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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)

Our First Hamam: The Kılıç Ali Paşa

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It’s hard to imagine that we could have found a better place for our first Turkish bath than the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. This historic hamam in Tophane is one of Istanbul’s most beautiful, reopened in 2012 after years of restoration. We were invited to visit on a Sunday afternoon.

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Contemporary Turkish hamams find themselves in a difficult position. For centuries, these public bath houses were an integral part of Ottoman life. Islam places great significance on cleanliness, and hamams were the only place to go for a hot, soapy bath. They were buildings of such importance to society, that the empire’s greatest architects were often employed to design them. But then came the advent of indoor baths with hot water, and the primary function of the hamam vanished. Sure, they were still pleasant communal areas to meet friends and catch up on gossip, but for day-to-day life, taking a hot shower at home was a lot more convenient.

What to do? These are buildings of great architectural beauty, and you can’t just let them sit around empty. Luckily, hamams generate a lot of interest from visitors. For many, a trip to Istanbul would be incomplete without experiencing the famous Turkish bath. So in order to survive, many of Istanbul’s hamams have reoriented themselves to serve tourists.

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Built in 1583 by the master architect Mimar Sinan, the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı is incredible, all domes, white marble and water. After decades of neglect, it was purchased privately and beautifully restored by its new owner, who was intent on returning it to its original purpose. The interior bathing room is stunning, with a large marble stone in the center, bathed in rays of light. Looking at it, I could hardly wait to get my clothes off.

And I soon did. While I was heating my body on the stone, hypnotized by the star-shaped holes in the ceiling, an assistant came to fetch me. He sat me down at a sink, grabbed my wrist, lifted my arm into the air, and began to scrub me with a rough sponge-glove. After scrubbing the dead skin off every inch of my body, he soaped me up with something called a “loofah”: basically a cloth sack that’s pulled tight to produce an unbelievable amount of foam. He remained silent throughout the procedure, and was extremely thorough. Hamams are not for the modest. Or ticklish.

Eventually, he finished, and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more clean. I was helped into a big, comfy robe and then led into the lounge area to relax with sherbet and tea, before my massage. For 25 blissful minutes, my back and legs were worked by strong, professional hands. At the end of the session, after being cleaned, rubbed, scrubbed, and massaged, I was amazed to find myself hovering in the air. I floated out of the hamam, up the hill to our apartment and settled slowly onto our couch, like a leaf falling onto a patch of soft grass.

The Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam – Website

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May 7, 2013 at 9:00 am Comments (3)

Laleli: Istanbul’s Little Moscow

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Despite being in the center of the city, the neighborhood of Laleli just doesn’t feel like the rest of Istanbul. Maybe it’s the curious absence of döner joints. It could be the shops with names like “XXL ??????? ??????” and “???????? ???????”, or the giant blonde women shouldering past with icy attitudes more befitting the tundra than Turkey. When you’re in Laleli, there’s no mistaking that you’ve arrived in Istanbul’s Russia Town.

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Laleli isn’t going to win any awards for its striking historic beauty. It’s almost all shopping here. Large, forgettable buildings crammed with equally forgettable stores that sell clothes, cheap shoes and fake Yves Saint Laurent handbags. Still, Laleli is an interesting place to see if just for the oddity of its Russian atmosphere. And it has a couple mosques that are worth the trouble of seeking out.

It took some effort to find the Bodrum Mesipaşa Camii, hidden like a jewel behind ugly modern buildings. Built as a burial church in 922 by the Byzantine emperor Romanos Lekapenos, this small brick structure was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest. Given its diminutive size, we planned to spend about ten minutes inside, but hadn’t counted on meeting Mustafa Alpoy, the mosque’s amicable Imam. We were in Mustafa Bey’s office for a long time, looking at pictures of the mosque’s restoration, helping decipher some German scribbled in his guestbook, and listening to the stories of previous illustrious visitors.

Bodrum-Mesipasa-Camii-ImamUs and Imam Mustafa Alpoy

Not far away is the much larger Laleli Mosque, or the Mosque of the Lily, built in 1780 when the Baroque style was fashionable in the Ottoman Empire. Colorful marble, instead of tiling, is the dominant element in this mosque, which features a huge central dome and stained-glass windows.

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Laleli Camii

Outside the mosque are burial halls of two important Ottoman rulers, Mustafa III and his son Selim III. Selim III is a particularly interesting figure. Well-educated, multi-lingual and accomplished in poetry, calligraphy and music, he was an exceptionally modern ruler. During his regency, Selim hoped to modernize the languishing Ottoman Empire, starting with its army. Of course, reform will always find an enemy, and in this case, it was the powerful Janissary Corps — the bloated and powerful elite branch of the army. Rather than see itself obsoleted, the Janissaries revolted. They deposed the Sultan and had him executed, stabbed to death in the harem by the Chief Black Eunuch.

(I’m considering pitching “Clue: Ottoman Edition” to Parker Brothers. Chief Black Eunuch in the Harem with the Knife is incalculably more thrilling than Mrs. Peacock in the Kitchen with the Candlestick.)

We ventured into the vault beneath the mosque, and were returned immediately to the shopping spirit which truly defines Laleli. This beautiful basement centers around an old fountain and the heavy pillars which support the structure above, and is occupied by clothes sellers. The dark vault beneath a huge mosque complex might seem an odd place to shop for, say, a denim jacket with fur frills. But somehow, here in Laleli, it makes sense.

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April 20, 2013 at 7:51 am Comments (2)

Lunchtime in Eminönü

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Hungry for lunch? Then join the throngs heading for the semicircular Eminönü Plaza, on the western side of the Galata Bridge. “Why? What’s there to eat?” you might be asking. Well, try not worry about that quite yet!

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This plaza between the Galata Bridge and the Bosphorus Ferry Terminal is one of the most popular places in the city to grab a quick and cheap lunch. Three restaurants floating on the riverside offer the exact same thing — fish sandwiches. Just step right up, hand over 5 TL and grab a seat at the first available stool. Lather your sandwich with diluted lemon juice and salt, and dig in!

Don’t walk over to the edge and peer into the murky river from which the fish are caught… stop that! Instead, look around you. Look at the funny little waiters dressed in Ottoman-era costumes! Isn’t this fun? Look at the other customers, mostly locals, happily enjoying their fish sandwiches. Hey, I said to stop looking at the water! Just close your eyes and concentrate on the fish. It’s good, right?

Chowing on a grilled fish sandwich really works up a thirst, doesn’t it? You know what sounds really delicious right now? You got it: neon-red vinegary pickle juice. You’re reading my mind! Yes sir, put a cup of that sweet stuff right here. So vinegary, so full of pickles and radishes… so bright! Mmmm, that’s the taste of a new, slightly disturbed, generation.

So, a meal in Eminönü is kind of an adventure, but in truth the pickle juice is not totally undrinkable and does complement the fish sandwich — which is just as delicious as a grilled fish sandwich should be. The experience is fun, and the price is great. You can also find non-fishy foods in the plaza, such as chestnuts, simits, corn ears and döner, and with the boisterous, almost carnival-like atmosphere and the view of the Galata Bridge, it’s an excellent place to grab a quick bite.

Just make sure to save room for dessert. There are stands offering Halka Lokma Tarifi, which are freshly-fried donut balls topped with ground pistachio. Or those with an even sweeter tooth can try out the Tarihi Osmanlı Macunu (Traditional Ottoman Candy): five different flavors of thick taffy spiraled deftly around a stick, creating a delicious lollipop.

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April 15, 2013 at 10:01 am Comments (4)
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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