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What Are Odalisques?

The word odalisque originated from the Turkish word odalik, which means “chambermaid”. An odalisque is a female slave in the household of a sultan, usually an personal chambermaid to the wives and concubines. This slave is usually given to the sultan or wealthy Turkish man as a gift. She remains under the supervision of the sultan's mother to serve as part of the household staff. Part of the duties of an odalisque is to entertain, clean the house , and perform other tasks as instructed by the wife or children. Unless the odalisque possesses extraordinary beauty, she is almost never seen by the sultan. In this case, she can get promoted from the position of slave to concubine. In other cases, a hard working odalisque can get promoted to concubine in due course of time.

The introduction of the Islamic culture to the Western world gave way to different myths and legends about harem life. Paintings of odalisques and concubines in a sultan's harem portrayed a life of leisure and sensuality that is quite uncommon in reality. Real odalisques are not always young, however, they are able bodied females who can work around the household and be at the beck and call of the family, particularly the wives and children. Although children born of slaves are free, and the slaves themselves become free upon the owner's passing, it is generally considered a privilege to work as an odalisque slave in a sultan's harem. Gifts and other benefits and privileges await those who eventually get promoted to concubines.

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