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What's a King's Harem Really Like? Read the Novel, Jewel of Persia

Persian art with many characters
Persian art: Photo: McGill Library via Unsplash

The retelling of an old story in a new way

If you wanted to tell a very old story and make it new and relatable, how would you do it?

If your goal was to write a historical fiction book based on Biblical history and placed in the Persian Court of King Xerxes, 519 BC to 465 BC, could you do it?

It's not an easy task to take people back 2500 years and make them feel as if they're stepping into the harem of a King, but Roseanna M. White did it.

Her Christian fiction novel, The Jewel of Persia, is a rich and mesmerizing read that took me back through the ages and into the intrigues of Xerxes, the Persian King also known as Ahasuerus.

Xerxes is known in both Biblical and secular history as a powerful Persian (what is now Iran), who had great wealth and power which he used to send armies to conquer the Greeks. Xerxes' offensive was considered a loss, and his defeat began the demise of his empire.

White is the author of dozens of historical novels set in numerous periods. One of her series is "Women of the Bible," and The Jewel of Persia is - in part - the story of Esther, the Jewish girl who became queen to Xerxes and saved the Jews from slaughter with the help of her cousin, Mordecai.

The story of Xerxes and Esther in Jewel of Persia

The story of Xerxes and Esther is recorded in the Christian Bible's book of Esther. If you haven't read it, it's worth the time. It's a story of power and domination. Of spies and assassination plots. Of hidden identity. Of wealth and privilege. Of the control kings had over their countries, subjects, and wives. Of deception, brutality, courage, and faith.

But while the book of Esther describes the historical events, Roseanna M. White's The Jewel of Persia enhances the story by creating multidimensional characters who feel "real," not removed from us by thousands of years. She weaves a plot that imagines what Esther might have experienced before she came to Xerxes' court. White crafts realistic scenarios that might explain why Xerxes' first Queen, Vashti, refused the king's command to appear in front of his audience. White emphasizes the character of Mordecai and creates backstories for Esther, Xerxes, Vashti, and the people in Esther's Jewish town.

Fiction, yes. But a riveting tale based on the facts we do know.

The absolute genius of creating a fictional friend

White crafted an entire story around an imaginary character, Kasia. In The Jewel of Persia, Kasia was four years older than Esther, but she lived just a few houses away, and the two young women were lifelong best friends. When the faithful Kasia meets and talks to a handsome stranger at the riverbed, her life is forever changed. A few days later, Kasia disappears. Everyone is told that Kasia drowned in the river during a storm, and Esther is stricken with the loss. Little does she know that Kasia was whisked away to the Court of King Xerxes and is far from dead.

The Jewel of Persia's main character is not Esther, but Kasia, the fictional friend - and genius storytelling device - who provides the framework for Esther's later rise to power. We become involved in Kasia's story, a moving tale of a poor Jewish woman who falls in love with a powerful King and must share her life with dozens of other wives and concubines competing for the King's attention. When Kasia and Esther are reunited in Xerxes harem, it is Kasia who paves the way for Esther to become Queen.

Love stories that are more fictional than factual?

The Jewel of Persia makes King Xerxes capable of real love, not just kingly dalliances.

In this story, the King truly loves Kasia, and later comes to love Esther, although with a different intensity than what he felt for Kasia.

It's hard to know from the Biblical account what kind of man Xerxes was in love, but the possibility that he was, indeed, a man capable of real affection made this a great read.

A softer, nicer King Xerxes than in reality?

Whether the King had a wife or concubine that he truly cared about is an issue we'll never be able to verify, but we do know that Xerxes was capable of extreme cruelty, even to those who supported him.

Take the story of Pythius, a very wealthy man who hosted Xerxes and his men on their way to the campaigns in Greece. Xerxes had enforced conscription to fill his army, and young men were required to go to war. When Pythuis, the father of five sons and friend of the King, requested that his oldest son be allowed to remain behind to carry on his father's name, Xerxes was furious. He believed that Pythius didn't believe in his mission, and as punishment, he had Pythius' oldest son killed, his body split in half. Each half of the body supposedly was planted on opposite sides of the road. The soldiers had to pass through the gruesome markers on the way to war.

Kudos to White for not romanticizing the brutality of Xerxes' reign. She does not shy away from Xerxes' role in the death of Pythius' son, nor does she ignore Xerxes' cruelty in his quest for power.

What's a king's harem really like?

I've always struggled with the bizarre idea of harems. How - and why - does one king have so many women at his disposal? How do dozens of women live together? If a man has many women, how does he even get to know them? What happens to all the children begotten by the King? In Xerxes' case, he only had two wives, Vashti and Esther, but he had many concubines that were important to him because they could give him children and increase his kingdom.

In addition to gaining insight into Esther's story, reading The Jewel of Persia gave me an understanding of the harem system, an environment that I have never been able to grasp. A harem is so far from the modern perspective of monogamy that it is almost impossible for me to imagine. I learned that eunuchs controlled the harems. (I knew this to be true in the court system of China, but I didn't realize the same thing occurred in the royal courts of 500 B.C.) Hegai, the overseer of the King's harem who takes a liking to both Kasia and Esther in The Jewel of Persia is a real person, the eunuch mentioned in the Bible as the overseer of the King's women.

The hierarchy of women in the King's world and all the conflicting personalities and power struggles became painfully apparent while reading the novel.

Lush and compelling...

If you're interested in learning more about history...

If you like supplementing Bible stories with external sources...

If you like historical fiction anchored in research and fact...

You'll want to read the lush and compelling The Jewel of Persia, by Roseanna M. White.

I love it when I discover a new author, and I will definitely be reading more of White's "Women of the Bible" series!


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