Imagining the Lives of the Harem Women at Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace

The surroundings are stunning. Sumptuous Ottoman architecture, Moorish arches, and Iznik tile mosaics. This was where the Sultan lived with his numerous wives, children and concubines, and I am trying to imagine what it must have been like to live here.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The architecture and interior decoration are magnificent.
  • You will gain an insight into the lives of the Sultan’s women.
  • The Palace is part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Good for: anyone who enjoys historic buildings and gardens.

Exploring the Harem

The Harem is a part of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, and we left the bright sunshine of the Palace grounds to enter the cloistered complex, starting with the Courtyard of the Harem Eunuchs. This seemed appropriate: the Harem (or “forbidden place”) was the home of the Sultan and his women, and no unrelated male was allowed inside unless he was a eunuch.

The thick stone walls were heavily decorated and covered with Islamic calligraphy. We peered through small windows into the eunuchs’ living quarters, and passed through a tiled bathing area (then, as now, baths were a feature of Turkish life) towards the Queen Mother’s apartments.

Courtyard of the Queen Mother

The Courtyard of the Queen Mother was an important meeting place.

The Queen Mother, the mother of the Sultan, was the most important and influential woman in the Harem. This was a highly structured society, with women plotting against one another and forming political alliances in an attempt to ensure that it was their son who was designated the official heir. As we stood in the arched Courtyard of the Queen Mother, and looked beyond to her extensive suite of rooms, I began to appreciate why this position was so highly coveted. Not only did she have lavish accommodation, but she was (literally) at the centre of things: the Sultan and his sons all had to pass through this courtyard as they made their way through the Harem.

The Harem was like a city, with more than 400 rooms, including separate areas for the Sultan’s sons and their families. We made our way to the Sultan’s private area, and the bedroom which is described as the “pinnacle of Ottoman design”, and compared with Spain’s Alhambra Palace. It is certainly ornate, with its magnificent tiling and stained glass, and verses from the Koran inscribed around the walls.

Decorated ceiling

A highly decorated ceiling in the Sultan’s apartments

In Search of the Concubines

Golden Road

The Golden Road

By now I was wondering, what about the concubines? Where did they live? It became apparent that these rooms were not on show (parts of the harem are closed to visitors), possibly because, as an information board told us, their living quarters were harsh, cramped and unhygienic. Concubines, who were taken as prisoners of war, or sold by their families, were subject to the whims of the Sultan and the eunuchs, and were often treated most cruelly. This was effectively a prison: unless a concubine found favour with the Sultan, or was given in marriage to one of his followers, she would never enter the outside world again.

We came to an outside courtyard overlooking the (now empty) pool and the Palace gardens. This would probably have been the boundary of most of the women’s lives and, as I gazed over the gardens, I tried (and failed) to imagine living such an impossibly restricted existence.

Back inside, we walked along the Golden Road, where the Sultan would amuse himself by tossing gold coins to the concubines. I questioned what use they might have for gold, but concluded they might send out for small luxuries, or buy favours from the eunuchs. The Golden Road leads to the Aviary Gate: for us this was the way out, an exit that was denied to most of the Harem’s former inhabitants.

The Palace Gardens

It would be easy to spend a whole day at the Palace, exploring the Treasury with its religious relics, the Throne Room, and the many other buildings that make up the complex. However, we contented ourselves with a walk through the gardens of the 4th Courtyard, through the Tulip Garden and to the very end where we were treated to splendid views over the Bosporus, and towards the Golden Horn and the Asian side of the city. But by now it was becoming hot and crowded. I thought back to the cool marble baths of the Harem and decided to investigate the possibility of a modern day Turkish bath.

Tulip Garden

The Tulip Garden would have been out of bounds for the concubines

Practicalities

  • If you are planning to visit a number of sites in Istanbul you can save money by buying a Museum Pass, valid for 72 hours. Buy it at one of the smaller museums and you will also avoid the long queues at the Topkapi ticket office.
  • There is an additional entrance charge for the harem, which you can either buy at the ticket office or at the entrance to the harem.
  • Visit in the early morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the worst of the heat and the crowds.
  • There are airport-style bag checks before you go into the grounds, so make sure you leave any sharp objects at your hotel.

Comments

  1. Alison says

    Thank you Karen. I am writing a paper on Islamic Architecture and wanted insight into the Harem and Concubine life before writing. This has been helpful.

    Best,
    Alison

    0

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