The term "harem" conjures up images of nubile young women who spend their days lounging about a pool or beautifying themselves for the moment the master appears to whisk them off to bed.  If such an image was ever grounded in reality it certainly was not in Ancient Egypt.  A harem was simply the place where women lived.

Any middle class home would have a harem, or women's room, where unmarried female relatives and servants would sleep.  One would expect the king's palace to have similar facilities.  There was, of course, a difference.  The king had several palaces and so he needed several harems.  It took a very large number of people to keep each palace functioning smoothly and so we would expect appropriately large harems.  Even a half dozen women in the harem of a private residence could easily be integrated into the social and economic system of the rest of the house, but royal harems were so large that they took on a life of their own.  Each harem needed its own estate, consisting of land and peasants to produce food for everyone and enough of a surplus to pay for all of the other necessities.  Such a system would require its own officials and administrators, male of course, to keep everything running smoothly, but there is no evidence to suggest and no reason to believe that any of these men were eunuchs.

Size and economic independence distinguish royal harems from private ones.  The third difference is marital status.  The private harem was a residence for single women.  The royal harem housed single women plus the king's secondary wives, their servants, and children.

Some of the secondary wives were Egyptian.  We know very little about most of them except that their position was an honorable and respected one.  Other secondary wives, just as honored and respected, of course, were the daughters of foreign kings sent to Egypt by their fathers as a symbol of the peace and brotherhood that existed between them.  The bride's father was expected to send a generous dowry and the Egyptian king a suitable bride-price.  Protracted negotiations were sometimes necessary to arrive at mutually acceptable gifts.  Gilukhipa, daughter of Shuttarna II, king of Mitanni, arrived in Egypt with a retinue of 317 women.  When Shuttarna died his successor sent his daughter, for such marriages were seen to tie kings, not nations.

It goes without saying that while Egyptian kings were prepared to accept foreign brides they refused to send their own daughters in return.  In asking for an Egyptian princess, one foreign monarch suggested the Pharaoh send any beautiful woman he wished if he would simply say it was a princess, for no one would know the difference.  The Pharaoh refused even to reply to the proposed compromise.

The typical royal harem was a collection of mud brick buildings inside a high mud brick wall.  The homes faced and circled an open courtyard.  Additional buildings offered space for storage and worship.

Our knowledge of harem life is not as great as we might like.  King's Great Wife, King's Mother, King's Daughter, King's Wife, and King's Sister (in that order) were very important titles that remained with their respective holders for as long as they lived.  King's Brother was a non-existent title and King's Son is rarely attached to any man who was not actually a king or at the very least an heir apparent.  It seems that a woman could acquire status at birth and at marriage, but a man who was not king or going to be king had to earn it on his own.