The word 'Harēm' conjures an element of fantasy for most people; of women in gauzy veils draped languorously beside steam baths against a background of incense and marble. A cross between a high class bordello and a spa resort.
Most men are disappointed to learn that the Ottoman harēm was in fact run by the Sultan's mother.
She had assumed the title of 'Valide Sultan' upon her son's ascension and thus became the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire. It was the ultimate achievement for a former concubine and slave. She was now head of a palace that had once been her prison, and also wielded enormous influence over her son's political decisions and by extension the Empire that had enslaved her.
She also regulated the relations between him and his wives and children.
Do I dare say it? This caused friction.
Far from the indolent massage parlour of male fantasy, the harēm was in fact a hotbed of intrigue and ambition. All the women were in competition with each other; and every one of them wanted to be the next Valide.
The Sultan was allowed just four principal favourites but an unlimited number of concubines. Far fewer Sultans took advantage of this arrangement than you might think. Most Sultans preferred their favourites to a different girl every night.
The Australian actor Jack Thompson perhaps explained the reason for this best. He lived with many years with twin sisters. Many men seemed to think this was an ideal arrangement and one reporter questioned him about it. Jack answered: 'You know what it's like coming home after a night out and having to face one woman? Well imagine having to face two.'
The rank and file concubines were chosen for their exceptional beauty and intelligence. Inside the world of the harēm they were considered the contemporary equivalent to a 'one night stand.' Should she be chosen for this honour and fail to arouse sufficient interest during the encounter, she might never see the Sultan again. But if she was asked back repeatedly she became an iqbal, a favourite.
But pleasing the Sultan was only part of it; it was also essential to get pregnant with a male child so that she could become one of the Sultan's 'wives'. Then, although technically still a slave herself, she was given her own apartments, slaves, and eunuchs.
She could now one day become the most powerful woman in the Empire - or finish her days in a weighted sack at the bottom of the Bosphorus.
But the concubines and kadins were only half the story. Eunuchs were the integral other half of the harēm. There is a myth that once a man has been castrated he loses his desire for women. Sadly, from my research, I learned that this is apparently not the case. It must have been truly torturous for these men to be surrounded by naked and exquisitely beautiful women and still retain their yearning.
There were two sets of eunuchs; the white eunuchs came from the conquered Christian areas of Georgia, and Armenia, or as prisoners of war from Hungary and Germany. They were only partly castrated.
(Imagine what happens in lambing season - it was like that.)
The black eunuchs however were completely 'shaven'. Most of these operations were performed at a Coptic monastery in Egypt. The boys were brought there from the Sudan as young boys. Their average age was eight. The survival rate was ten per cent.
Should a eunuch survive this procedure and rise to become the Chief Black Eunuch he would then find himself the third highest-ranking officer of the empire, after the Sultan and the Grand Vizier and functioned as the private messenger between the Sultan and his mother. It was also his appointed task to lead a new odalisque to the Sultan's bedchamber, and was the only "man" who could enter the harēm should there be any nocturnal emergencies.
Being in control of the Harēm and head of a net of spies in his fellow Black Eunuchs, he was deeply involved in almost every palace intrigue and these men even gained power over the Vizier and the Sultan himself.
The Chief White Eunuch was the head of the harēm bureaucracy and was supposed to have no contact with the harēm women, but this was not always the case in practice. As they were not completely 'shaven', they sometimes retained the ability to satisfy a lonely harēm girl. A few years after Suleiman's death they were banned from the Harēm completely as too many of the girls were falling pregnant without the Sultan's assistance.
Far from being the fantasy place of nineteenth century art, the harēm was in fact a sad and lonely place of intrigue and deadly spite. For young women it must have been a terrible and dolorous place.
But oh, let me tell you; it was just a fantastic background for a novel!
COLIN FALCONER is the author of WHEN WE WERE GODS, ANASTASIA and many other books of historical fiction. His work has been translated into seventeen languages. His latest novel SILK ROAD, was published in London last month by Corvus-Atlantic.