Tomorrow is, as I’m sure everyone knows, the finale of this season of The Bachelor. It’s the moment when our intrepid single man will choose to settle down with his one-and-only for the rest of his life (or until Dancing with the Stars comes calling, whichever is soonest). But until this point Ben Higgins has dated no fewer than 20 women simultaneously, both with their consent and also with the approval of a captivated public. It’s an unconventional modern love story but it is hardly novel: this 21st-century reality show is in some ways just the latest example of a romantic arrangement available to high-status men for thousands of years.
The harem—as opposed to polygamy or run-of-the-mill adultery—almost exclusively involves the wealthy and powerful. The most famous example is the Grand Seraglio of the Ottoman Sultans. The sultan’s mother, along with his wives, female attendants, and servants all lived together in the harem. (The actual word is Arabic and means “the place of the women”; it was originally used to denote any area of a house that was reserved for the use of women and children. The scantily clad women of Orientalist fantasies being strictly optional).
Life in the harem was difficult. Women were not there by choice, having been captured in war, sold by their fathers or acquired as part of a dowry. The Imperial Harem of the Ottoman empire included more than 400 rooms and, according to some, was guarded by nearly 800 eunuchs. Life within its walls life was strictly hierarchical. The Valide Sultan, mother of the Sultan, ruled the roost and had almost absolute power over the concubines. No one could leave or enter the harem without her permission. Things were even more dangerous for the concubine who dared to insult her liege. According to legend, Ashoka, emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty in modern-day India, had his entire harem burned alive when a small group of them offended him.
The largest harems were improbably large. The 6th-century BCE King Tamba of Banaras (India) is rumored to have had a harem of 16,000. Kublai Khan, the 13th-century Mongol leader, had four queens and 7,000 concubines. He habitually culled and refreshed the pool of concubines every few years. The 15th-century Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din Klijn’s harem of 15,000 necessitated the construction of a separate walled city to house them. In the early years of the 17th century, Emperor Jahangir of India kept a harem that included a thousand young men. All of which really put the famed 72-virgin heavenly harems earned by martyrs in the shade.
While the word and infrastructure of the harem comes from the Muslim world, harems are found in other cultures as well. According to the Franciscans who served as missionaries in Mexico, every member of the Aztec nobility was expected to have as many consorts as possible. The only limitation on the size of the harem was the nobleman’s personal finances. The Aztec ruler Montezuma II apparently had a harem of 4,000.
Christianity frowns upon multiple wives and extramarital sex and, thus, Christian monarchs have restrained themselves to mistresses drawn largely from the pool of women that helped make up the royal courts of Europe. But even the Bible has its share of sexually greedy monarchs. King Solomon, the son of David, is known for his harem of a thousand wives and concubines, a group that purportedly counted the Queen of Sheba among its number.
Solomon is not the only ruler with high-class tastes. The Egyptian Pharoah Amenophis III, who fathered Akhenaten, had a harem that included his wife, two Syrian princesses, two Babylonian princesses, one Arzawa princess, two princesses from Mitanni, and numerous Egyptian concubines.
What all of these men have in common (apart from voracious sexual appetites) is their social status and power. Harems take money to maintain and power to acquire. From an evolutionary standpoint it makes sense that powerful men, like Genghis Khan, took the most beautiful women from captured nations and placed them in his harem. The reproductive impulse would have spurred him to disseminate his genetic code far and wide. In fact, geneticists in Russia claim that 16 million people from China to the Middle East are descended from him. It’s primal instinct.
Harems are undeniably exploitative. They are architectural examples of unbridled male dominance. Within the structures of the harem, though, women vied for position and authority. The important distinction, even within the harem, is between concubines and wives. It’s the latter that provided legal offspring for the purposes of inheritance. And, thus, the ultimate goal for the concubine was to rise to the status of wife, father the heir, and rule the harem. Putting aside romance, this is very much about status and validation. As Jon Marks, professor of anthropology and author of Tales of the Ex-Apes, told me, “We do like to distinguish between mating or bonding, which are instinctual, and marriage, which is contractual.” Something to think about tomorrow when the last remaining Bachelor contestant receives her engagement ring.