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The Imperial Harem of Topkapı Palace

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The Imperial Harem, the private pleasure palace of the Sultans, is the most well-known aspect of Ottoman royal life. But why has the Harem proven so persistent in the mind of popular culture? What is the secret behind its fame? Is it the fabulous tile-work which decorates its walls? Or is it the concept of hundreds of beautiful concubines with the sole mission of providing pleasure to a single man? Hmm… it’s a toss-up.

Topkapi Harem
The tiles are beautiful! And that’s why we need a harem at home, honey!

The Imperial Harem of Topkapı Palace is amazing. Even the very fact of its existence is audacious. Here, in a sumptuously decorated labyrinth of 400 rooms, lived the Sultan’s slaves, concubines and wives, guarded over by a cadre of eunuchs. Only these passionless, de-manned men were considered “safe” enough to protect the Sultan’s bevy of beauties.

It may have been an extravagant place to live, but the majority of women who lived inside were little more than slaves, kidnapped from far-off lands. There’s a reason the Harem was known as the “Golden Cage”. Thanks to their good looks and femininity, Circassian girls were especially prized, but the ladies came from all across Europe and the Middle East. Toward the end of the Ottoman Empire, as the ruling class descended ever more into debauchery, there were up to 800 women imprisoned in the Harem.

800… and the Sultan had his pick of the lot! When he got bored with one, he’d just move on to the next. Should one find herself pregnant, she would immediately gain in status. The “favorites” were allowed into exclusive quarters and enjoyed special privileges. An especially lovely girl could even aspire to become one of the Sultan’s kadıns, or wives, in which case she’d find herself nearly at the top of the Harem hierarchy, with access to slaves of her own.

Windows Wood Design Harem Topkapi

The top dog of the Harem, though, was traditionally the Valide Sultan: the mother of the Sultan. She not only reigned over the Harem, but was often the most powerful person in the entire empire, depending upon how much interest her son showed in his job. The ladies of the harem wielded particular influence during a period known as the “Sultanate of Women“.

Today, you can visit the Harem after you’ve entered Topkapı Palace. It costs extra, which is off-putting since the palace is already quite expensive, and you have to wait in yet another ticket line. But the additional time and expense are worth it. The women of the Harem may have been slaves, but they lived in true luxury. The rooms are resplendent, with colorful Iznik tiles decorating many of the walls, and gorgeous furniture on which to while away the days.

You can’t get into nearly all the rooms, but you can see some of the most impressive, including the Sultan’s bedroom, the Courtyard of the Eunuchs and the apartments of the Queen Mother. Leading straight through the Harem is a path called the Golden Road, so named because the Sultan would walk along it on festive days, throwing golden coins on the ground for his concubines to gather up. Sigh… it was good to be Sultan!

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June 28, 2013 at 11:17 am Comments (11)

Eyüp: At the End of the Golden Horn

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Found outside the old city walls at the end of the Golden Horn, the neighborhood of Eyüp is one of the most sacred spots in the Islamic world.

Eyüp Mosque

The best way to get to Eyüp is aboard the Haliç (Golden Horn) ferry which leaves from Eminönu. But as luck would have it, water traffic was closed on the Saturday morning that we had chosen on our visit, after heavy fog had caused a ferry collision. So we were forced to reach Eyüp by bus… providing a lesson that we’ll now impart to you: if you have to take a bus to Eyüp, you might as well walk! The traffic along the southern Golden Horn is ridiculous, especially on weekends, and it took 90 minutes to complete the five kilometer journey.

By the time we finally arrived, we were in miserable spirits. But Eyüp made a valiant effort to cheer us up, with its cute, pedestrianized streets and festival-like atmosphere. This has been an important pilgrimage site for Muslims for centuries. Ayyub al-Ansari, the friend and standard bearer of the Prophet Mohammed, died here during the first attempted Muslim conquest of Constantinople, and was buried in the location that would later bear his name (Ayyub → Eyüp).

Apart from its lovely location on the Golden Horn, Eyüp’s prominent feature is its enormous mosque. We ducked inside during prayer time, but left quickly; the place was so packed we could hardly find an open patch of carpet on which to stand. Right across from the mosque is Ayyub al-Ansari’s türbe, or tomb. Although closed during our visit, it’s supposed to be amazing; completely covered in Iznik tiles.

For centuries, Eyüp has been the most fashionable place in Istanbul to be laid to rest, and it’s surrounded by cemeteries. The largest of these stretches up a steep hill that eventually ends at the Pierre Loti Café, named for the French novelist. This lovely garden cafe boasts a view that takes in the entirety of the Golden Horn, all the way to the Bosphorus Strait. Breathtaking, and it was the perfect way to end a long day.

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June 11, 2013 at 6:11 pm Comments (3)
The Imperial Harem of Topkap? Palace The Imperial Harem, the private pleasure palace of the Sultans, is the most well-known aspect of Ottoman royal life. But why has the Harem proven so persistent in the mind of popular culture? What is the secret behind its fame? Is it the fabulous tile-work which decorates its walls? Or is it the concept of hundreds of beautiful concubines with the sole mission of providing pleasure to a single man? Hmm... it's a toss-up.
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