The word “harem” is Arabic. The Turks use the word “darüssade” (house of felicity). Polygamy was firs known amongst the Asstrians, later Moslems adopted it, and could marry four wives at the same time. Before Islam, the Turkish people were monogamous. In the 10th century, the Turks accepted Islam and also adopted the Arabic harem tradition, which became very popular during the Ottoman Empire until Atatürk banned this pratice in 1926.
Since the sultans hardly had time for their private lives because of the battles often being waged, the palace harem wasn’t large until the reign of Sultan Süleyman I in the 16th century. Islam allowed men to marry four wives. This law was a result of the wars; many widows had to be provided for, and the army needed new recruits.
The harem ladies lived in the old palace until the 16th century. This was situated approximately where the present University of Istanbul stands. Topkapı Palace was originally only used for state affairs, but Roxelane, the Russian wife of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent appeared on the scene, and so influenced the sultan that, she was permitted to move to Topkapi Palace, together with her “odalıks” (white harem slaves). During the reign of Sultan Selim II and Murat III, the harem section was enlarged to become a structure of almost 400 roms, which by the end of the 16th century housed the sultan’s entire harem.
The harem was not crowded in the 16th century, because the princes were more or less their own masters, and kept their mothers and attendants with them whereever they ruled.
The inheritance system however was changed in the 17th century. From that time onwards the princes stayed with all their attendants in the harem. They lived their attendants in the harem. they lived their lives in a place called “kafes”, in which they eked out a prison-like life. With this new system the number of the harem inhabitants increased, and it stayed like that until 19th century.
300 young and attractive girls lived in the harem at Topkapı Palace up until the 19th century. They originated from various tribes and different countries. They came to the harem at the ages of 5-6 years. After their training great importance was attached to them, because some of them would be the future wives of the sultan. At the beginning, as Ottoman Turks participated in several wars, they brought young girls of the conquered lands to the harem. Later, after the end of the war period, girls were bought from slave traders.
Girls newly introduced to the palace were called “acemi” (beginner). The next step for these girls was “cariye” (concubine). The experienced cariye would be called “kalfa” and “usta”. The beginners were often educated by the “kalfa” in the harem. The “kalfa” was responsible for her section. The princes usually had intimate relations with these “kalfas”.
Twelve of the youngest, the most attractive and inligent concubines, were engaged to perform in the private service of the sultan. Those which were liked best by the sultan would be came “gözde” or “ikbal”. The ikbal who became pregnant from the sultan would be called “kadın efendi”. The sultan had approximately 4-7 kadın efendi. The favourites among the haseki, those who brought a child into the world, received the little of “haseki sultan” and could own a special apartment.
After the death of the sultan, the kadın efendi or haseki who had brought only daughters into the world, would be married with a high official of the palace, or she moved to the old palace with the mother of the dead sultan, while the haseki who had sons would stay in the place constantly. After dethronement of a sultan, all his wives had to go to the old palace.
The Caucassian girls were very famous in the East because of their beauty, therefore first, Russian, Georgian and Circassian girls were brought to the palace. As slave trading was forbidden in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, the Causcassian parents kept sending their daughters voluntarily and gladly to the palace.
The male servants (keepers) of the harem
These were divided into five ranks:
“En Aşağı”,”Acemi Aga”,”Nöbet Kalfası”,”Ortanca” and “Hasılı”.
En Aşağı: this was name given to the guards who were newly introduced into he garem (beginners). Their job was to stand in front of the harem gates as guards.
Acemi Ağa: They were the next rank of the guards, who mounted guard at the gate. The more intelligent among them could be raised to higher positions.
Nöbet Kalfası: Those who reached this position did not have to mount guard themselves, but supervised the other guards.
Ortanca: The senior guards, of which there were four in the palace, were known as “Ortanca”.
Hasılı: This was the highest rank of the guards. Those who were lucky could become “Darrüssaade Ağa”.
The harem guards were castrated, so that they could not have sexual relations with harem ladies. However it was traditional that some ladies in the harem had close relations with the high ranking guards, and together with them, were said to have organised some intrigues. It was even said that a harem guard could break down as a result of jealousy.
How the sultans chose odalisques
If the sultan wanted to amuse himself with some of his cariye, he ordered them brought to him. They stood in front of him or performed their dances for him. The sultan walked around the cariye and inspected them. If he finally gave his handkerchief to one of them as a gift, this meant he wanted to spend the night with her. In this way she would be his odalisque.
Another way to be an odalisque of the sultan was in the following manner:
A very attractive cariye, who had been brought up specially in the harem, would be used as a girls for coffee making. She would then wait for the visit of the sultan to his mother. The cariye would serve coffee to the sultan to attract his attention. If the sultan was delighted with her she would become an odalisque.
The life, festivals and the amusements in the harem
Every year, during the fasting month of Ramadan, there was a religious atmosphere in the palace. Everyone fasted thirty days, and those who could read and write, read the Koran during those thirty days.
On the fifteenth fay of the month, all the ladies wearing beautiful costumes, went to the relics section where they met the sultan. As the Koran was being chanted by a muezzin (who chanted the call to prayer) the ladies passed one by one and kissed the sacred mantel of the Prophet Mohammed, which was exhibited on a golden table. Before being allowed to leave the sacred section they went before the sultan and bowed.
The sultan waited there during the entire ceremony, which sometimes continued for hours. A short time after the sultan returned to the harem, all of the inhabitants there visited the sultan and later again he was visited by his main ladies and his daughters.
Such celebrations also took place during the annual sheep sacrifial religious holiday, as well as for births, engagements, marriages and so on. All of these were celebrated in the palace by the harem ladies, and the religious atmosphere of sacred holidays also permeated the palace and the harem itself.
The concubines who had musical talent were specially trained, and could even take private lessons outside the palace. These concubines formed an orchestra and organised musical evenings once or twice a week where they sang songs and danced. Belly dancers with special talent were invited from Istanbul to perform during marriage parties, where they look the opportunity to give their best preformances in front of the sultan.
In spring and autumun, excursions for the harem ladies were arranged. This made a welcome diversion in their humdrum everyday lives, which were usually of course, of a very monotonous nature.
The most favourite excursion place at that time was the Golden Horn.
The excursion place was decided on one day before, and on the excursion day itself,, the tent and staff were sent beforehand to the agreed place early in the morning, to make it ready for the arrival of the ladies. The ladies dressed in beautiful costumes and left the harem in carriages. In front and on both sides of the carriages there were harem guards on horses, who guarded the convoy on the way there and back. The ladies enjoyed themselves till evening and then they returned to the harem.
Visiting the harem
Today a small part of the harem can be visited. However I would like to talk about the important but inaccessible sections as well. The present entrance to the harem is in the Second Court. It is called “Arabalar Kapısı” (Carriage Gate). At this gate the ladies of the harem stepped into their carriages to go to the city.
Through this gate we enter the guardroom of the Black Eunuchs, revetted with fine tiles. On the left-hand side stands the small and fully tiled mosque of the Black Eunuchs. Going through another gate we enter the courtyard of the Black Eunuchs and we can see the living quarters of the Black Eunuchs to the left. These are around a long and covered inner courtyard with an open fireplace at one end, around which the older eunuchs sat and gossiped in the evenings. On each floor there are ten to twelwe rooms. Those on the ground floor belonged to the elderly eunuchs. On the deeper left side of the courtyard is the two-storeyed apartment of the Kızlar Ağası, the most powerful man in the harem, who was mainly responsible for discipline. In official protocol, his position was the fourth highest following the sultan, the grand vizier and the sultan’s mother. These contacts provided him with the opportunity to become involved in intrigues. Since he was neither a real woman nor a real man, and often filled with hatred against both sexes, he would frequently participate in intrigues.
Diagonally left of the courtyard is the school of the princes, the rooms of which have carved and gold-plated inlays, and precious tiles dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. At the end of this courtyard the “Cümle Kapısı” (Main Gate) leads into the actual harem. The first room behind this gate is again the guardroom. To the left of the gate is a long narrow corridor, at the left side of which runs a ledge which could be heated underneath. The meals served from the kitchen were placed here to be kept warm. This corridor leads to the courtyard called “Cariyeler Taşlığı”, around which stand the storeyed rooms of the odalisques. The odalisques were light-skinned slaves bought to serve the sultan or sent to him as a gift. Among them those who were liked by the sultan were called concubines and they were given the name “Ikbal”. Each concubine had her own apartment, slaves and eunuchs. Those favourites who became the official wives of the sultan were called “Kadın Efendi”. The lady who first gave the sultan a son became the first lady. When the sultan especially loved one of his wives, she was called “Haseki”. In Ottoman history some of these favoutires are very famous. Although, in accordance to the laws the eldest son of the first lady succeeded the sultan, their mothers in actual fact often ruled the empire as queen mother.
To the right of the “Cariyeler Taşlığı” called courtyard of the odalisques, the way leads to the rooms of the sultan’s mother, which is one of the most important sections of the harem. The mother of the sultan was the most powerful lady in the harem. Her section includes 40 rooms. We can see only two of these rooms today. In the first room we see her dining area and and on the gallery above is her reception room. In the small room next doors is her elevated bed, and next to it, separated by a grill, is her prayer corner. Turkey Cappadocia Tours
From here a passage leads to the baths. The first bath is the bathroom of the sultan’s mother and the next is the bathroom of the sultan. This beautiful bathing area divides into a resting and massage room, a dressing room, and the actual bathing area of white marble. The grill was intended to protect the bathing sultan from a possible assassination attemp.
Opposite the bathroom of the sultans is the bedroom of Sultan Abdülhamit I dating from the 18th century. The main room has gold-bronze baroque and rococo paintings, a fountain embellished with tiles from Vienna and a baldachino bed.
On the upper floor is the suite of Sultan Selim III dating from the end of the 18th century and including a small mosque. From here, we enter a terrace with a pool in the middle. Here stands the pavilion of Sultan Osman III. It dates from the mid-18th century, but was renovated in European style at the beginning of the 19th century.
Continuing through the passage to the baths (see above) we come to the grand “Hünkar Sofası”. This building dating from the late 16th century, is the largest and the most impressive room in the harem.
Sultan Osman II had it restored in rococo style. Here the sultan entertained his close and most trusted friends. Only the mother of the sultan, the first lady, the favourites and the children were admitted into this room. The blue and white tiles on the walls were brought from Delft, Holland in the 19th century. The mirrors are of Venetian crystal; the gold-plated armchairs were a gift from the German kaiser Wilhelm II, and the hall clocks from the English queen Victoria. From this throne room, the sultan could pass into another room through a hidden door in one of the mirrors in case of an emergency.
From the Hünkar Sofası the way leads through the so called “Çeşmeli Sofa” (the room with fountain) into the Ocaklı Sofa (the room with a hearth). In the centre of one wall of this room, which is decorated with tiles, is a bronze fireplace, from which the glowing charcoal was carried to all the harem. The next bigger room, is the hall of Murat III, which was used as his bedroom. This room is the oldest in the harem and doubtless one of the most beautiful in the whole palace, because it still retains its original decoration. The building dates from the 16th century and was attributed to the famous architect Sinan. The domed room was decorated with blu and coral-red Iznik tiles. Oposite the fireplace is an elaborate fountain of carved polychrome marble. The fountain evented eavesdroppers from overhearing conversations, and the rushing noise of the running water gives the room a cool atmosphere. The baldachino beds in the corners both date to the 18th century. Turkey Cappadocia Tours
Next to the hall of Murat II there are two other small rooms. The first one is the small library of Ahmet I, a small, but very pretty room. The walls and the dome are decorated with wonderful Iznik tiles. The cabinet doors, shutters, a small table and the Koran holders are finely inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory.
The second room is the “Yemiş Odası” (the fruit room). Its walls are richly decorated with fruit motifs. This is a room of Ahmet III, and a work of the Tulip Period (1718-1730). It was influenced by the European rococo style.
Retracing our steps through the hall of Murat III, we come to the “Kafes” (wing of the crown princes), where the crown princes lived in seclusion. In this wing today two rooms are opened to visitors. It is believed that both of these rooms, which are decorated elegantly date from the 17th century. They have elaborate coloured windows and valuable tiles. Each embrasure has tiny fountains; a gold-plated fire-place in the second room is also noteworthy.
In the “Kafes”, wing there are actually 12 princes’ residences. Each residence has two to three rooms. The princes, who did not have any contact with each other, had their own concubines and aghas.. They had sexual relations with their concubines, but they were not allowed to bring children into the world, therefore, a pregnant concubine would try all wats possible to abort the baby, or it occasionally happened that the prince would leave a child secretly outside the palace.
After leaving the “Kafes” we see on the righthand side the living rooms of the loved favourites of the sultan and the small apartment of Abdülhamit I, dating from the 18th century. Now we find ourselves almost at the end of the harem. To the right in front runs a 46m long and dark passage, which is the famous “Altın Yol” (Golden Way). On holidays and accessions the sultans used to dispense gold coins in this passage. At the end of the Golden Way we turn to the left and leave the harem through the gate called “Kuşhane Kapısı”, where the meals were once brought to the harem.
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