Harem ( Topkapi Palace )

These were the imperial family quarters, and every detail of Harem life was governed by tradition, obligation and ceremony. The word harem literally means 'private'.

Every traditional Muslim household had two distinct parts: the selaml?k (greeting room) where the master greeted friends, business associates and tradespeople; and the harem (private apartments), reserved for himself and his family.

If you decide to tour the Harem at Topkap? Palace – and we highly recommend that you do  you’ll need to buy a dedicated ticket from the ticket office outside the Harem’s entrance. The fact that there is an extra entry charge means that many stingy tour companies neglect to bring their customers through here  dreadful for people on tours but great for those who aren’t, because as a result it has become one of the least crowded areas of the palace. It’s a welcome relief after the experience of shuffling through the horrendously crowded Treasury, for instance.

As popular belief would have it, the Harem was a place where the sultan could engage in debauchery at will (and Murat III did, after all, have 112 children!). In more prosaic reality, these were the imperial family quarters, and every detail of Harem life was governed by tradition, obligation and ceremony. The word ‘harem’ literally means ‘private’. Every traditional Muslim household had two distinct parts: the selaml?k (greeting room) where the master greeted friends, business associates and tradespeople; and the harem (private apartments), reserved for himself and his family. The Harem, then, was something akin to the private apartments in Buckingham Palace or the White House.

The women of the Harem had to be foreigners, as Islam forbade enslaving Muslims. Girls were bought as slaves (often having been sold by their parents at a good price) or were received as gifts from nobles and potentates. A favourite source of girls was Circassia, north of the Caucasus Mountains in Russia, as Circassian women were noted for their beauty. Upon entering the Harem, the girls would be schooled in Islam and Turkish culture and language, as well as the arts of make-up, dress, comportment, music, reading, writing, embroidery and dancing. They then entered a meritocracy, first as ladies-in-waiting to the sultan’s concubines and children, then to the sultan’s mother and finally  if they were particularly attractive and talented – to the sultan himself. Ruling the Harem was the valide sultan, the mother of the reigning sultan. She often owned large landed estates in her own name and controlled them through black eunuch servants. Able to give orders directly to the grand vizier, her influence on the sultan, on the selection of his wives and concubines, and on matters of state was often profound. The sultan was allowed by Islamic law to have four legitimate wives, who received the title of kad?n (wife). If a wife bore him a son she was called haseki sultan; haseki kad?n if it was a daughter.

The Ottoman dynasty did not observe primogeniture (the right of the first-born son to the throne), so in principle the throne was available to any imperial son. Each lady of the Harem contrived mightily to have her son proclaimed heir to the throne, to thus assure her own role as the new valide sultan. As for concubines, Islam permits as many as a man can support in proper style. The Ottoman sultans had the means to support many, sometimes up to 300, though they were not all in the Harem at the same time. However, the domestic thrills of the sultans were usually less spectacular. Mehmet the Conqueror, builder of Topkap?, was the last sultan to have four official wives. After him, sultans did not officially marry, but instead kept four chosen concubines without the associated legal encumbrances, thereby saving themselves the embarrassments and inconveniences suffered by another famous Renaissance monarch, King Henry VIII. The exception to this rule was Süleyman the Magnificent (r 1520–66), who famously married his favourite concubine, Roxelana. The Harem was much like a village with all the necessary services.

About 400 or 500 people lived in this section of the palace at any one time. Not many of the ladies stayed in the Harem all their lives. The sultan might grant them their freedom, after which they would often marry powerful men who wanted the company of these well-educated women, not to mention their connections with the palace. And the relationship was twofold: the sultan was also happy to have the women, educated to be loyal, spread throughout the empire to help keep tabs on political affairs via their husbands. The chief black eunuch, the sultan’s personal representative in administration of the Harem and other important affairs of state, was the third most powerful official in the empire, after the grand vizier and the supreme Islamic judge.

The earliest of the 300-odd rooms in the Harem were constructed during the reign of Murat III. In 1665 a disastrous fire destroyed much of the complex, which was rebuilt by Mehmet IV and later sultans. Although the Harem is built into a hillside and has six levels, you’ll only be able to visit one of these. Fortunately, the most important rooms in the complex are here. Interpretive panels in Turkish and English have been placed throughout the building. You enter the Harem by the Carriage Gate, through which Harem ladies would enter in their carriages. Inside the gate is the Dome with Cupboards.

Beyond it is the Hall with Fountain (Hall with ?ad?rvan), a room decorated with fine Kütahya tiles from the 17th century. This is where the Harem’s eunuch guards were stationed; the fountain that gave it its name is now in the Pool of the Privy Chamber of Murad III. To the left is a doorway to the Black Eunuchs’ Mosque; on the right is the doorway to the Tower of Justice, which rises above the Imperial Council Chamber. Neither is open to the public. Beyond the Hall with Fountain is the narrow Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs (Harem A?alar? Ta?l???), also decorated in Kütahya tiles. Behind the marble colonnade on the left are the Black Eunuchs’ Dormitories.

In the early days white eunuchs were used, but black eunuchs sent as presents by the Ottoman governor of Egypt later took control. As many as 200 lived here, guarding the doors and waiting on the women of the Harem. Near the far end of the courtyard on the left, a staircase leads up to the rooms in which imperial princes were given their primary schooling. These are not open to the public. On the right is the Chief Black Eunuch’s Room. At the far end of the courtyard, safely protected by the eunuchs, is the Main Gate (Cümle Kap?s?) into the Harem proper, as well as a guard room featuring two gigantic gilded mirrors dating from the 18th century. From this, the Concubines’ Corridor (Cariye Koridoru) on the left leads to the Court of the Concubines and the Sultan’s Consorts Courtyard (Cariyeler ve Kad?nefendiler Ta?l???). This is surrounded by baths, a laundry fountain, a laundry, dormitories and the apartments of the Sultan’s chief consorts.

Next you’ll go through the pretty Sultan Ahmet’s Kiosk, with its tiled chimney, and into the Apartments of the Valide Sultan (Valide Sultan Da?res?), the centre of power in the Harem. These rooms include a large salon, a small bedroom, a room for prayer and other small chambers. From these ornate rooms the valide sultan oversaw and controlled her huge ‘family’. After his accession to the throne, a new sultan came here to receive the allegiance and congratulations of the people of the Harem. The later rococo mezzanine was added by the mother of Murat III in the 1580s. Of particular note in these quarters are the charming small hamam designed by Sinan and the lovely 19th-century murals featuring panoramic views of ?stanbul. As he walked these corridors, the sultan wore slippers with silver soles. As no woman was allowed to show herself to the sultan without specific orders, the clatter of the silver soles warned residents of the sultan’s approach, allowing them to disappear from his sight. This rule no doubt solidified the valide sultan ’ s control, as she got to choose the most beautiful, talented and intelligent of the Harem girls for her son.

The tour passes through the private hamams and toilets of the valide sultan to the Imperial Hall (Hünkar Fofras?), decorated in Delft tiles. This grand room is the largest in the Harem and was where the sultan and his ladies gathered for entertainment, often being serenaded by musicians in the balcony. Designed perhaps by Sinan during the reign of Murat III, it was redecorated in baroque style by Osman III (r 1754–57). The tour then enters the Privy Chamber of Murat III (1579), one of the most sumptuous rooms in the palace. Dating from 1578, virtually all of the decoration is original. It is thought to be the work of Sinan. Besides the gorgeous ?znik tiles and a copper fireplace, there is a three-tiered marble fountain to give the sound of cascading water and, perhaps not coincidentally, to make it difficult to eavesdrop on the sultan’s conversations. The gilded canopied seating areas are later 18th-century additions.

Northeast (to the right) of the Privy Chamber of Murat III are two of the most beautiful rooms in the Harem  the Twin Kiosk/Apartments of the Crown Prince (Çifte Kas?rlar/Veliahd Da?res?). These two rooms date from around 1600; note the painted canvas dome in the first room and the fine ?znik tile panels above the fireplace in the second. The fabulous stained glass is also noteworthy. North and east of the Twin Kiosk is the Courtyard of the Favourites (Gözdeler/Mabeyn Ta?l??? Ve Da?res?).

The Turkish word for ‘favourite’, gözde, literally means ‘in the eye’ (of the sultan). Over the edge of the courtyard (really a terrace) you’ll see a large pool. Just past the courtyard (but on the floor above) are the many small dark rooms that comprised the Private Prison(kafes) where the unwanted brothers or sons of the sultan were kept. A corridor leads east to the Golden Road (Altinyol), a passage leading south. A servant of the sultan’s would toss gold coins to the women of the Harem here, hence the name. It is among the oldest parts of the palace, having been built by Mehmet the Conqueror. The Harem tour then re-enters the guardroom with the huge gilded mirrors and exits through the Birdcage Gate into the palace’s Third Court.

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