The Harem

Approached through the Carriage Gate, an inconspicuous doorway beyond the Divan, the harem, also known as the House of Felicity, is the part of the palace that has most gripped the imagination of foreigners, probably because the intense privacy with which the sultans’ private life was guarded helped fuel their lurid fantasies. In Arabic “harem” means forbidden, and the harem was the part of the palace that was closed to outsiders, where the sultans (at least from the reign of Sultan Murad III onwards) lived with their concubines, their children and the vast entourage required to look after them all.

The single most important person here was the Valide Sultan (the Queen Mother) who exercised enormous power over the house hold, often including the sultan. After her, the sultan’s women, all of them Christian slaves who had converted to Islam, were ranked in a rigid hierarchy with the “kadinlar (the women who most approximated to wives)” at the top, and the ordinary “cariye (slaves)” at the bottom. The harem was guarded by eunuchs, a tradition seemingly adopted from Byzantium. Any woman who stepped out of line risked dire punishment – being stitched up inside a sack and tossed into the Bosphorus.

The harem buildings are not part of the original palace as Sultan Mehmed seems to have been happy for his family to live in the Old Palace at Beyazit (LINK). The oldest structures that can be dated with certainty were erected under Sultan Murad III (r. 1574-95),
but much of the harem had to be reconstructed following a fire in 1665. Although a separate ticket is required to visit the harem, visitors are no longer required to take a guided tour which makes it easier to appreciate the rabbit warren of rooms, many of them much smaller than you might have expected. What is not so easy to imagine amid the constant crush of visitors is the silence that reigned here along with the sense of rigid control that was imposed by the Kizlar Agasi, the Chief Black Eunch, whose task it was to ensure that everything ran smoothly.

As you pass through the gate to the harem notice on the left the Dormitory of the Halberdiers with Tresses, an eccentrically-named slave corps whose long locks meant that they could cover their faces when they brought wood into the harem.

You enter the harem via the Domed Cupboad, the harem treasury where deeds of trust and household money were stored. This opens onto the fountainless Hall of the Fountain which is decorated with lovely blue and green calligraphic tiles, and then to the Courtyard and Dormitory of the Harem Eunuchs with cells on the left-hand side where the men charged with ensuing absolute privacy lived; you can see models of two of them warming themselves around a brazier through one of the windows. The current decoration dates back to 1668-9 when the rooms were probably rebuilt after the 1665 fire.

A gateway then leads through to a hallway. The sultan would have proceeded straight ahead along the Altin Yol (Golden Way), while his mother would have stepped into the courtyard beside it. Modern visitors, however, turn left and proceed along a corridor lined with stone benches where food from the kitchens was left for the women. Since this would have had to be passed from hand to hand right the way across the courtyard from the kitchens it’s hard to imagine that anyone would ever have eaten a truly hot meal here.

The corridor opens onto the small Courtyard of the Cariyeler, where the female slaves slept in dormitories very close to the women in charge of the day-to-day administration of the complex: the head stewardess, the harem treasurer, and the harem laundress.

Eighteenth-century landscape paintings are preserved on the walls here. A winding corridor then leads through a tiled room equipped with an enormous fireplace into a part of the Valide Sultan’s suite; the bedroom features a dome decorated with a painted grapevine and frescoed landscapes; a small room off to the side is assumed to have been for prayers. Immediately afterwards you pass through the magnificent Sultan’s Hamam, which is decked out in marble and goldleaf, and superbly illuminated by light streaming in from cutouts in the ceiling. Particularly lovely would have been the selsebil, a gold-flecked marble fountain against the far wall down which water would 1 once have cascaded.

Sultan Abdulhamit Apartment (IMAGE)
The Sultan’s bath (IMAGE)
Selsebil (IMAGE)

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