The harem is that part of a polygamist’s house which is set apart for the use of his wives and their attendants; it also denotes this collective body of women.
In all Mohammedan countries it is customary for wealthy men to keep a harem; for, though four is the number of wives to which the faithful are restricted by the Koran, there is no limit to the number of concubines a man may have, except his ability to maintain them. The mention of a harem naturally suggests to most people the female portion of the royal households of Turkey and Persia and Egypt. In the sultan’s harem each wife—he alone can have seven—has a separate suite of apartments, and a separate troop of female slaves to wait upon her and do her bidding.
All the female slaves or odalisques throughout the harem are, however, at the disposal of their royal master. She who first gives birth to an heir, whether wife or slave, is instantly promoted to the rank of chief wife. The title sultana is borne, not by the sultan’s wives, but by his mother, sisters and daughters. The real ruler of the harem is the sultan’s mother, but under her is the lady superintendent of the harem, usually an old and trusted favorite of the sultan. The duties of guarding the harem or seraglio, as it is sometimes called, are intrusted to a small army of eunuchs, the chief officer of whom generally enjoys considerable political influence. The inmates of the harem lead a very secluded life.