Events: The Fares Lecture Series

Academic Year 2010-2011

Eunuchs in Islamic Civilization
Friday, April 1, 12:00 PM
The Fares Center Conference Room (Mugar 129), Tufts University
Speaker: Jane Hathaway, Professor, Department of History, Ohio State University

Speaker Biography

Jane Hathaway is Professor of History at Ohio State University and an expert on the Ottoman Empire before 1800, particularly the Ottoman Arab provinces. She is currently a member of the board of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. Previously, she was president of the Turkish Studies Association from 2002 to 2004 and a member of the American Historical Association's Professional Division from 2006 to 2009. Hathaway has published four books: The Politics of Households in Ottoman Egypt: The Rise of the Qazdağlıs (Cambridge University Press, 1997); A Tale of Two Factions: Myth, Memory, and Identity in Ottoman Egypt and Yemen (State University of New York Press, 2003); Beshir Agha, Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Imperial Harem (Oneworld, 2006); and The Arab Lands under Ottoman Rule, 1516-1800 (Pearson/Longman, 2008), as well as numerous articles on related subjects, on the historiography of the Ottoman Empire, and on the seventeenth-century Ottoman Jewish messianic figure Sabbatai Sevi. Her book A Tale of Two Factions won the 2005 Ohio Academy of History Publication Award while The Arab Lands under Ottoman Rule won the Turkish Studies Association's 2008 M. Fuat Köprülü Book Prize. Hathaway is currently engaged in a book-length study of the office of Chief Harem Eunuch in the Ottoman Empire from the office's inception in 1582 through its abolition in 1909. Hathaway received her Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University.


Jane Hathaway, Professor of History at Ohio State University, spoke about the role of eunuchs in the Ottoman Empire at an April 1 luncheon at the Fares Center for Eastern European Studies. Eunuchs have a long history in Islamic civilization, Hathaway said; indeed, they have had a role in civilizations throughout the world. Most societies in the Eastern Hemisphere employed eunuchs in some capacity until 250 or 300 years ago.

The Ottoman Empire most likely adopted its eunuch tradition from the Byzantine Empire, noted Hathaway, who is the author of several books on Ottoman history. The appeal of eunuchs, who are taken from their families and unable to reproduce, argued Hathaway, was that they had no family ties that could "dilute their loyalty" to the ruler and were therefore seen as especially loyal servants.

The Ottomans took their eunuchs from several sources: prisoners of war, slaves purchased from the Caucasus and East Africa, and an institution called the devshirme. Through the devshirme, Ottoman authorities took boys from among their Christian subjects and educated and trained them, with some selected for castration. Through the devshirme system, eunuchs could reach elite status and could even become governors or military commanders. However, the castration of boys coming through the devshirme system was problematic under Islamic law, which forbids castration of Muslims as well as non-Muslims under the ruler's protection, Hathaway said. As an alternative, the Ottomans also followed the widespread tradition of taking eunuchs from the peripheries of their territory.

Eunuchs from different origins tended to have different roles within the Ottoman system. The devshirme eunuchs and eunuchs from the Caucasus began as palace pages and could aspire to high-ranking positions; they tended to guard the threshold in front of the throne room in Topkapi Palace. East African eunuchs were employed as guardians of the palace harem and as guardians of the Prophet Muhammad's tomb in Medina.

The role of African eunuchs as guardians of the harem was a "venerable tradition" in Islamic empires, Hathaway said. European commentators seemed to assume that the Africans were ideal guards because the women found them repulsive, but by Ottoman standards, Ethiopians were actually seen as "attractive and clever," Hathaway argued. One factor in the employment of Africans, Hathaway said, may have been the difference in origin between the eunuchs and the harem women. Since most of the harem women were from Eastern Europe or the Caucasus, African guardians might not be likely to make a "natural alliance" with them due to cultural differences.

In 1582, the Ottomans created the office of Chief Harem Eunuch. This was the beginning of the period now known as the era of "crisis and change" in the Ottoman Empire. Beginning in the late 16th century, Ottoman princes were no longer sent to govern provinces but were instead raised in the harem. During the early seventeenth century, when a "series of underage or mentally challenged sultans" died prematurely, the mother of the sultan and the Chief Harem Eunuch became important, formative influences on the sultan.

The eighteenth-century Chief Eunuch Beshir Agha, whom Hathaway referred to as the "quintessential chief harem eunuch," had an unusually sequenced career but one that covered all of the key stops for a powerful eunuch of the day. During a period of exile in Egypt from 1715 to 1716, he engaged in philanthropy, commissioning a public drinking fountain and school for orphan boys that promoted the Hanafi legal rite of Sunni Islam. Then, he led the eunuchs who guarded the Prophet's tomb in Medina, following a tradition put in place by the Ayyubids and Mamluks to "Sunnify" Medina, which in the Middle Ages was still a primarily Shiite city. Finally, he was the Chief Harem Eunuch from 1717 to 1746, and exerted a major influence on two sultans. The library at Topkapi palace may have been his idea, and he was involved in diplomacy. To European diplomats, Beshir Agha was known as the "grand vizier maker."

By the late Ottoman Empire, the role of the harem eunuchs had changed. Like other palace functionaries, they wore European dress and received a westernized education. The Chief Harem Eunuch appeared to have given way to the "chief companion."

The Young Turk revolution of 1908-9 and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I spelled the end of the harem eunuch institution. Perhaps because of their difficulties fitting into a post-imperial society, former harem eunuchs tended to band together and even formed a mutual aid society. In Medina, the eunuchs who guarded the Prophet's tomb were affected by the Saudi takeover of the Hijaz in the 1920s. Unlike his early 19th-century predecessors, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud did not exile the eunuchs, but rather cut off their support and "let the institution wither."

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