Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Penzer's report on eunuchs in the Turkish harem

The British scholar Norman Mosley Penzer was afforded a rare personal tour of the Turkish palace known as the Grand Seraglio. His 1936 book, "The Harem", provides long descriptions of the palace's layout with some black-and-white photographs of the building, and is also notable for its historical description of the eunuch servants during the time of the sultans.

By the time of Penzer's study in the early twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire had already fallen, yet the palace's secrecy was still guarded. He complained that "there has always been the greatest difficulty in obtaining photographs, and in the 1933 guide-book it is very definitely stated more than once that no cameras are allowed past the entrance gate, and no photographs whatever may be taken." He did, however, manage to take photographs from a parapet on the Divan Tower.

Penzer's chapter "Previous Accounts of the Seraglio" credits the work of travelers Nicolas de Nicolay (1551), Domenico Hierosolimitano (1580s), Thomas Dallam (1599), Ottaviano Bon (1604-7), Edmund Chishull (1701), Aubry de la Motraye (1699-1714) and Jean-Claude Flachat (1740-55).

Most of the information on eunuchs is consolidated in a chapter called "The Black Eunuchs." He found only these source works "entirely devoted" to eunuchs: "Eunuchi Nati, Facti, Mystici" by Joannes Heribertus (1655); "Eunuchi Conjugium" by Hieronymus Delphinus (1666); "Eunuchism Display'd" by Charles Ancillon (1707); and "Les Eunuques À Travers Les Âges" by Richard Millant (1908).

Here he mentions a colleague, E. D. Cumming, who had a work in progress. Edward Dilworth Cumming was born in 1901 to Lucy Kittredge and the law professor George Miller Cumming who were both from prominent families. He grew up on the outskirts of New York City. He attended Harvard University for one year and Columbia University for a year and a half, after which he was inconsistently employed with private schools and an engineering firm. (He did not, as Penzer assumed, have a doctoral degree. It seems that Penzer knew him only slightly through mail correspondence.) Although he was well traveled, he primarily lived at home with his parents and sister, and he committed suicide at age 39 without ever having completed or published his manuscript. The manuscript was donated to the New York Academy of Medicine in 1943, and today, it can be accessed in NYAM's rare books collection as 19 loose-leaf binders of handwritten pages, plus numerous small boxes of hand-copied quotations from over 1200 sources, mainly in English, French, and German.

Penzer mentions the work of another colleague, "The Eunuch in Society," by H. R. M. Chamberlain. Penzer previously named this 1927 work in his notes on "The Ocean of Story", and he indicated in "The Harem" that, as of 1936, he believed it had not yet been published. The author was Herbert Roy Maslen Chamberlain (known as "Roy"), an officer in the First World War, a graduate of the London School of Economics, a university lecturer, and an avid stamp collector who was about the same age as Penzer. The manuscript was privately printed shortly before the author ceased his studies at LSE. It appears that LSE never received the anticipated copy of Chamberlain's masters thesis on the slave trade (nor did they give him the masters degree), and today, they do not have a copy of "The Eunuch in Society," either. Chamberlain did not have children and died in 1961. He left his personal effects to his second wife, who died without leaving a will. The volumes in Penzer's personal library might have been sold through Charles J. Sawyer Books in London, with which he had a publishing relationship and which sold his personal correspondence a decade after his death, but the last proprietor of that family business died in 2012. The manuscript is therefore lost.

Other citations include A. H. Lybyer's "The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the Time of Suleiman the Magnificent" (1913) and Barnette Miller's "Beyond the Sublime Porte" (1931).

Penzer's history suggests (following the historian Ammianus Marcellinus) that the Assyrian queen Sammuramat, mythologized as "Semiramis," was one of the earliest royals to employ eunuchs during her rule from 811-808 BCE. The Persian king Cyrus, who conquered Babylon in 538 BCE, also had eunuch servants.

The Roman emperor Domitian's ban on eunuchs in the first century did not prevent their subsequent popularity in the Byzantine empire. While Constantinople was under Byzantine rule, the system of keeping women veiled and secluded in a palace guarded by eunuchs thrived. By the time the city was conquered in 1453 by the Turks, the Turks embraced these customs, too, despite the Koran's ban on eunuchs. The eunuchs had their own mosque, "built after the great fire of 1665 and containing much fine faience work with interesting marble tablets recording gifts of various eunuchs towards the upkeep and beautifying of the rooms."

The Turks used white eunuchs from Georgia and Circassia in the early 15th century and added black eunuchs from Abyssinia and Sudan in the late 15th century. These servants were segregated: "No white eunuchs are allowed to visit their black brethren in any circumstances whatever."

Penzer expresses his revulsion of this gender. He refers to eunuchs as "unproductive, sterile, unnatural, and altogether unwholesome member[s] of society." While they were once a "necessary evil" to keep up the harem, in modern times they are no longer needed and "alone they seem rightly to belong" within the pages of "Arabian Nights" fairy tales. He managed to meet only "two, or possibly three, of these strange beings" while in Turkey.

In a very strange paragraph, he describes their lack of body hair, "feminine" voices, excess weight, wrinkled skin, eye and bladder weakness, and memory and sleep problems, to which he adds odd stereotypes including a fondness for sweets, the color red, and African drums, an intolerance and "no liking" for alcohol, and greedy natures. His racist conclusion: "They unite the small brain of the negro with the childish imagination of the ignorant Oriental. Consequently they believe the wildest stories, and once an idea has entered their minds nothing can change it."

Two passages in the book contradict this paragraph: First, Tavernier's report that alcohol was often smuggled in as a bribe for eunuchs, whereas Penzer says elsewhere that alcohol was distasteful to them, and second, another writer's claim that the white eunuchs were "like mummified old women...for the most part, very thin and shrivelled," whereas Penzer said elsewhere that the eunuchs were obese. Penzer does not seem aware of these contradictions in his reporting.

In subsequent pages, outside of the chapter on the black eunuchs, Penzer tells how the seventeeth-century Sultan Ibrahim drowned his entire harem so that he could entertain himself by getting a new one, and in such situations the Kislar Agha (the chief black eunuch) was typically the overseer of the execution process, handing the condemned women over to the Bostanji-bashi (head gardener) who would tie them in sacks and row them to open water. He also retells a story reported by Paul Rycaut in which Sultan Ibrahim adored the Kislar Agha's adopted infant son, born of a supposed virgin the Kislar Agha had purchased who proved to be already pregnant. Ibrahim's interest in the child caused tension with the mother of Ibrahim's biological infant son. The Kislar Agha attempted to retire quietly to Egypt, via a pilgrimage to Mecca, to avoid the family conflict, but was killed on his ship by the Maltese. Ibrahim took revenge on Malta. It turned into a twenty-year war – all precipitated by the eunuch's adoption of a child!

Penzer ends with Flachat's report of how the Sultan would throw a handkerchief at the harem girl he most desired that night and the Kislar Agha would facilitate private time for them. Although much of Penzer's information is drawn from the reports of other travelers, this accessible book has had a wide cultural influence on others writing about the eunuchs in the Turkish harem.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Feb. 19, 2012.


  1. punctuation takes too long
    but if u r interested here is a reply from a real eunuch, not effeminate / transgender, not taking hormones, been eunuch since 2015, currently age 29. i did it because i was getting hairloss & my family has severe balding gene. i did not want to go bald. i am a normal straight male who DID NOT want to be a eunuch

    sleep problems is correct (until I stuck a rod through the floor to sleep at zero volts, now I sleep awesome) usually have to sleep naked cause phx is hot & i get hot b4 bed unless winter, really heat sensitive & flashes but menopause is over

    bladder weakness seems correct, like i have to pee somewhat more it seems

    excess weight, not really but my stomach looks fatter somewhat

    memory problems, doesn't seem to be but it seems a tiny bit harder to find my car if i park in a big fuller parking lot & don't remember a landmark (i'm increasing turmeric & eat really healthy most of time)

    fondness for sweets, no i don't want brittle bones & sweets are bad for a lot of reasons otherwise i'd like them

    the color red, yes i like red but not sure its my favorite but i do like it

    African drums, not exactly but haven't heard them much in phx so maybe

    intolerance and "no liking" for alcohol, yes it takes about 1 or 2 mouthfuls to feel effects of red wine on empty stomach but i love red wine cause its healthy & tastes good as long as no gmo yeast (US, Canada, South Africa?, another country starts with M) with the exception of certain brands like frey & Pacific Redwood

    greedy natures, yes i like accumulating things but i'm organized & not like hoarders, i also give some to homeless but too poor to give much

    they believe the wildest stories, definitely no, i know the news is controlled by Soros & big pharma & is a bunch of lies

    they adore what we call fairy stories, yes it seems like readers digest stories are more appealing than when i had androgens but not much time

    bad eyesight, might have declined a small small amount but my diet is really good

    they love cats, yes but i did before i used the tri-bander to stop my hairloss

    childish imagination, no but i wish i had a fast brain like a 10 yr old

    sexual feelings, no like 99.5% gone but still a bit or more attracted to some women unless negative mood but HUGE decline toward most women, not really attracted to breasts or vagina
    still some (a few) white women esp. faces. no libido toward them & body is totally non-sexual even if naked or on a stripper pole.

    pics of the eunuch just to prove i am but not much info yet

    1. So no editing on this system?
      Anyway now I am quite happy despite only becoming a eunuch to stop hairloss.
      plus it worked but besides that i'm happy


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