Image: Favorite of the Emir (1879) by French painter Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (1845-1902), oil on canvas painting, 142.24 cm x 220.98 cm (56 in x 87 in), located at National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA.
The painting depicts the favorite woman of the Emir, a slave or Eunuch and another woman of the Emir’s harem. A harem refers to the sphere of women in a polygynous in households or palaces and their quarters which is enclosed and forbidden to men. The word originated in the Near East and came to the West via the Ottoman Empire, and the word has been recorded in the English language since 1634. A centuries-old theme in Western culture is the depiction of European women forcibly taken into Oriental harems.
The harem exerted a certain fascination on the European imagination, especially during the Age of Romanticism, due in part to the writings of the adventurer Richard Francis Burton. Many Westerners imagined a harem as a brothel consisting of many sensual young women lying around pools with oiled bodies, with the sole purpose of pleasing the powerful man to whom they had given themselves.
A harem need not necessarily consist of women with whom the head of the household has sexual relations (wives and concubines), but also their children and other females. It may include staff such as slave women and eunuchs. It is being more acknowledged today that the purpose of harems was for the royal upbringing of the future wives of nobles and royal men. Some women of Ottoman harem played very important political roles, and at times it was said that the empire was ruled from the harem.
It is claimed that harems existed in Persia under the Ancient Achaemenids and later Iranian dynasties -- the Sassanid Chosroes II reportedly had a harem of 3000 wives, as well as 12,000 other women -- and lasted well into the Qajar Dynasty. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs are said to have made a ‘constant demand’ of provincial governors for more beautiful servant girls. In Mexico, Aztec ruler Montezuma II, who met Cortes, kept 4,000 concubines; every member of the Aztec nobility was supposed to have had as many consorts as he could afford.
Harem is also the usual English translation of the Chinese language term hougong, meaning the palaces behind. Hougong are large palaces for the Chinese emperor's consorts, concubines, female attendants and eunuchs. The women who lived in an emperor's hougong sometimes numbered in the thousands.