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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 bagdad pavillon on the Topkapi Palace grounds

The Baghdad Pavillon on the Topkapi palace grounds.

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.

One of the many rooms with sofas lining the walls.

One of the many rooms with sofas lining the walls.

More rooms and sofas.

More rooms and sofas.

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.

One of the corridors connecting the buildings.

One of the corridors connecting the buildings.

Blue tiles and a heavy door.

Blue tiles and heavy doors.

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.

A courtyard where the women could get some fresh air.

A courtyard where the women could get some fresh air.

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.

About The Author

Tiffany is a Swiss travel writer, digital nomad, and photographer, who, after a fateful journey through Africa, has decided to get her passport renewed, sell all her junk, and live out of a suitcase in various corners of the world, as well as share the experiences with other travel enthusiasts. This blog is intended to inspire you to pack your bags, leave everything behind for a while, and make you go discover the world. Check her out on .

15 Responses

  1. Travis

    Awesome photos…looks like you got a slightly less busy day than us to explore. We didn’t go into the Harem, and I might be regretting that now after reading your post! Oh well, I guess there’s always next time. The tile work is so stunning there – I loved how they mixed patterns. Safe travels!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      We went first thing in the morning and luckily beat the big crowds. I actually liked the Harem better than the palace itself, I don’t know why, but it just seemed a bit more real and a bit less like a museum 🙂 happy travel Travis!

      Reply
      • Zenn

        Hahaha. Truly depicted in the Turkish play ‘The Magnificient Sultan’. Those men were sick…

  2. Iqbal Latif

    The first photo is the Cafe..

    “The rulers erected a windowless building called the Cage in which their heirs were confined from early childhood until they died or were put to death or, having been taught nothing about anything, were released to take their turns on the throne. The result was as inevitable as it was monstrous: an empire ruled year after year and finally century after century by utterly ignorant, utterly incompetent, sometimes half-imbecilic, half-mad men, some of whom spent decades in the Cage before their release and all of whom, after their release, were free to do absolutely anything they wanted, no matter how vicious, for as long as they remained alive. They commonly indulged their freedom to kill or maim anyone they wished to kill or maim for any reason – for playing the wrong music or for smoking, for example – or for no reason at all.”

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Being confined in a cage for decades is thought to be the main reason why most rulers went completely mad and were generally incompetent, you’re right. Thanks for giving such great details!

      Reply
  3. Shah Alam

    Islam means ‘Serve’ to Almighty God. Islam is the religion of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Solomon, Jesus, Muhammad ,etc. (Peace be upon them)
    As per last and final law revealed in Quran that a Man can marry upto maximum 4 but it is preferred to Marry only one.
    Marriage means responsibilty also. When a Man get married then he has get the resposibility of Woman also. In Islam, it is not the duty of woman to earn money but it is duty of a man to earn money.
    Marriage is a very good deed. Whereas persecution is a Bad deed.. Persecution and crimes are non Islamic Activities. There should be no persecution of employees by employer and also there should be no persecution of employer by employees..

    Reply
  4. OrtegaSeason

    Since Muslim women were forbidden from being kept as concubines or slaves

    The enslaved girls would have been brought up as muslims though. So all the concubines in the harem would have been muslims.

    Reply
  5. Rameen

    Fascinating. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see how a harem would’ve worked and survived?

    We should run a re-creation – I’ll play the part of the Sultan, Tiffany you can play my wife or head slave you choose and we will go recruiting more slave women. About 5 to begin with and we will go from there.

    Reply

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