The word harem comes from an Arabic word meaning "forbidden". Traditionally
a harem is the quarters of the women in a household to protect them from male strangers, meaning those who are not related
to them. But the harem at Topkapi had so much more to it than that.
In 1453, the Ottoman Padishah, Mehmed II captured Constantinople, a great achievement
as the Ottomans had been after the beautiful and legendary city for years. He found the ancient Byzantine palaces, such as
Blacharnae, in ruins and shambles. The city itself was a disgrace, merely populated and in poor condition. He set out to build
his own palace, which he constructed on the Third Hill of Constantinople, a luxurious plot of land consisting of olive groves
and views of the Tunca River. The building consisted of many gardens and complex buildings, which he named Eski Saray, meaning
'the old palace'. A few years later he decided to hand this palace over to the harem of his father and built a massive wall
extending from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, which later housed the Topkapi Palace.
Topkapi Palace was added onto for centuries until it became the masterpiece we
know of as today. Housing thousands of rooms of all sorts and the judiciary council, the Divan, the training schools, and
the Palace School of the padishah, Topkapi became a city inside a city. Hospitals, bakeries, mints, and treasuries were open
to the public. The palace housed the sultan, his government, his servants, his students, his guards, his advisers and friends,
and countless others. But the area that no one ever dared to enter or speak of, nor had many ever seen, was the harem.
The entrance to the harem at Topkapi is located at the Second Courtyard, which
consists of four other paths to various parts of the large complex. When one enters the harem they pass under the Gate of
Felicity, Turkish for 'Great Happiness'. When girls passed the gate when they entered the harem for the first time, they
were told that those who pass through the gate would never return. And this was true; a girl who went into the harem never
left it again.
The harem consisted of everyone from the padishah's wives, daughters, and
servants to his wives' servants, his concubines, and any other female who worked and lived in the palace. Virtually, the harem
populations were well into the thousands. The highest position in the harem was the Valide Sultana, the mother of the sultan.
Padishah Ahmet III even was quoted as saying "the world lies at the foot of the mother." The Valide Sultana ruled over the
harem. Her servants were among the best girls and she had as much power of the women as her son had over the empire. After
the Valide Sultana came the Hasseki Sultana, one of the padishah's wives who bore him sons. Bearing heirs gave her a place
of notice, but if her son died, she was normally dismissed of the title. Afterwards came the Hasseki Kadins, the wives of
the padishah. Virtually the Padishah only had four wives, as dictated by the Koran, but it is interesting that a concubine
could become a Hasseki Sultana and become more powerful than a wife. Following the Hasseki Kadins came the ikbals, also called
hassodaliks (odalisques). These women were the padishah's favorites, basically his mistresses. If one of these women bore
him a son, she became a kadin. A gedik was the stage afterwards. She was one that the padishah noticed, but did not bed. Sometimes
these women became his personal servants. After these women came the mistresses of the households. These women were there
to educate the newcomers to the harem, the apprentices, called acemis or a cariye. Titles included the Mistress of the Household,
Mistress of the Flowers, Mistress of the Robes, Keeper of the Baths, Keeper of the Jewels, Mistress of the Sherbets, Reader
of the Koran, Chief Coffee-Maker, Mistress of the Lingerie, and the Mistress of the Maladies. These women educated their novices
in their areas of expertise, such as gardening, languages, cooking, and housekeeping. And after the mistresses came the acemis.
These were normally young girls, some as young as 5, some in their teenage years. They were from Georgian, Armenian, and Russian
villages and they were either captured by slave traders or sold by their families. They traveled to Constantinople by ship,
over the Black Sea, and then were housed in slave markets until the Aga, the Chief Eunuch, of the harem purchased them.
Some of these girls became mistresses, some odalisques, and some even the Valide Sultana.
Eunuchs also made up a class in the harem. As young teenage boys and children,
they were taken and castrated. Without their testes, these 'neutrals', for they were neither male nor female, were perfect
for the harem. They were not sexually active and could not harm the women. And also, the only males who could look upon
the harem girls were the padishah, his sons, and his male relatives. But the eunuchs were not men. There were different
classes of eunuchs. There were the Black Eunuchs, who guarded the harem, the harem baths, and the harem gardens, and then
there were the White Eunuchs, who normally advised the Padishah.
Out of the thousands of harem women, none were Muslim. It is forbidden to enslave
Muslims, and so the harem had to be made up of other minorities and religions.
In the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, the padishah married Byzantine, Anatolian,
and Balkan princesses. These marriages were simply diplomatic, and since these girls were his slaves, the Islamic law said
he did not have to marry them. So he set out to marry others. Those four special women that he did marry were concubines (even
though odalisques were often his favorites, they were not his wives), his kadins. The first and foremost kadin was the bash
kadin. Then the ikinci kadin, then the uchuncu, etc. When a kadin died, the kadin below her rose to her spot, but not without
the approval of the padishah.
Sexuality in the Harem
Normally people think of a harem as a place of nude women lying around in
Turkish baths with one another, whose purpose in life was to please their aging padishah. This was not true, as these women
lived normal lives, although they were confided from the world. However, sexuality in the harem is questionable. It is said
that acemis, who were housed in groups of ten in large rooms of divans gracing the walls, were kept under watch by a woman
at night and candles were left lit to expose lesbian practices, which cooled the girls' wanton and unchaste behavior.
Sometimes the hierarchy of the harem was broken. Girls who did not graduate from
their mistresses and were still virgins sometimes were skilled in sexual practices and were presented to the padishah for
his use, and sometimes they rose very high, and yet they had skipped many levels. The women who slept with the padishah received
their own rooms and servants, including their own maids and euncuhs. If a girl was born, they moved to a bigger apartment
and became a Hasseki Kadin. If it was a boy, they were more favorable but one disadvantage was that those who bore sons could
not remarry after the death of the padishah, and those who bore girls could remarry.
When the padishah chose his girl for the night, he came to her the night before
so that she could prepare ever piece of clothing and touch of makeup down to the last eyelash (and shave the pubic area, which
was favorable among many padishahs). The girls had no humiliation among entering the room where the padishah was sleeping,
for they saw the night as conquering their padishah and rising high in the harem. They did show obedience and dignity, although
they did not crawl into the bed as many Western sources gossip of.
To keep track of the beddings, the haznedar, the treasurer, kept a diary of
the night it took place and the name of the woman to establish legitimacy and birth dates. Also, these diaries show extraordinary
events. The harem girls formed cliques, and often they would become malevolent and jealous of one another, especially if a
girl from another clique bedded with the padishah. Girls attacked other girls and mutilated their faces, destroying their
beauty. Some even went as far as chasing girls off of cliffs at the palace, poisoning their sherbets, strangling, and some
girls often mysteriously vanished. The harem was a dangerous world, and one had to learn how to follow the rhythms of it.
But women were also hurt by the padishah for their disobedience. Once, a woman traded her spot in the bed with the padishah
with another girl. That woman was executed.
Although there were padishahs who bedded hundreds of women, many only bed a few,
and some only had one wife. They did not indulge in orgies with many women, but did have some insane sexual rituals.
The Tulip Craze
Under Padishah Ahmed III, the brief Lale
Devri, the Tulip Era, began. During this time all of the Ottoman Empire became consumed in the world 'tulipomania'. Countries
from around the world became entranced by these mysterious flowers, and the harem at Topkapi became a template for the artists
wishing to express their love of these flowers. The harem was refurbished in murals and tiling and calligraphy all focused
on tulips and flowers. The women began a sudden interest in art and calligraphy, and Topkapi became a very educated place.
The treasury brought in thousands, from European countries like Holland who nearly went broke from buying hundreds of tulip
bulbs. The period also became peaceful. War ceased, but this enraged some. The Janissaries, men built as war machines, the
Ottoman army, and many generals were out of work because of this peaceful time. Because of their unrest, the Tulip Era only
lasted ten years (1720-1730), ending with Ahmed III being overthrown and put into captivity by the Janissaries. However, the
art and peaceful atmosphere lived on in the harem.
The harem at Topkapi (often referred to as the Seraglio) was really a large labyrinth of 400 rooms, corridors, and quarters,
all strewn into a confusing maze and locked by the other courts of the palace. It was divided into three parts: the actual
harem, where the hundreds of concubines, acemis, odalisques, and other women roamed, the black eunuchs' barracks, where the
guards of the harem lived daily, and the padishah's private rooms, where he visited his women and entertained them often.
The harem was a variety of different rooms. Sleeping quarters, large bathhouses (hamam), pools, spacious gardens, fountains,
endless corridors, and apartments for the important women, and countless spaces for the acemis to be learned, all furnished
in extraordinary and intricate art forms (tiling, paintings, calligraphy, and countless masterpieces). The rooms in the harem
were furnished twice a year. Once in the winter, when the sofas and beds were covered in dark velvets and blankets were spread,
and in the summer, when the velvets were replaced with linens and rich colored curtains were hung to lighten the enclosed
lives of the women.
The black eunuchs' barracks were located in the harem, stretching from the Carriage Gate
in the Second Court to the Cumle Kapisi (Main Gate), located at the end of the main corridor of the harem. The eunuchs' rooms
were ostentatiously decorated and glittered with golds, rivaling the classic beauty of the harem. A prince, sehzade, when
old enough, also had an apartment in the harem and had a eunuch to watch over them. Because of their castration, they posed
no threat to the princes either. The Aga, the Chief Eunuch, also was housed here.
Lifestyle in the Harem
The women of the harem passed their days simply, and in a routine. As
acemis, they rose early to begin work with their mistresses, and normally worked all day, being fed at midday, before entertaining
themselves with their cliques and friends at night, after a sumptuous dinner. After graduating their school, the girls were
free. They rose in the morning and spent their days in pleasure. Whether soaking and swimming in the baths while
conversing with their friends, walking in the gardens and having picnics, or entertaining themselves with music and other
idless luxuries, the women lived an easy life. They had few responsibilities, most of them feel to acemis or personal servants.
The more important women had a somewhat different life. The mistresses
had to work to keep the harem in order. The Mistress of the Robes worked to clothe the girls, the Mistress of the Sherbets
and the Chief Coffee-Maker worked to feed the women little snacks, and the Mistress of the Household worked very hard to manage
all the needs of the women, such as money for clothes, food, housing, and gardening. The Valide Sultana was a very busy woman.
Although she was confided and kept hidden from the empire, she advised her son in all affairs and had a firm grasp on his
control. She was rarely seen by the ordinary harem girls, as she had her own apartments with the kadins and children, but
she had just a smuch power of the harem as she did over her son. She played a very ambitious role, and in a way, was the true
ruler of the house and the empire.
The women were treated to special occasions often. Exclusively, there
were garden parties on the harem gardens and parks for the kadins, the sultanas, and the children. They were entertained and
they feasted, but the ordindary harem girls were forbidden from these small celebrations, under threats of death. Normal harem
girls rarely saw celebrations, but there were some occasions, such as when the padishah would review his harem girls, every
single one, in the Hunkar Sofasi, Hall of the Sultan. Ever girl would be presented individually (and often the padishah would
choose a favorite from among them), and then the harem would feast and be entertained on the private balconies of the padishah's
rooms, overlooking the harbors of Istanbul and the life these women would never be a part of.
The harem clothing reflected normal Turkish women wear, accept it was
more refined. The women wore long kaftans, robes, normally decorated with beautiful designs. In the winter, those who could
afford it wore fur kaftans. Sometimes the acemis or women strolling outside would ear very loose robes called a ferace. The
women wore upon their feet slippers or shoes, basmak. They wore their hair pleated, sometimes extravegantly, and the more
important women wore their hair in a headress called a hotoz. All the women wore yemeni, head coverings with little ornaments.
The women were drenched in diamonds and jewels, if they could afford it with their monthly allowances. The wore large strands
of pearls, emerald earrings, rings, rubies, diamonds, pearls in their hair, and countless jewels strewn into their clothes
and shoes. The sultanas and kadins were covered from head to toe in jewels, even the heels of their shoes were furbished with
Tragedy frequently struck the harem. The women were often too young
to die, but there were some cases, like the tasters. These girls, who had been educated in the harem schools under a mistress to
be a taster for a kadin or a sultana, tasted every drink, snack, meal, or anything else the woman they served would eat
to make sure there was no poison. They took pride in their self-sacrifice and had much dignity. Sometimes a taster would die
from poison, foaming and writhing on the floors. They were taken to the Mistress of the Maladies, but nobody would ever hear
of her fate. If the girl did survive most of the time her liver or another organ would be destroyed and she would be of no
service so she was sent home. However, there were many deaths, which was very ominous and left many feeling unsafe in their
golden cage. There was one devastating tragedy under Padishah Ibrahim I (1615-1648). When her heard rumors from his lover,
Sechir Para (Sugar Cube), that one of his concubines was sporting with a man outside of the palace, he raged for days and
had his chief eunuch torture a few of the harem girls to discover the identity of the mysterious girl. None of them spoke
and so Ibrahim tied up every single one of his 280 harem women to weighted sacks and had them thrown into the Bosporus River
in Istanbul. Only one girl survived (other than the sultana, kadins, and Sechir Para, who were spared) because her sack was
not sufficiently tied and she was saved by a French ship. The Valide Sultana became jealous of Sechir Para's power after the
drownings and had Sechir Para strangled. Ibrahim was told that she had died of a mysterious illness.
The harem moved with the entire court and household twice a year, they
would live at Topkapi normally during the fall and winter. Sometimes the harem would stay in Topkapi the year round,
like when the padishah, Ahmed III, was constructing his palace Sadabad on the Sweet Waters of Asia, the inlet of the Istanbul
harbor where two streams met with the Golden Horn.
When a padishah died, his entire harem was moved into the infamous Palace
of Tears. Originally built as one of the Padishah's Istanbul houses, the palace was given to the women of the harem that was
discarded to make way for the new padishah's harem. This was a sad and lonesome place. No man ever entered the building, nor
were there many visitors. The women were forbidden to leave and spent the rest of their lives in the dark and morbid atmosphere.
Even the Valide Sultana, once a very powerful woman, was now discarded to make way for the new woman to take her position.
The women spent the rest of their days here, a sad end to an imprisoned life.
The end of the harem at Topkapi came in the 19th century when the
padishahs decided to move into the Yildiz Palace. About 100 years later, the Ottoman Empire fell after World War I and
the Republic of Turkey was established. The President, Kemal Ataturk, brought sweeping changes, including forbidding men to
marry more than once and forbidding women to be kept imprisoned in their homes and being protected by veils. The days of the
harems had died. All the women, including those in the Palace of Tears, were let free, back to the lives they had before they
entered the harem. They found this hard, as their lifestyle was that of the harem. Most returned to their villages hoping
to find their families. Others began new lives. Today the harem in Topkapi is empty, besides tourists who flock every year
to the palace, the #1 destination in Istanbul. The harem is at the top of everyone's list and if you come at the right
time, when the tourists have died down, and listen closely, the walls will tell their stories of a long ago world.
(Originally published at http://topkapiserayi.tripod.com)