The Sultan's Eunuch

Episode 369

Download the podcast
Feed | iTunes | GooglePlay | SoundCloud

For more than three centuries, a cadre of African eunuchs were responsible for guarding the Ottoman harem at the imperial palace in Istanbul. The head of this group, the Chief Harem Eunuch, emerged as an extremely influential individual at the court. This was especially true during the crisis years of the long seventeenth century, when the palace became divided along ever-shifting lines of political factions. In this episode, we trace the long trajectory of the office of Chief Harem Eunuch, from its establishment—coinciding with the sultan’s decision to begin residing full-time in the harem—until the ultimate demise of the empire. In particular, we highlight the high degree of mobility for these eunuchs, beginning with their initial journey from Ethiopia to the shores of the Bosphorus, and later on using their position to maintain strong ties to Cairo as well as the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. A liminal figure in every sense of the word—in terms of gender, race, and his duties at the court—the Chief Harem Eunuch offers unique insights into the nature of political life at the Ottoman palace.

Stream via SoundCloud 

Contributor Bios
Jane Hathaway is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History at Ohio State University. She has published numerous books and articles on the Ottoman Chief Harem Eunuch, the Ottoman Arab provinces (especially Egypt), and ethno-regional factionalism in the Ottoman Empire. Her new book, The Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Harem: From African Slave to Power-Broker, is available August 2018 through Cambridge University Press.
Sanja Kadrić is a lecturer in the Department of History at Ohio State University. Her research concerns the devşirme, kinship networks, and origin myths in the Ottoman Empire and addresses the legacy of elite military and bureaucratic slavery in former Ottoman lands.
Emily Neumeier is an art historian whose research concerns the art and architecture of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic. She is co-curator of our series The Visual Past and editor of the blog stambouline, a site where travel and the Ottoman world meet. She serves as assistant professor of art history at Temple University.


Episode No. 369
Release Date: 5 August 2018
Recording Location: Columbus, Ohio
Audio editing by Emily Neumeier
Music: Special thanks to Kara Güneş for permission to use the composition "Istanbul"
Images and bibliography courtesy of Jane Hathaway


Sultan Osman II (r. 1618-22) with harem and Third Court eunuchs.  Hacı Mustafa Ağa is on his left.  From Mehdi, Șehname-i Türki, Uppsala University Library, MS O. Celsig 1, fols. 1b-2a.  Image courtesy of Uppsala University Library.

“Kuzlır Aga or Black Eunuch of the women.”  From Paul Rycaut, The Present State of the Ottoman Empire, 3rd ed. (London:  Printed for John Starkey and Henry Brome, 1670), p. 36.  Public domain.
Hacı Beşir Ağa’s külliye near Topkapı Palace, Istanbul.  Photo by Jane Hathaway.

Select Bibliography

“The Guardians” exhibition at the Leighton House in London in 2012, which featured the photographer Adel Quraishi’s portrait series of the last generation of eunuchs to guard the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.

Ayalon, David. Eunuchs, Caliphs, and Sultans: A Study in Power Relationships. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, the Hebrew University, 1999.

Fetvacı, Emine. Picturing History at the Ottoman Court. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013.

Güler, Mustafa. Osmanlı Devlet’inde Haremeyn Vakıfları (XVI.-XVII. Yüzyıllar). Istanbul: Tarih ve Tabiat Vakfı, 2002.

Hathaway, Jane. Beshir Agha, Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Imperial Harem. Oxford: Oneworld, 2006.

Höfert, Almut, Matthew M. Mesley, and Serena Tolino, eds. Celibate and Childless Men in Power: Ruling Eunuchs and Bishops in the Pre-Modern World. London and New York: Routledge, 2018.

Marmon, Shaun. Eunuchs and Sacred Boundaries in Islamic Society. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Necipoğlu, Gülru. Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: The Topkapı Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. New York: Architectural History Foundation; Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1991.

Peirce, Leslie. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Uluçay, M. Çağatay. Harem II. Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1971.


Ottoman History Podcast is a noncommerical website intended for educational use. Anyone is welcome to use and reproduce our content with proper attribution under the terms of noncommercial fair use within the classroom setting or on other educational websites. All third-party content is used either with express permission or under the terms of fair use. Our page and podcasts contain no advertising and our website receives no revenue. All donations received are used solely for the purposes of covering our expenses. Unauthorized commercial use of our material is strictly prohibited, as it violates not only our noncommercial commitment but also the rights of third-party content owners.

We make efforts to completely cite all secondary sources employed in the making of our episodes and properly attribute third-party content such as images from the web. If you feel that your material has been improperly used or incorrectly attributed on our site, please do not hesitate to contact us.