AskDefine | Define seraglio

Dictionary Definition

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

User Contributed Dictionary



serra: a bar for closing doors, through Italian serai: to shut.


  1. The palace of the Grand Seignior in Constantinople.
  2. The sequestered living quarters used by wives and concubines in a Turkish Muslim household.
  3. A brothel or place of debauchery.
  4. An interior cage or enclosed courtyard for keeping wild beasts.

Extensive Definition

A seraglio (also serraglio) is the sequestered living quarters used by wives and concubines in a Turkish household, from an Italian variant of Turkish saray, meaning "palace", "enclosed courts". In the context of the turquerie fashion, the seraglio became the subject of works of art, the most famous perhaps being Mozart's Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Serail = seraglio).
"The Seraglio" may refer specifically to the Topkapı Palace, the residence of the former Ottoman Sultans in Istanbul. The term can also refer to other traditional Turkish palaces (every imperial prince had his own) and other grand houses built around courtyards.


A Turkish harem staff commonly included eunuchs. These were slaves, either captured in war (mainly Christian Europeans in the Balkans) or recruited within the empire (especially Caucasian peoples from Georgia and Armenia and blacks from Egypt and Sudan) or even beyond (especially in Abyssinia). Black eunuchs usually were Sandali (i.e. their genitalia were entirely amputated), hence they were preferred for harem service, while White eunuchs usually kept part of their penis and/or testicles, so they were assigned to less 'intimate' duties, e.g. secretarial.
They were often donated to the Sultan by his governors, in total about six- to eight hundred. In Topkapı Palace (Topkapı Sarayı), the main Ottoman palace in Istanbul, now a museum, the Kızlar Ağası, the chief black eunuch, was the master of the harem, sometimes considered second only to the Grand Vizier (head of the imperial government, but often working in his own palace or even away, e.g. on military campaign) in the confidence of the Sultan, to whom he had and arranged access (including his bedchamber, the ne plus ultra for every harem lady), also being his confidential messenger. As commander of an imperial army corps, the baltaci (halberdiers), he even held the supreme military dignity of three-tail pasha (general).
Meanwhile the Kapi Agha, the chief white eunuch, was in charge of 300 to 900 white eunuchs as head of the 'Inner Service' (the palace bureaucracy, controlling all messages, petitions, and State documents addressed to the Sultan), head of the Palace School (school for pages training as white eunuchs), gatekeeper-in-chief, head of the infirmary, and master of ceremonies of the Seraglio, and was originally the only one allowed to speak to the Sultan in private. In 1591, Murad III transferred the powers of the white to the black eunuchs as there were too many embezzlements and various other nefarious crimes attributed to the white eunuchs, but later they regained some favor.
During the Kadınlar Sultanati, the eunuchs increased their political leverage by taking advantage of minor or mentally incompetent Sultans, causing political instability. The teenage Sultans were "guided" by regencies formed by the Valide Sultan, the Grand Vizier and the Valide's other supporters- and the Kizlar Agha was the Valide Sultan's and Kadin's intimate and valued accomplice.

See also

External links

seraglio in German: Serail
seraglio in French: Sérail
seraglio in Finnish: Seralji
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