Sleeping With the Sultan – Behind the Walls of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace Harem

Topkapi Palace harem

Paris has the Palace of Versailles. Vienna has the Hofburg Palace. London has Buckingham Palace. In Istanbul, it is Topkapi Palace that was the opulent home to the Sultan rulers of the Ottoman Empire and their female entourage for almost 400 years.

Topkapi Palace was the home of the ruling Sultans from the time of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in the mid 15th century till the end of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. The site is now a museum with the harem complex being the most popular and most visited part of the site.

In the west, the word harem conjures up images of beautiful veiled women leading a life of sensual luxury. Books, movies and western art have certainly helped promote this stereotype. A visit to Topkapi’s Palace harem complex can provide a glimpse into the real life of the Ottoman palace residents.

The word “harem” comes from the Arabic word that means “a sacred, inviolable space”. The practice of a harem was not invented by the Ottomans or Islam, but it has certainly become associated with them (the upper classes of the Ancient Greeks, the Byzantines and the Persians secluded women long before the Ottoman Empire was established). The harem complex at Topkapi Palace was the private retreat for the Ottoman Sultan and his extended family. In this case, the word harem referred to both the physical space where he resided as well as his family members. The complex is a conglomeration of over 300 rooms, buildings, courtyards and corridors as numerous generations left their mark on the architecture. Some of these amazing rooms are on view to the visiting public.

Topkapi Palace Harem building
The exterior of the Topkapi Palace harem

Hall of the Ablution Fountain

The first space I walked into as I entered the harem was the Hall of Ablution Fountains.  This beautifully tiled room is the entrance into the harem complex at Topkapi Palace. Only the Sultan, the women of the harem, his wives, his mother and the black eunuchs would have passed through this gate. This space also was part of the enthronement ceremony for a new Sultan. After riding through the city streets, the new Sultan entered the courtyard through the  Curtain Gate (the door at the end on the right in the photo), and then after dismounting his horse using the dismounting stone platform, he would enter the Tower of Justice next door.

This was my first glimpse of the decor and opulence in Topkapi Palace and the intricately patterned 17th century tile work took my breath away. This was a small taste of what was to come. I just couldn’t get enough of all the beautiful tile work, and this was just the entrance.

In case you are wondering, the fountain for which this space is named has been moved to a different part of the palace.

Hall of Ablution Fountains

Courtyard of the Eunuchs

The next space is the Courtyard of the Eunuchs, also beautifully decorated with a variety of Iznik tile designs. Young, prepubescent black male slaves who survived the castration process were brought to the palace as eunuchs and were trained to serve the residents of the harem. (Note that the castration was not done by the Ottomans, but rather by the slavers before they brought their property to Istanbul). They learned to speak Turkish, and were instructed in religion, court manners and discipline. They learned to serve the various members of the household, and eventually would receive a salary appropriate to their position. The primary responsibility of the black eunuchs was protection of the harem and its members. The black eunuchs were under the administration of the Chief Black Eunuch, whose role within the hierarchy of the harem was as high as that of the grand vizier (prime minister).

In the Courtyard of the Eunuchs, entrances lead up to the Dormitories of the Eunuchs, the School of the Princes and to the Chief Eunuch’s Quarters (none of which were open to visitors when I was there).

entrance to Topkapi harem
Entrance to the innermost private section of the harem

The Courtyard of the Eunuchs acted as an additional barrier to entry into the harem interior. The next entrance door opens into the Nōbet Yeri, or sentry room. From here, the most important parts of the harem can be accessed –  the Apartments of the Queen Mother, the Sultan’s Apartments, the private apartments of the various Sultans, and the  Court of the Concubines. (Not all of these will be open to visitors due to possible restoration work).

Apartments of the Queen Mother

The Sultan may have ruled an empire, but the Queen Mum ruled the harem.  The woman whose son ascended the throne as Sultan received the title of “Queen Mother” or Valide Sultan through an official ceremony, and thereby became a very powerful woman as long as her son continued to rule. This was especially true during the 17th century when the sultans were still boys and the Queen Mother essentially ruled the empire through her young son. This period is often referred to as the Women’s Sultanate Reign.

The Queen Mother was the highest authority in charge of the harem, and her apartment was positioned between that of the Sultan and the apartments of the wives and concubines. Becoming the Validae Sultan was the goal for many of the ambitious women living in the harem. As such, there was much intrigue and scheming as the Sultan’s various consorts maneuvered to get their sons in the line of succession.

The role of Queen Mother was also a governmental position and she received a set salary once she assumed the position. Many of the Queen Mothers used this money and their power and influence for the benefit of the population of Istanbul. They built mosques, bazaars, schools, fountains as a source of clean water and hospitals for the poor. Many of these buildings and institutions are still in use today throughout the city.

When the Sultan died, the Queen Mother moved out of the harem to a different palace to make way for the next Queen Mother of the new Sultan. And so on. In general, this role did not seem to be a very lengthy one as many sultans did not have a long life span in office. There were  exceptions of course, like Suleiman the Magnificent who ruled for 46 years.

The rooms on view of the Queen Mother’s Apartments are a beautiful and  interesting mix of Turkish Iznik tiles from the 17th century and Western European paintwork from the 18th and 19th century. I was particularly impressed by the beautiful inlay mother of pearl details in the woodwork.

Imperial Hall/Throne Room

Connected by a corridor from the Queen Mother’s apartments is the Imperial Hall which marks the beginning of the Sultan’s area of the harem complex. This large and ornate room was designed to impress, and it does so, ten times over. It is the largest domed room in the harem complex and was built in the late 16th century. The room was used for special ceremonies such as weddings and also for entertainment. What looks like a couch is the Sultan’s throne. The second level gallery on the back wall was for the Queen Mother and the favorite consorts.

The Sultan’s Imperial Hall

Though the room was built in the late 16th century, the original Iznik tiles were removed and relocated to the Hagia Sofia library in the early 19th century. The room was then redecorated with Delft tiles and Rococo details.

Privy Room of Murad III

Connected to the Imperial Hall are the privy or private rooms built by some of the sultans. The hallway leading to the privy rooms is decorated with wonderful large scale Iznik tile designs and an intricate domed ceiling decor.

The Privy Room of Murad III is the oldest room in the place and was built in 1579 by the great Ottoman architect Sinan. The room has a beautiful marble fountain which provided the sound of soothing running water. The noise made by the water also had the functional task of preventing eavesdropping.

This room is identified as the best existing example of classical Ottoman architecture from the late 16th century, and still has the original Iznik tile decor. The room has two canopied bed like frames from the 18th century. During the day they would have been used for sitting and lounging, and at night, for sleeping.

Crown Princes Quarters

These were the rooms of the Crown Prince until he was sent off to govern one of the provinces as training for his future role as Sultan.

The Women of the Harem

Sadly, the most you can see of the women’s living quarters is the Courtyard of the Favorites. Here, from the outside, you can see the apartments where the Sultan’s favorite consorts would have lived.

Young, beautiful and healthy girls were brought to the palace and trained as concubines. The girls came from the vast corners of the empire, but those from the Balkan and Caucus regions were particularly favored. Some were captured as slaves while others were sent to the Harem by their families knowing they would have the opportunity for a better (ie. luxurious) life.  They were taught to speak Turkish, to read and write, to play music and do embroidery, and also in the ways of the harem. The harem was a training ground for a vast number of young women, many of who went on to marry princes or other state officials. Even after they left the palace harem, the concubines were always under the protection of the Sultan, which made them very desirable possessions.

Once trained as concubines, the girls acted as servants of the female members of the harem. If they caught the eye of the Sultan, then he might take them to his bed and she became a consort. If she became pregnant and bore a son, then she became a favorite with considerable power within the harem hierarchy. Occasionally, a few of the Sultans, like Suleiman the Magnificent, married their favorite consort out of their love for them and she became his wife. Concubines and consorts were paid a salary commensurate with their position in the harem.

Besides the harem, Topkapi Palace has many other pavilions and displays available to visit that expand on the lifestyle of the Ottoman rulers. The rooms of the harem though are certainly the most beautiful and intriguing.

Practical Matters

  • Topkapi Palace is one of the most visited tourist sites in Istanbul, so it can get quite busy with tour groups.  Plan to visit as soon as it opens in the morning.
  • Entrance into the harem is a separate ticket in addition to the admission ticket for Topkapi Palace
  • Once inside Topkapi Palace, visit the harem first before it gets busy
  • When I visited in both 2016 and 2018, various portions of Topkapi Palace were under restoration, including portions of the harem. For the most up to date information visit  http://topkapisarayi.gov.tr/en/visit-information

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Thanks for visiting.

Rose

 

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