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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)

Topkapı Palace

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The seat of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, Topkapı Palace is today one of Istanbul’s most popular sights. The massive complex consists of four courtyards and hundreds of rooms, and the treasures on display are among the world’s most valuable. A visit to Topkapı Palace is almost compulsory during a trip to Istanbul… just expect to be exhausted afterward.

Everything about the Topkapı is excessive, and visiting is an exercise in patience and endurance. You’re going to be waiting in a lot of long lines, and there’s just no way around it. Although the courtyards and outdoor areas are spacious, the rooms and pavilions which hold the various treasures aren’t. You spend much of your time in ı waiting to enter them, then shuffling briskly through in single-file queues.

Luckily, the rewards for patience are spectacular. Once you’re through the Gate of Salutations, which separates the publicly-accessible first courtyard from the second, there’s an overwhelming amount to see, and much of it is unforgettable. The sword and mantle of Muhammed. The Spoonmaker’s Diamond, one of the world’s largest. The Topkapi Dagger (which features in a popular 1964 heist movie). The marvelous pavilions where the royal family would rest, such as the Baghdad Kösk, the Terrace Kösk and the Grand Kösk. The arm of John the Baptist. The libraries. The throne room. The Gate of Felicity. The circumcision room. The garden views across the Golden Horn and to Asia. The keys to the Kaaba. The Harem.

Let’s just put it this way… Topkapı Palace has the Staff of Moses. And I knew this, but was so dazzled by the other treasures, I forgot to search it out. Topkapı: awesome enough to reduce the Staff of Moses to an afterthought.

One of the best things about Topkapı is that chances for rest are plentiful. The palace is so large that you can always find a place to sit down and relax in the sun… and after a few hours of filing through rooms, you’ll need to sit. These were the moments I most enjoyed Topkapı. Relaxing on a bench under a tree, reading from a history book about the murderous, amorous or deceitful practices of the sultan and his court. And then looking up! These buildings provided the scene for so much amazing history. Just being inside this palace is an incredible experience.

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Topkapi Palace Further Reading

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June 27, 2013 at 5:26 pm Comments (7)
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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