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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!

Location on our Istanbul Map

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

The Green Mosque

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More from Our Trip to Bursa
Introduction | Gazi Plaza and the Market | Karagöz Puppets | Muradiye and Around

The neighborhood of Yeşil (Green), separated from the city center by the Gök Dere river, takes its name from Bursa’s most well-known sights: the Green Mosque and Tomb. Visible from across Bursa, the mausoleum sits atop a hill and is covered in monochrome tiles of a unique light-green color.

Bursa Mosque

Green is definitely the color of Bursa. Its most famous mosque complex is decorated in green tiles. An entire neighborhood is named “Green”. Despite the urban sprawl, there’s a generous amount of parks and trees, and the city is surrounded by a green landscape at the foot of Mount Uludağ. The football squad Bursapor’s color? One guess.

(On our second day in the city, there was a massive green procession from the football stadium to the town center. Thousands of people had taken to the streets, wearing green jerseys and carrying green Bursaspor flags, to mourn the passing of the club’s president. He was a popular figure in the city, having brought Bursa its first and only domestic championship in the 2010/11 season.)

Bursaspor Deatch President

The Yeşil Camii was built in 1421 by Sultan Mehmed I, who had reunited the Ottoman Empire after an eleven-year civil war. His mosque is one of the more unique we’ve seen; far removed from the massive complexes of Istanbul, the Yeşil Mosque stands out for the lovely turquoise color of its tiles. The surrounding courtyard and tea houses, too, are beautiful, and boast views overlooking the valley below.

Just behind the mosque and further up the hill, is the Yeşil Türbe. This octagonal tomb holds the remains of Mehmed I, and is perhaps even more striking than the mosque itself. During our visit, just before the call to worship, it was filled with locals counting beads, reading their Korans and praying.

Location on our Bursa Map

List Of Bursa Hotels

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June 16, 2013 at 3:33 pm Comments (3)

Üsküdar’s Çınılı Camii & Hamam

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After hiking up Istanbul’s biggest hill, the Büyük Çamlıca, our tired bones had earned a reward. So we made our way to the gorgeous Çınılı Camii, Üsküdar’s Tiled Mosque, and ended the day in a hamam.

Çınılı Camii

Built in 1640, the Çınılı Camii is a miniature work of art, reminiscent of Tathakale’s Rüstem Paşa Camii: perhaps our favorite of Istanbul’s mosques. The doors were locked tight when we arrived, but it wasn’t difficult to find a caretaker who was happy to open up. The Çınılı Camii’s nickname, the Tiled Mosque, is certainly deserved. The interior is covered in wonderful Iznik tiles, colored blue, red, white and green, making this one of the more richly decorated mosques we’ve seen.

Just around the corner, we found the Çınılı Hamam. I’ve come to learn that there are two types of hamam experiences a person can have in Istanbul. One is the tourist-oriented luxury of the larger, downtown hamams, which charge spa-like prices and provide spa-like services. The other is an experience like that offered by the Çınılı Hamam: local, cheap and authentic.

The Çınılı was exactly what I had expected from a Turkish hamam: an ancient bath house full of locals washing themselves, an invigorating massage on the marble slab under the star-shaped skylights, a ridiculously hot sauna, and a no-nonsense scrubbing by the sinks.

There was a musty smell in the hamam, and my massage toed the precarious line between vigorous and vicious: while there were bits of brutality that I perversely enjoyed (such as an unexpected punch to the middle of my back), there were others I didn’t. Still, I’m happy that we found the courage to try the hamam out; there were a surprising number of locals getting the same treatment as us, and no other tourists. The whole program, including sauna, scrubbing and massage, was just 35 lira per person.

Whether or not you’re in the mood for a bath, this little-visited area of Üsküdar merits a visit. It’s uphill and difficult to reach by walking, but a taxi ride is inexpensive. And the downhill walk back down to the ferry terminal is very pleasant, particularly after your body has been twisted, pounded, rubbed and scrubbed.

Location on our Istanbul Map

An other Hamam we visited: The Kılıç Ali Paşa

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May 29, 2013 at 1:54 pm Comment (1)

The Rüstem Paşa Camii

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Built on a steep hill in the middle of a busy market area, the Rüstem Paşa mosque is yet another masterpiece from the ubiquitous master architect Mimar Sinan. If you weren’t carefully looking for the entrance, you would almost certainly miss it: just a narrow set of nondescript stairs leading up from the street. So ascending these steps and emerging into the mosque’s spacious courtyard is quite a surprise.

Istanbul-Mosques

The surprises continue as you enter the mosque. The Rüstem Paşa is famed for its magnificent use of Iznik tiles, which cover every conceivable inch of the interior. Considering their age (the mosque was completed in 1563), the tiles are unbelievably colorful and the generous number of windows shows them in the best possible light. We loved this mosque — not only was it the most beautiful we had yet seen, but it’s also among the most welcoming to visitors. They even pass out free copies of the Koran… in English! I’ll probably never get around to reading it, but you never know when a Koran is going to come in handy.

On an unfortunate side note, we saw some abhorrent tourist behavior here. I can’t fathom what gets into people’s heads, but mosques are active places of worship which graciously welcome visitors. But an outrageous number of tourists in the Rüstem Paşa were gleefully breaking every rule: stepping over the ropes signed with “Please Stay Behind”, shouting to each other, wearing horribly inappropriate clothing, and groping everything they could get their hands on. And when I saw a couple sneak past the protective curtain up onto the pulpit, I came perilously close to scolding complete strangers. Tourists behaving badly damage the reputation of us all.

Location of the Rüstem Paşa Camii

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April 6, 2013 at 5:58 pm Comments (15)

The Blue Mosque

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Popularly known as the Blue Mosque thanks to the color of the Iznik tiles lining its walls, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque dominates Istanbul’s skyline with six minarets. Completed in 1616, the mosque is still used for worship, but due to its grandeur and location, has become a popular tourist attraction.

Blue-Mosque-Court-Yard

From the moment it was proposed by Sultan Ahmed I, the Blue Mosque was contentious; not only did it require demolishing the palaces of powerful Ottoman ministers, but the unusual number of minarets was considered an effrontery. Four had long been the accepted maximum, with only the Grand Mosque in Mecca claiming six. But Sultan Ahmed was a man used to getting his way, and refused to budge. Luckily a compromise was found before any blood was shed: another minaret was simply added to Mecca’s mosque.

The Blue Mosque is stunning, especially when viewed from its courtyard. Perfectly symmetrical and of jaw-dropping size, the curved domes, rounded and hexagonal turrets and towering minarets work with the courtyard’s arches to create a profile of sublime beauty. It’s hard to imagine the impact such a sight must have made on visiting 17th-century dignitaries… or, perhaps it’s not at all hard to imagine. Their reaction must have been the same as mine: speechless awe.

We removed our shoes and stepped inside. Indoors, the mosque is not as cavernous as it would appear from the exterior, but it is exquisite. Over 20,000 blue Iznik tiles decorate the walls, making the room glow, and the central dome is spacious enough to house a large family of pigeons. Four gargantuan pillars called the Elephant’s Feet support half-domes, and the plentiful light filtering in through stained-glass gives the mosque a bright and spacious air.

We loved our visit to the Blue Mosque, and were surprised to be in and out within twenty minutes. There was no wait in line and no admission charge, though a small donation is appreciated, making this surely one of the most magnificent “quick and easy” sights we’ve ever visited.

Location on our Istanbul Map
The Blue Mosque – Website

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March 22, 2013 at 6:18 pm Comments (6)
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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