Not to be confused with Haram
The Harem as imagined by European artist, The Dormitory of the Concubines, by Ignace Melling
Mughal Interiors from the book of Le Costume Historique c. 1876
Harem (pronounced [haˈɾem], Turkish, from Arabic: حرم ḥaram "forbidden place; sacrosanct, sanctum", related to حريم ḥarīm, "a sacred inviolable place; female members of the family" and حرام ḥarām, "forbidden; sacred") refers to the sphere of women in what is usually a polygynous household and their enclosed quarters which are forbidden to men. It originated in the Near East and is typically associated in the Western world with the Ottoman Empire. For the South Asian equivalent, see purdah and zenana.
Brooklyn Museum - Harem Scene with Mothers and Daughters in Varying Costumes One of 274 Vintage Photographs
The word has been recorded in the English language since 1634, via Turkish harem, from Arabic ḥaram "forbidden because sacred/important", originally implying "women's quarters", literally "something forbidden or kept safe", from the root of ḥarama "to be forbidden; to exclude". The triliteral Ḥ-R-M is common to Arabic words denoting forbidden. The word is a cognate of Hebrew ḥerem, rendered in Greek as haremi (ha-re-mi) when it applies to excommunication pronounced by the Jewish Sanhedrin court; all these words mean that an object is "sacred" or "accursed".
Female seclusion in Islam is emphasized to the extent that any unlawful breaking into that privacy is ḥarām "forbidden". A Muslim harem does not necessarily consist solely of women with whom the head of the household has sexual relations, but also their young offsprings, other female relatives, etc. The Arabic word حرمة ḥurmah, plural حريم ḥarīm, was traditionally a term for a woman of the speaker's family, regardless of status. It may either be a palatial complex, as in Romantic tales, in which case it includes staff (women and eunuchs), or simply their quarters, in the Ottoman tradition separated from the men's selamlık. The zenana was a comparable institution.
It is being more commonly acknowledged today that the purpose of harems during the Ottoman Empire was for the royal upbringing of the future wives of noble and royal men. These women would be educated so that they were able to appear in public as a royal wife.
Due to the secluded nature of the Harem, there are virtually no reliable accounts of life in any of them at any time, and most accounts in literature are conjectural.
Maharaja Bijay Singh in His Harem, ca. 1770
The word harem is strictly applicable to Muslim households only, but the system was common, more or less, to most ancient Oriental communities, especially where polygamy was permitted.
The Imperial Harem of the Ottoman sultan, which was also called seraglio in the West, typically housed several dozen women, including wives. It also housed the Sultan's mother, daughters and other female relatives, as well as eunuchs and slave servant girls to serve the aforementioned women. During the later periods, the sons of the Sultan also lived in the Harem until they were 16 years old, when it was considered appropriate for them to appear in the public and administrative areas of the palace. The Topkapı Harem was, in some senses, merely the private living quarters of the Sultan and his family, within the palace complex. Some women of Ottoman harem, especially wives, mothers and sisters of sultans played very important political roles in Ottoman history, and in times it was said that the empire was ruled from harem. Hürrem Sultan (wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, mother of Selim II) and Kösem Sultan (mother of Murad IV) were the two most powerful women in Ottoman history.
In the Ottoman period prior to Atatürk's Reforms, "harem", more properly (Turk.) haremlik, meant simply the private or family area of a typical upper-class household, as opposed to the public or reception rooms known as the selamlik.
Moulay Ismail, Alaouite sultan of Morocco from 1672 to 1727, is said to have fathered a total of 525 sons and 342 daughters by 1703 and achieved a 700th son in 1721. He had over 500 concubines.