top of page

The role of Eunuchs in the Ottoman Empire

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

Slavery in the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire was a legal and important part of the Ottoman Empire's economy and society until the slavery of Caucasians was banned in the early 19th century, although slaves from other groups were allowed.

In Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), the administrative and political center of the Empire, about a fifth of the population consisted of slaves in 1609.

Even after several measures to ban slavery in the late 19th century, the practice continued largely unabated into the early 20th century. As late as 1908, female slaves were still sold in the Ottoman Empire. Sexual slavery was a central part of the Ottoman slave system throughout the history of the institution.

A member of the Ottoman slave class, called a kul in Turkish, could achieve high status.

Harem guards and Janissaries are some of the better known positions a slave could hold, but slaves were actually often at the forefront of Ottoman politics. The majority of officials in the Ottoman government were bought slaves, raised free, and integral to the success of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century into the 19th.

Many officials themselves owned a large number of slaves, although the Sultan himself owned by far the largest amount. By raising and specially training slaves as officials in palace schools such as the Enderûn Mektebi, the Ottomans created administrators with intricate knowledge of government and fanatic loyalty.

Role of the male African slaves

The concubines of the Ottoman Sultan consisted chiefly of purchased slaves and were generally of Christian origin. The mother of a Sultan, though technically a slave, received the extremely powerful title of Valide Sultan which raised her to the status of a ruler of the Empire (see Sultanate of Women).

One notable example was Kösem Sultan - also known as Mahpeyker Sultan -, daughter of a Greek Christian priest, who dominated the Ottoman Empire during the early decades of the 17th century. Roxelana (also known as Hürrem Sultan), another notable example, was the favorite wife of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Castration of slaves from Africa

The concubines were guarded by enslaved eunuchs, themselves often from pagan Africa. The eunuchs were headed by the Kızlar Ağası ("Master of the [slave] girls").

Coptic priests sliced the penis and testicles off boys around the age of eight

While Islamic law forbade the emasculation of a man, Ethiopian Christians had no such compunctions; thus, they enslaved and emasculated members of territories to the south and sold the resulting eunuchs to the Ottoman Porte.

The Coptic Orthodox Church participated extensively in the slave trade of eunuchs.

Coptic priests sliced the penis and testicles off boys around the age of eight in a castration operation. The eunuch boys were then sold in the Ottoman Empire. The majority of Ottoman eunuchs endured castration at the hands of the Copts at Abou Gerbe monastery on Mount Ghebel Eter.

Slave boys were captured from the African Great Lakes region and other areas in Sudan like Darfur and Kordofan then sold to customers in Egypt. During the operation, the Coptic clergyman chained the boys to tables and after slicing their sexual organs off, stuck bamboo catheters into the genital area, then submerged them in sand up to their necks.

The recovery rate was 10 percent. The resulting eunuchs fetched large profits in contrast to eunuchs from other areas.

Significance of male African slaves in Ottoman Empire politics

In the Ottoman Empire, eunuchs were typically slaves imported from outside their domains. A fair proportion of male slaves were imported as eunuchs. The Ottoman court harem -within the Topkapı Palace (1465–1853) and later the Dolmabahçe Palace (1853–1909) in Istanbul- was under the administration of the eunuchs.

These were of two categories: Black Eunuchs and White Eunuchs.

Black Eunuchs were Africans who served the concubines and officials in the Harem together with chamber maidens of low rank.

The White Eunuchs were Europeans from the Balkans. They served the recruits at the Palace School and were from 1582 prohibited from entering the Harem.

An important figure in the Ottoman court was the Chief Black Eunuch (Kızlar Ağası or Dar al-Saada Ağası). In control of both the Harem and a net of spies in the Black Eunuchs, the Chief Eunuch was involved in almost every palace intrigue and could thereby gain power over either the sultan or one of his viziers, ministers, or other court officials.

One of the most powerful Chief Eunuchs was Beshir Ağa in the 1730s, who played a crucial role in establishing the Ottoman version of Hanafi Islam throughout the Empire by founding libraries and schools.

Recruitment and advancement of male African slaves

Black slaves, usually purchased as boys from Nubia, then castrated and inducted into the palace service, had begun to be employed as the guards of the women of the Sultan's harem since the time of Murad III's predecessor, Selim II (r. 1566–1574), and continued to do so until the Ottoman Empire's end.

The eunuchs usually received flower names, and after a period of training in the palace school, they entered service in the harem.

The black Chief Eunuch or the 'Kizlar Agasi' (Master of the Girls)

The eunuchs began at the post of ordinary recruit (en aşağı, literally "the lowest", and acemi ağa, "the untrained"), and gradually advanced through the ranks, from nevbet kalfa ("watch substitute") to senior posts in the guard of the harem.

Having completed their training and after a period of service, some were detached from guard duties and transferred to the attendance of the inhabitants of the harem: the Sultan's personal attendants (müsahip ağaları), the seven eunuch servants plus a head eunuch (baş ağa) attached to each valide, principal wife (kadın), or prince (şehzade), the eunuch imams who led harem prayers, the harem's treasurer (haznedar ağası), or the müsendereci, who supervised the work of the other eunuchs.

The senior-most eunuchs were known as hasıllı, from an Arabic word meaning "product". From these senior posts a eunuch could be selected and appointed to the post of Kızlar Ağası by imperial decree (hatt-ı hümayun) and the ceremonial receipt of a robe of office (hil'at) from the Sultan.

Alongside the lands belonging to the office, the Kızlar Ağası usually received a personal fief (hass).

In the Topkapi Palace, the Kızlar Ağası had his own spacious apartment near the Aviary Gate, while the other eunuchs under his supervision lived together in cramped and rather squalid conditions in a three-storey barracks.

When they were dismissed, the Chief Black Eunuchs received a pension (asatlık, literally "document of liberty") and from 1644 on were exiled to Egypt or the Hejaz. As a result, serving Kızlar Ağası often took care to prepare for a comfortable retirement in Egypt by buying property and establishing vakifs of their own there.

Thus they became local grandees and played an important role in patronizing trade and agriculture.

In addition, given the important role Egypt played in the provisioning of the two holy cities, for which the Kızlar Ağası were particularly responsible while in office, the ağası and their agents (wakils) came to play a very important role in the economy of Egypt under Ottoman rule.

History of the Kızlar Ağası

The post of the Kızlar Ağası was created in the reign of Murad III (ruled 1574–1595) in 1574, with the Ethiopian Mehmed Ağa as its first occupant.

Until then, the Ottoman palace had been dominated by the white eunuchs, chiefly drawn from the Christian populations of the Balkans or the Caucasus. The 16th century, however, saw a rapid rise of the population of the Topkapi Palace, including among eunuchs, whose numbers rose from 40 under Selim (r. 1512–1520) to over a thousand under Murad III.

While black eunuchs had served alongside white eunuchs in the palace, by 1592, for reasons that are unclear, both a separation of roles as well as the ascendancy of the black eunuchs over the white ones had become established.

White eunuchs were restricted to the supervision of the male pages (içoğlan), while black eunuchs took over the far more prestigious supervision of the private apartments of the Sultan and the palace women (harem).

Consequently the Chief Black Eunuch quickly eclipsed the "Chief White Eunuch" or Kapı Ağası ("Ağa of the Gate"), who had hitherto been the head of the palace personnel, and rose to become, in the words of the Orientalist C. E. Bosworth, "in practice the principal officer of the whole palace".

At the height of the post's power in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Kızlar Ağası was a vizier of the first rank ("with three horsetails") and came third in the state hierarchy, next only to the Empire's chief minister, the Grand Vizier, and the chief religious authority, the Sheikh ul-Islam.

Slaves in the Ottoman Empire were generally treated like objects as you would expect. However, some few male African slaves actually had a path to power and were given prestigious roles in the Ottoman court.

They were actually above European slaves in social status, contrary to what you might expect, and were all castrated through a brutal process where only 10% survived. (050)

1,967 views0 comments
bottom of page