Sunni Muslim community at large, but to the community of harem eunuchs, as well. An astute Chief Harem Eunuch cultivated protégés among the younger “generation” of eunuchs. He was in a position to promote their careers and, through canny use of vakıf [pious endowments] and networks of clients in places such as Cairo, to pass along houses, books, and even commercial enterprises. In this way, the Chief Harem Eunuch helped to reproduce the harem eunuch establishment, too.
For most of its history, the office of Chief Harem Eunuch was linked to supervision of the Evkafü’l-Haremeyn [the pious foundations serving Mecca and Medina]. These foundations enabled the Chief Eunuch to make major contributions to the Ottoman Empire’s urban infrastructure, some of which are still apparent today. These infrastructural projects in turn served as vehicles for the Chief Harem Eunuch’s religious, educational, and economic influence.
Physical infrastructure in numerous Ottoman cities and along the pilgrimage route was transformed by the Chief Harem Eunuch’s endowments. We can probably say that the early seventeenth-century Chief Eunuchs Osman Agha and el-Hajj Mustafa Agha, with the substantial help of the agent (vekil) Davud Agha, transformed Cairo, making it more of a hub for regional and international commerce than it had ever been before. The very first Chief Eunuch, Habeshi Mehmed Agha, created the city of Ismail Geçidi (today Izmail) in the Danube delta in what is now Ukraine; his infrastructural projects were reinforced in the early eighteenth century by el-Hajj Beshir Agha. And el-Hajj Beshir himself established commercial infrastructure throughout the Ottoman Empire’s territories, from Cairo to Svishtov in Bulgaria, from Chios to Aleppo.
Commercial infrastructure was inseparable from religious and educational infrastructure, in no small part because of the way that the Muslim pious endowment (vakıf) expressed itself physically: a mosque or madrasa, for example, would usually adjoin the shops, bazaar, or bath that provided its revenue, so that founding a major vakıf often resulted in a whole new urban neighborhood or, in the case of a rural area, a whole new village. In every province of the empire, Chief Harem Eunuchs founded dozens of mosques, madrasas, Qur’an schools…, Sufi lodges, public fountains, libraries, and religious complexes combining all these elements. Their effect on the empire’s urban infrastructure is thus incalculable, but so, too, is their effect on religious education and practice. As we have seen, the stipulations of el-Hajj Beshir Agha’s many foundations in particular provided education in the Hanafi legal rite of Sunni Islam to orphans and other young boys in Cairo, Medina, and Svishtov; manuscripts of seminal works of Hanafi exegesis and law to students and ulema in Cairo, Baghdad, Medina, and Istanbul; and accommodation for Sufi orders in Istanbul and Cairo. Collectively, these Chief Eunuch religious foundations promoted Sunni Islam, the Hanafi legal rite, tariqa [Sufi order] Sufism, and devotion to the Prophet Muhammad among the Ottoman population at large.
Where the Muslim holy cities were concerned, the Chief Eunuch’s foundations facilitated the pilgrimage to Mecca and visitation of the Prophet’s mosque and tomb in Medina by providing roads, wells, and lodging along the pilgrimage routes and religio-educational institutions in the holy cities themselves. These foundations reinforced the Ottoman sultan’s status as “servitor of the two holy sanctuaries” (khadim al-Haramayn in Arabic). Both terms of this expression have connotations referring to eunuchs: khadim, literally “servant,” as early as the ninth century C.E. was a euphemism for a eunuch, as it still is in modern Turkish, while haram refers to a sacred or taboo site, whether the mosque at Mecca or Medina or the sultan’s harem. Under the circumstances, we can assert that the Chief Harem Eunuch was himself a khadim al-Haramayn in all senses of the phrase: a servant and a eunuch who served both the holy cities and the palace harem. In his case, Haramayn (Haremeyn), or “two holy sanctuaries,” can refer specifically to the Prophet’s mosque and tomb at Medina, on the one hand, and the imperial harem, on the other.
This religious patronage looms especially large in relation to the question of Ottoman “confessionalization” during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: that is, the adoption and public performance of an official religious identity. The official religious identity that took shape in the Ottoman Empire during this period was Sunni, Hanafi, Sufi – meaning membership in one of three or four “mainstream” orders – and devotee of the Prophet. Through his endowments above all, but, in the case of devotion to the Prophet, through service as chief of the tomb eunuchs and in his choice of burial site, the Chief Eunuch modeled official Ottoman orthodoxy and helped to reinforce and spread it, too.
These multiple roles that the Chief Eunuch played were facilitated by the lack of well-defined professional duties among the members of the Ottoman court in the pre-Tanzimat [westernizing reform] era. Increasing professionalization and standardization of official roles, beginning in the eighteenth century, curtailed the Chief Eunuch’s influence, as well as that of other “informal officials,” such as the sultan’s mother and the silahdar, or sword-bearer. The grand vizier, now more or less a prime minister equivalent, and the reisü’l-küttab [chief scribe], now a foreign minister equivalent, grew correspondingly more influential. In other words, offices whose power had been enhanced by steadily increasing institutionalization and independence from the sultan’s household benefited, from the eighteenth century onward, at the expense of offices, very much including that of Chief Harem Eunuch, whose duties were still largely defined by personal relationships with the sultan and other members of the imperial family, as well as membership in their households. Once supervision of the Evkafü’l-Haremeyn was removed from the office of Chief Harem Eunuch, in fact, that office became even more closely attached to the sultan’s household, and arguably suffered the consequences.