The word Harem comes from Arabic and originally means forbidden. Contrary to what many (want to) believe, the Harem was not just an erotic hothouse.
It was the private area of the sultan and his sons, hence forbidden for all other males, except the black eunuchs guarding the premises. Women on the other hand, had no trouble getting in. However, once in, there was no way out.
The Harem in Topkapi Palace is a must-see feature and is certainly worth the extra money.
Don’t miss the boat
To visit the Harem, you have no option but to take a guided tour. Although the majority of these tours is in English, make sure you don’t end up in a rare Turkish one. These tours, with a maximum capacity of 50 people, take about half an hour and get booked up early in the day.
Take my advice: head straight for the Harem ticket box upon entering the palace. This way you don’t end up missing the boat and you also avoid standing in lengthy queues with the sun scorching your head.
Life in the Harem
The Harem, build at the end of the 16th century, was a labyrinth consisting of around 300 magnificently tiled rooms, connected by courtyards and fountain gardens. At its height, it was home (or prison) to over 1.000 harem women, children and black eunuchs.
Since Islam forbade enslaving Muslims, the majority of the harem women were Christians or Jews, mostly received as gifts from potentates and nobles. Especially girls from Circassia, the area now known as Georgia and Armenia, were favored for their dazzling beauty.
After entering the Harem, the girls were schooled in and converted to Islam and received proper palace training: they were taught how to write, read, play an instrument, sing, dance and provide pleasure to the sultan.
The head of the Harem was the valide sultan, the mother of the reigning sultan. Not only did she keep the Harem organized, she also decided about life and dead of the woman and had a tremendous influence on the sultan’s selection of wives or concubines. The ultimate goal of every concubine was to become the future valide sultan.
Competition in the Harem was therefore pretty stiff, since every concubine tried to court the favor of the valide sultan and catch the eye of the sultan. Giving birth to the sultan’s child led to a higher status. Certainly if it was a boy, because one day he could become the new sultan and she the new valide sultan, the most powerful women in the Ottoman Empire. Keep in mind that in the Ottoman dynasty, the throne was available to any imperial son. Primogeniture (the custom by which the oldest son ascends the throne) was not observed.
Since the stakes were high, besides the sex, violence in the form of poisoning or stabbing fellow captives was rather common in the Harem. Rivalry especially occurred between the mothers of the sultan’s children, since only one would make it to the top. To give you an idea, sultan Murat III fathered 103 children.
On top of all that, the concubines also had to be cautious for the chief black eunuch (kızlar ağası). He was considered second only to the Grand Vizier and, as the go-between for the sultan and the valide sultan, aware of all palace secrets. Because of their physical and psychological mutilation, they tended to be vindictive and corrupt. Legend has it that they sometimes stuffed girls in a sack and tossed them in the Bosphorus, just for the kicks of it.
The black eunuchs were mostly taken from Africa, preferably Sudan. Since in those days lighter skin (as that of the concubines) was considered more aesthetic than dark skin, the sultans believed that this would reduce the chance of love affairs between the concubines and their dark-skinned servants.
Inside the Harem
Of the approximately 300 rooms, unfortunately only a handful are open to the public. You enter the Harem via the Gate of Carts (Arabalar Kapısı) that leads to the Dome with Cupboards (Dolaplı Kubbe), a room full of shelves and cupboards where the eunuchs would keep their records of their deeds.
Via the Hall of the Ablution Fountain (Şadirvanli Sofa), the real entrance hall into the Harem and guarded by the black eunuchs, leads to the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs.
On the left, behind the marble colonnade, you’ll see their dormitories. At the end is the apartment of the chief black eunuch (kızlar ağası) located.
The tour then continues via the Harem baths, where the concubines bathed and relaxed, and the Passage of Concubines (Cariye Koridoru), where the eunuchs placed the concubines’ dishes on the counters along the passage, into the Courtyard of the Concubines (Kadın Efendiler Taşlığı). This is the smallest courtyard in the Harem.
The next stops are the Apartments of the Queen Mother (Valide Sultan Dairesi). This apartment complex consisted of 40 rooms. Only two of them are open to the public: the dining room with reception area, and her bedroom with a niche for prayer. Both rooms are decorated with blue-and-white or yellow-and-green tiles from Iznik porcelain.
After walking through the Baths of the Sultan and the Queen Mother (Hünkar ve Valide Hamamları), the tour reaches the Imperial Hall (Hünkar Sofası). It is the largest dome in the Harem, where the sultan and his women gathered for entertainment as well as official receptions. Seated in his golden throne, the sultan would watch the proceedings.
Adjacent to the Imperial Hall are the Apartments of Sultan Murat III, consisting of his salon, library and dining room, also known as the fruit room because of the fruit and flowers painted on the walls.
The tour then continues with the Twin Kiosk (Çifte Kasırlar) or Apartments of the Crown Prince (Veliahd Dairesi). These superbly Iznik tiled rooms were used as the privy chambers of the crown prince, where he lived in seclusion and was trained in the discipline of the Harem.
Next stop is the Courtyard and Apartments of the Favorites (Gözdeler Dairesi). Walk to the edge of the courtyard to spot the swimming pool. The last two features are the Courtyard of the Valide Sultan and the Golden Road (Altınyol). The latter is a narrow passage that the sultan used to pass to the Harem. Legend has it that the sultan would throw gold coins on the floor for the concubines.
After exiting the Harem, you’ll find yourself in the Third Courtyard.