After a long, frightening journey we reached a big city. I had never seen anything like it before. The houses were enormous and built of stone, not wood and mud like in my village. And the streets were paved with stone blocks and at night you could see where you were going because there were oil lamps burning at every corner. The slavers told us we were in Cordoba. I had never heard of this city before.
I was sold the next day in the slave market. I was terrified. I had no idea where my parents were or what had happened to my brothers and sisters. What was my life going to be like as a slave? I was sure it would not be good. I expected to be working in the kitchens or looking after the animals on a farm, but the man who bought me was a servant of the Caliph. He said I was a pretty little girl and that the Caliph would like my golden hair. So that was how I came to live in the Royal harem.
For the first few years I lived in the constant hope that the Caliph would send for me—it was considered a blessing if that happened—but he never did. If he sends for you—they call it being noticed—then you’re rewarded with their own rooms and servants. If you have a female child you are given larger quarters and can remarry on the death of the caliph. If the child is male then you move up through the ranks to become one of his wives. But none of this will happen to me now; I’m too old. I’ll be twenty this year.
Of course all the women in the caliph’s harem are also slaves, many brought from the north of Spain, from Africa, and some from northern Europe, like me. But there are distinct divisions within the harem. First of all there are two categories of female slave:
- the domestic servants who are not allowed to marry while they are in the harem but have the option to leave and marry if they wish.
- the concubines
Then there are the black eunuchs who are the guards of the harem and the white eunuchs who are administrators and teachers. The eunuchs are castrated male slaves but some of them have enormous power.
Within the harem there is a very strict hierarchy.
First there is the Queen Mother. She is the mother of the reigning caliph and the head of the harem. She runs the harem and exercises power over the caliph and his wives. No concubine can leave or enter the harem without her permission and she literally holds the power of life and death over them.
Next in line is the Royal Wife. She is the wife who gave the caliph his first son, the heir to the throne. Then come the other official wives, who have given him children—princes and princesses. All the wives live in the greatest luxury.
After them come the favourites; these are the concubines who are particularly beautiful and whom the caliph sees regularly.
Then it’s the concubines “who’d been noticed”—that is sent for by the caliph on at least one occasion.
After that we have the graduates from the harem school. That’s me, I’m a graduate and it looks as though I’m going to spend my whole life here without once being sent for by the caliph.
At the very bottom of the pile are the pupils at the harem school. They’re the newcomers, bought for their youth, beauty and intelligence and once in the harem they’re schooled by white eunuchs to become concubines.
I sometimes get lonely, which you might think is strange because there are hundreds of women here, and I do have some special friends. There is a lot of envy and jealousy when someone gets promoted to a ‘favourite’ or becomes pregnant, but generally everyone gets along reasonably well. Any ill-feeling has to be well concealed because no-one wants the Queen Mother to find out. She can be quite ruthless. Sometimes women fall in love with each other and then they have to be very careful because it is forbidden to have a sexual relationship with any of the other concubines.
If I’m honest I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been sold to the Caliph. Maybe I would have married and had lots of lovely children. Who knows? Instead I spend my days reading poetry, playing chess or chatting to my friends. I have no freedom but then I have no worries either.