The Indian Ocean World Centre Working Paper Series explores the past and contemporary history, geography, economy, environment and politics of the Indian Ocean World.

Vol. 16 (2024): At the Helm of the Harem: Eunuchs and Their Function in the 9th/10th Century Abbasid Court

This paper explores the role and function of eunuchs within the 9th/10th century Abbasid court, with particular attention being paid to the role of eunuchs in the court of the caliph al-Muqtadir (r. 908-932 CE). Eunuchs, like other slaves within the Abbasid Empire, were predominantly foreigners. They were purchased as young boys and castrated before reaching their final market in one of the major cities of the Abbasid Empire. As guardians of the harem, Eunuchs were granted high levels of access to the caliph and freedom of movement within the caliphal court, providing them with the opportunity to attain influence amongst elite men. Outside the harem, eunuchs held key offices within the army and the police, were utilised in ceremonies, and regulated access to the caliph. This allowed them to serve as vassals for the power of their masters, and it presented them with opportunities to exercise their own influence within the court despite their enslaved status. Socially, eunuchs were often understood to exist as a sort of third gender, granting them the ability to move between the highly gendered spaces that existed within the Abbasasid caliphate and, occasionally, making them the objects of lust and desire. As eunuchs existed outside the social institution of the family, occupied a liminal space between male and female, and had no ties to the society over which the caliph ruled, they were understood to be ideally suited to serve as agents and proxies for their masters.

Published: 2024-02-14

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