Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A brief history of eunuchs in Reay Tannahill's 'Sex in History' (1980)

In her 1980 book Sex in History, Reay Tannahill has a part called "Asia until the Middle Ages, and the Arab World," within which is a chapter called "Islam," within which is a section on "The Eunuchs" (pp. 246-254) The section is a world overview and has hardly any information on Muslim societies, so its placement under "Islam" is a little confusing. Since the history ends in the 1930s and she is writing a half-century later, she uses a lot of old material (not in the original languages of these cultures, but primarily in English) and puts a hint of second-wave feminist spin on it. Among her sources:

  • Stent, G. Carter. "Chinese Eunuchs." Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series XI, 1877, pp. 143-84.
  • Basham, A. L. The Wonder That Was India. London, 1954.

She writes: "The eunuch of popular imagination is often a repellent, sinister figure, high of voice and flabby of flesh, with a taste for sweet-meats, bright colors, and strong rhythms, and a disposition that is acquisitive, cruel, and vengeful." She comments that these character traits seem more likely as a response to involuntary, rather than voluntary, castration. (p. 252) She proposes that "their emasculation made of the quicker-witted eunuchs far more effective officials than they would otherwise have been, for they owed no clemency to the people with whom they dealt." (p. 253) This statement is unclear: Does she believe that they were angry about their castration and therefore felt they had the right to take collective revenge on anyone they met, or that kidnapping, castration, and enslavement severed their previous social ties so that they generally had no need to play favorites with people at court?

Her world history is paraphrased below. This is already commonly known information for those who have read any significant amount about eunuchs.

Assyrian laws as far back as the 15th century BCE allowed a married man to castrate another man found having sex with his wife. "That this punishment was inflicted with a degree of frequency is suggested by the fact that there were a number of eunuchs among Assyrian royal officials, while others were employed in the harem to guard the four royal wives, 40 concubines 'and others' incarcerated in it, being forbidden to approach them more closely than seven feet, or to speak to them at all if they were inadequately clothed." When the Persian empire replaced it, Cyrus in the 6th century BCE believed that eunuchs could perform physical military service on par with other men and that they were ambitious, and that they had the further advantages of being incapable of committing sexual violations and tending to devote their loyalty to their king rather than to families they did not have. Tannahill says that the Persians were likely "the first to castrate prisoners in cold rather than hot blood" and that Herodotus reports that attractive boys were chosen for castration. Darius, after Cyrus, asked for 500 eunuch boys as tribute from Babylon and Assyria. Later, the practice was known in China, where eunuchs were employed in the imperial harem and as "private executioners." A slave trade in eunuch boys was known in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was known that some eunuchs had sexual desire and some women preferred them as sexual partners. The Roman Emperor Domitian banned castration in the first century CE but nevertheless, later, in the Byzantine empire, eunuchs served as imperial "ministers and even Church patriarchs" and "eight of the chief posts of the empire were reserved for them." Eunuchs were not generally known in the West "where women had some degree of freedom" and where leaders connected more directly with their people. "It seems that the original Hebrew attitudes [as in Deut 23:1] may have traveled to India with the Aryan invaders, for the Vedic and Hindu faiths regarded eunuchs as utterly unclean, an opinion that rubbed off even on the later Muslims (the Mughals) who ruled India from 1526 until 1806. The Indian zenana was guarded by elderly men and armed women, and eunuchs were few and far between." In the Turkish sultan's seraglio, the white and black eunuchs were mutilated differently. She talks about different procedures for castration and the fact that Chinese eunuchs preserved the tissue. Since the Turkish harem eunuchs "left no memoirs," if we want such first-hand accounts we must turn to Ssu-ma Ch'ien (1st century BCE) and Peter Abelard (12th century CE). "Both men were intellectuals, and both, after the first shock of pain and revulsion, had some escape into the private refuge of the mind. But the eunuchs of the harem were trapped in the mesh of social intercourse, with no way out. Whatever they may have felt for their fellow sufferers, to others they were over-sensitive — sometimes excessively affectionate, more often withdrawn and hostile." (p. 253) Thousands of eunuch slaves were still being taken annually into "Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey," but following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, N. M. Penzer could locate only a couple individuals in Turkey. In the early 1930s there were still a number of retired palace servants at the Refuge for Distressed Eunuchs near the Pa Pao Shan Golf Club; Osbert Sitwell spoke with them.


Reay Tannahill. Sex in History. New York: Stein and Day, 1980.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Eunuchs in Barnette Miller's 'Beyond the Sublime Porte' (1931)

Some notes from Barnette Miller's 1931 book Beyond the Sublime Porte especially relating to information about eunuchs.

A beautiful place to visit...

Miller opens her book with these words: "All the world has heard of the beauty of Constantinople as it is approached by sea. Many travelers have seen the long undulating line of the Thracian hills; the gleaming domes and minarets of the great mosques which crown the hilltops in high relief above a myriad of lesser domes and minarets; and, along the water's edge, the broken stretches and dark shadows of the imposing wall and towers which once completely encircled the city. When set in mist and suffused with the rays of the rising sun, this city seems, indeed, the nearest earthly counterpart of the Celestial City as described in the Revelation of St. John the Divine." She adds that "upon the point of the peninsula which cleaves its way like the prow of a ship between the Sea of Marmora and the Golden Horn into the swirling waters of the Bosphorus, hidden behind the high wall which divides the Acropolis of ancient Byzantium from the other hills of Constantine's New Rome, lies the vast pile of the old palace which was the abode of the Turkish sultans and the seat of their imperial rule — the Sublime Porte itself — for almost exactly four centuries, from its founding by Muhammad the Conqueror until its abandonment in the middle of the nineteenth century." (p. 3) The Sublime Porte then moved to Angora.

Of the palace: "It is in itself a museum of national art. Nowhere else is the historical continuity of Ottoman art so well illustrated; nowhere else, except in Brusa, are clearer examples of Ottoman primitive architecture to be found, and nowhere else, in so great profusion, such exquisite tiling and such rich inlay." (p. 6)

Note: The Grand Seraglio was later known as Old Palace, Eski Saray. It was also sometimes known as the Palace of Tears because it was a place of banishment for a deceased sultan's widows or for his wives whose sons had been executed. In the 19th century, the sultan Muhammad decided to leave his harem there (about 300 women and 70 eunuchs) and move his official staff to a New Palace, Yeni Saray, better known in Turkey as the Top Qapu Sarayi, "Palace of the Cannon Gate," at Seraglio Point.

...but a difficult place to live

Halidé Edib wrote in the introduction: "The gradual seclusion of majesty and of women, the eunuch and guard system with all its implied social intricacies, pomp, and richness, the sense of relentless power and authority — a combination of Byzantine, Persian and Roman ideas of power — are all there. One sees in passing the simple and democratic Turkish ruler of the Brusa period being transformed into the Great Emperor of the Near East, the successor of the Caesars." Miller quoted Sir Charles Eliot as having said: "The humiliating obeisances exacted from European ambassadors at the Seraglio had their counterpart at Constantinople as early as the time of Nicephorus Phocas. The cry, 'Padishahimiz chok yasha,' with which the sultan is saluted, recalls the 'In multos annos' which was addressed to the Basileus in precisely similar circumstances, and the subjects of both monarchs describe themselves as slaves (or kullar) in speaking to their masters." (p. 29)

When did seclusion start? "It was with the extension of the Ottoman Empire into Europe and the transfer of the capital to Adrianople, that the sultans for the first time erected a magnificent palace and took on the panoply of royal state, and there also they began to seclude their harem, installing eunuchs as its guard." (p. 28)

White and black eunuchs

The white eunuchs served as "palace chamberlains and guardians of the Imperial Gate (later of the Gate of Felicity" and were the muzakerehjiler (drillmasters) as "administrative and surveillance officers of the Palace School." (p. 60) They came from "the Caucasus, and, in the seventeenth century, also from certain states of India." They received the same education as the pages. "During the reign of Muhammad II the number of eunuchs in the Grand Seraglio was twenty-three, and the entire number in the royal employ some forty-odd. After the introduction of black eunuchs as the guard of the Royal Harem, the number of white eunuchs was usually in the ratio of one to every ten pages." (p. 60) The chief white eunuch was "grand master of ceremonies and head gatekeeper of the Grand Seraglio, chief of the Inner Service, and confidential agent of the sultan, [and he] was also the director-in-chief of the palace system of education." In the 15th and 16th centuries, the hierarchy under him next had "the head treasurer and the head commissary, who were also the heads of the corps of pages attached to these departments; the palace steward (saray aghasi), who was the assistant director of the Palace School, and at the same time the head of the Great and Small halls and the Hall of the Expeditionary Force; and the first officer of the Hall of the Royal Bedchamber, who had general charge of the school discipline. Ranking next to these officers of the general administration, there was attached to each hall a first officer (oda bashi) who, under the Code of Muhammad II, was held responsible for the order and discipline of his hal; and a second officer, known as the steward (ketkhuda). Each hall had also its own librarian, recorder, treasurer, and imam, and three muezzins. In addition there were student officers... The pages of each hall were divided into companies of ten, and presiding over each company was a lala, or pedagogue, whose duty it was to keep order and to preside during meals. At first white eunuchs, later the lalas were recruited to some extent from the student body, and, in cases of unusual ability, might be promoted to the rank of under-master (qalfa)." (pp. 60-61)

"Although Turkish authorities concur in the opinion that black eunuchs, who [in contrast to white eunuchs] were entirely castrated, were not introduced until 1582 (990 A.H.), contemporary evidence exists which shows that they were being used as early as the reign of Muhammad II." (p. 91) She cites Angiolello for this and also an entry for the year 1542 in the Journal of the Bank of St. George of Genoa. The black eunuchs "had ready access to the sultan at all hours" (especially the chief black eunuch) and were "the intermediaries between the royal harem and the outside world, and they were the administrators of the vast properties held by the queen mother and qadins; no messages or gifts could pass, nor could business be transacted, except through them." (p. 92) Power people needed to bribe them. "Enormously wealthy and politically powerful, yet secluded from an early age and without education except of the most rudimentary kind, the introduction of black eunuchs into the Grand Seraglio is one of the several factors in the decline of the empire which may be attributed to the malign influence of Roxelana." (p. 92) The chief black eunuch was allowed to use the Gate of the gardeners (Bostanji Qapusi) regularly. (p. 145) "The palace chorus gave concerts on Tuesdays for the sultan and, on rare occasions, blindfolded and closely guarded by black eunuchs, for the Royal Harem." (p. 67)


To her knowledge, Ottaviano Bon, the Venetian Bailie in Constantinople from 1606-1609, was the first foreigner who entered the Grand Seraglio, and his writing on the subject "is the most lucid and succinct account given by an early European writer." (p. 9) Pierre Lambert de Sauméry, under the pseudonym De Mirone, wrote Mémoires secrètes et curieuses d'un voyage du Levant (1721) which was "almost certainly a plagiarism from that of [Aubry de] La Mo[t]traye published eight years previously." (p. 12) Yet it was the Frenchman Jean-Claude Flachat during whose stay in Constantinople from 1740-1766 likely received "the first grand tour of the palace, including the Harem" as described in his Observations sur le commerce et sur les arts de l'Europe, de l'Asie, et de l'Afrique. Flachat befriended Haji Bektash, the Chief Black Eunuch, an Abyssinian. (p. 13)

She was in Constantinople 1916-1919 and although "the United States and Turkey were aligned on opposite sides of the recent great struggle," she, "a foreigner, no more than a private individual and almost an enemy alien," was "accorded so rare a privilege" as to make architectural drawings of the Harem of the Grand Seraglio and was "allowed to continue the work when the military tide of events had turned still farther against the Turks. At the time comparatively few persons had ever seen the Winter Harem, and no one had ever made a[n architectural] plan of it." (pp. 18-19) She had to cease work, however, by October 1918 due to military action in the Balkans.

Miller, in her preface, acknowledges the assistance of her language teachers and several Turkish professors and officials, as well as Albert H. Lybyer, Arnold J. Toynbee, and Agnes F. Perkins, Professor of English at Wellesley College, for giving feedback on her manuscript.

The book

Barnette Miller. Beyond the Sublime Porte: The Grand Seraglio of Stambul. (1931) New York: AMS Press, 1970.