What was like to be a concubine of the Royal harem in Moorish Spain?

PictureIn the Harem by Fillippo Barratti

My name is Najm. I belong to the most powerful man in the world. His name is Abd al-Rahman III, caliph of al-Andalus. It is the year 950 AD and I have been one of his concubines for the last fifteen years. How did I end up here? The truth is that I do not really know. One day I was living with my family in a village in Saxony when we were attacked by Viking raiders. They killed many of the villagers but most they captured. I was very frightened because I had no idea what they would do with me. I was only ten years old and I’d never even been out of the village before.
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.

PictureAfter the Bath by Rudolf Ernst

I couldn’t believe it. So much luxury. The first thing they did when I arrived was give me a name. I was to be called Najm. They explained that the Caliph didn’t like the harsh sounds of the northern names so I could no longer be called Gerda. They stripped off my old clothes and two of the maids bathed me and washed my hair and rubbed my skin with sweet smelling ointments. I was given such beautiful clothes. At first the other concubines were curious to know about me and where I had come from. Some were nice to me but the others soon left me alone. They weren’t really interested in the newcomers. At first I was very lonely and cried myself to sleep every night, but then one of the nicer concubines said that if I continued like that I would be punished. I must keep my sorrow inside me, like everyone else. The Caliph didn’t want a harem full of weeping women. So I did as she said and gradually I began to forget about my old life.
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.

PictureThe Guard of the Harem by Rudolf Ernst

You might think that life in the harem was idle, that all we do is lie about all day looking beautiful, but you’d be wrong. It is very strict and we have to work hard. The Chief Eunuch is in charge of all the concubines and nobody dare disobey him.
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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

PictureThe Harem by Frederick Arthur Bridgman

I remember the harem school well; we worked very hard. We had to learn everything necessary to please the caliph: singing, poetry recitation, dancing, the art of seduction and the erotic arts, how to play a musical instrument—I learnt to play the lute— and not only how to speak Arabic, but also how to read and write it. Those that have been lucky enough to see the Caliph and share his bed say that he particularly likes his concubines to tell him stories.
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.


Joan Fallon is a writer and novelist living in Spain.