Harem wall painting fragments

Contributed by British Museum

Fragments of wall paintings from the bath house of a harem at Samarra in Iraq. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1 of 3

The two figures, displayed on these wall painting fragments, are probably slave girls from the harem of Caliph al-Muasim in Samarra. Although simply drawn, they have a distinct personality and conjure up images of the Arabian Nights stories, some of which were set in Samarra. The women of the palace were not just wives and concubines but were also poets and musicians. Harem girls were often highly trained in singing, music and literature and it was potentially an attractive career for a woman of humble origins.

What happened to Samarra?

Samarra was built as the new capital of the Islamic Empire in AD 836 and, at the time, was one of the largest cities in the world. Samarra was created to house the Caliph's court and army of Turkish slavesoldiers, after they increasingly came into conflict with the inhabitants of Baghdad. In AD 861, after the Turkish commanders assassinated the Caliph al-Mutawakkil, Samarra was abandoned. Samarra's decline mirrors that of the Islamic Empire, which became increasingly fragmented from AD 800 onwards.

The narrator of the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade, is a female story-teller, perhaps like the figures in the paintings

A real career move

Slave girls could come from any part of the world. In Islam you are not technically allowed to enslave Muslims, so most of these girls come from border territories – from central Asia, from Ethiopia, from the Basque Country in Northern Spain. And they were actually brought first of all to training centres, one of the most important being the city of Medina in Arabia which was renowned in the Abbasid period as a place where girls could learn to play musical instruments like the Oud (the lute) and also learn poetry and dance.

It was only after they had been trained that they were purchased and brought into other households. Not only the Abbasid Royal households in Samarra but also royal households in Cairo and in Cordoba in Islamic Spain.

The freedom of slave girls was often slightly greater than that of free women in the sense that they did not have the same reputation to protect as free born women. To become part of the Caliph’s household (perhaps household is a better word than harem) was actually something women could aspire to and if you were of humble origins but you were good at singing or dancing and you got properly trained then this was a real career move.

Amira Bennison, Senior lecturer in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge

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  • 1 comment
  • 1. At 23:45 on 28 June 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    Doesn't it seem a bit odd to anyone that there should be picture drawings of faces on a caliphate wall this late into the Islamic period? I cannot imagine under what circumstances they might even have been considered. If calligraphic art had begun by this period why wouldn?t they have used it as the preferred art form, it being so much cleverer, precise, mathematical and new age?
    Also, these faces are rather crudely drawn aren?t they? Perhaps they are doodles from a time after the palace fell into ruin. How can you tell the difference? Might not they have been done by a European slave on left over scraps of plaster after the original work had been carefully removed and taken to palaces new? Wouldn?t that be more likely? Please explain the museum?s reasoning a bit more fully. Sincerely,..

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Samarra, Iraq


9th century AD


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