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Few places are as shrouded in mystery as the Imperial Harem on the Topkapi palace grounds in Istanbul. Apart from the Sultan himself and the black eunuch servants, men were forbidden from entering – or even getting near it for that matter. Even the girls, once passing through the gates, seldom came back out to tell their tale. Nonetheless, stories leaked out of the golden cage. Imagined accounts and paintings of the lives of the Ottoman ladies circulated in the west, tales, romanticised beyond recognition. Therefore, I was keen on finally getting my own look at the one place that fueled so much vivid imagination back in the Victorian era, and probably is responsible for several of the smuttier novels in todays bookshelves.
The entrance to the harem is hidden – one has to pass through several gates and courtyards to even reach it. Once inside the maze of rooms, it doesn’t quite compare to the paintings I have seen of semi-clad women, lounging in airy rooms under oriental arches, fanning their faces delicately. Like the grand mosques, no cost has been spared in the construction of these buildings, but the Imperial Harem gives off a vibe of enclosure. Although everything is absolutely stunning, with colourful iznik tiles, lots of gold decorations and stained glass windows, it fits the description of the gilded cage perfectly. The blue and green tiled corridors are narrow and the long succession of cube shaped rooms lined with identical sofas make the visitor lose all sense of direction. The harem is a sphere of its own, completely shut off from the outside world.
Of course, the stories about the harem aren’t all happiness and sunshine either. When Padishah Ibrahim – the epitome of a psychotic sultan – heard from his incredibly fat 150kg lover Sechir Para (meaning Sugar Cube), that one of his harem girls had supposedly been fornicating with a man outside of the palace, he had some of them tortured to learn the name of the offending concubine. Due to Sugar Cube’s urging and since none of the girls offered up any information, he shipped them all out to the middle of the Bosporus, tied heavy bags to their feet and drowned them in the river. Only one girl out of 280 survived the ordeal.
Sugar Cube later got what was coming to her when she was strangled by the Sultans mother, the Sultana Valide and most powerful woman in the state, for overreaching her station a bit. And what happened to Ibrahim? Called “the mad”, he had other character flaws as well. Unable to get off from his several hundred concubines locked in the harem, he tended to solve this problem by kidnapping and raping the unavailable daughters and wives of his subordinates. A trait, that eventually got him strangled as well, when the Grand Mufti sought revenge for his violated daughter. Ibrahim then got succeeded by his son Mehmed, whom he had stabbed in the face when he was still a toddler, supposedly for making an inappropriate joke. Lovely man, but back to the harem.
Since Muslim women were forbidden from being kept as concubines or slaves, most of the women in the harem were white, Christian slave girls, kidnapped or bought from far-off lands. They were brought to the harem as young girls, and from then on trained in the harem life and the arts of serving the Sultan. If one of them got pregnant, she was immediately elevated in status and got her own servants as well as bigger living quarters – the concubines could even advance as far as becoming one of the Sultans wives and the mother of a future Sultan, effectively becoming the most powerful woman in the Ottoman state. The women in the harem had easy lives, mostly lounging around, chit-chatting and plotting with others. Some of them, the more influential mistresses, worked a bit harder, educating newcomers in gardening, cooking, languages and other skills. The women were slaves, locked in a cage, but they sure lived in absolute luxury.
The end of the harems came with the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. After the modern Turkish Republic was formed, President Atatürk made it illegal to have more than one wife, and to keep women enslaved or imprisoned. Even hiding behind a veil was now forbidden. The women in the harems were released, but most of them knew no other lifestyle and were lost outside their gilded cage.
The Topkapi Palace and the Harem are open every day from 9am to 5pm (except Tuesday), admission fee for the Palace is 20TL with an additional 15TL for the ticket to the Harem.