Without any doubt, the Topkapi Palace is probably the most famous of all Ottoman heritage in Istanbul. Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror commissioned its construction shortly after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. It was the imperial court and residence of Ottoman sultans and their families for 375 years. Sultan Abdülmecid I moved the court to the Dolmabahçe Palace in 1856. Certainly, the Topkapi Palace is a magnificent historical site. But I think that the harem within the palace is its most fascinating part. A mysterious place where many people lived completely segregated lives over many centuries.
I visited the Topkapi Palace and the harem during my stay in Istanbul in July 2019. The harem occupies a big part of the palace. It consists of over 300 rooms, bath houses, mosques, dormitories, a hospital and a laundry. But only a small part of the harem is open to visitors. Although the open section includes some of the most important rooms, I would also like to see areas of the harem that are currently closed. The whole complex is big, it housed many people and there is so much more there to see. Apparently they are restoring the other sections, so I hope that we will be able to see them in the future. The more we can see of this magnificent palace, the better.
This post is about the harem as you can visit it is at the moment. The place is beautiful and it gives you a good idea of the life at the time when Ottoman sultans demonstrated their power and wealth through their ownership of numerous slave women.
MOSQUE OF THE BLACK EUNUCHS
The first thing that you see when you enter the harem is the Mosque of the Black Eunuchs.
The Qur’anic verse “And the angels called to him as he stood praying in the sanctuary” (Al-Imran, 3:39) is inscribed in a calligraphic variety of the Arabic script – Jeli Thuluth.
The prayer niche contains a representation of the Holy Mosque (al-Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca.
The image is an under-glazed painting and it continuously stretches over sixty tiles.
The mosque is lavishly decorated and at the same time overwhelmingly beautiful. Also, you get a very good idea of the interior decoration of the whole harem, mostly with Iznik and Kuthaya tiles.
COURT OF THE BLACK EUNUCHS
Among many others, the harem staff in the Topkapi Palace also included eunuchs. The Ottomans would generally select the black eunuchs of the Abyssinian (Egyptian) origin from the central African wing of the Ottoman empire. Then, they would train them with the strictest discipline in rules of the palace and the harem.
Black eunuchs guarded gates of the harem, monitored who enters and exits, escorted coaches and they also surveyed premises to prevent anyone unauthorised from getting inside of the harem.
The Chief Black Eunuchs (Kızlar Ağası) were at the head of command and supervised the whole harem. Within the palace protocol, they were immediately after the Grand Vizier and Sheikh al-Islami. They earned relatively high incomes and consequently they donated part of that money to various charitable causes such as building of mosques, madrasas and fountains. I mentioned Gazanfer Ağa in my post Ottoman Istanbul, the Chief White Eunuch and the Chief Chamberlain of Sultan Mehmed III. He constructed the Gazanfer Ağa madrasa in Istanbul.
They usually had a close relationship with the sultan and his family and consequently they were influential in the management of the palace. They were particularly powerful in the 17th and the 18th century.
MAIN HAREM ENTRANCE
The main harem entrance (Cümle Kapısı) separated the area of the harem where the Ottoman royal family lived together with the concubines from the area where the eunuchs resided.
Also, it lead to the eunuchs’ guard post which connected to the harem’s three main wings: the corridor of the concubines, the courtyard of Valide Sultan and the sultan’s private apartment and the Golden Road.
CORRIDOR OF THE CONCUBINES
From the eunuch’s guard post you enter the corridor of the concubines. The corridor led to the courtyard of the concubines and favourite wives of the sultan.
The kitchen delivered and laid meals along the long counter of the corridor. The servant concubines distributed the meals throughout the harem.
CONCUBINES AND SULTAN’S FAVOURITES
The women of the harem lived according to a certain hierarchy. They were the sultan’s mother, wives, sisters and daughters as well as servant concubines. When new concubines arrived to the palace, they would first place them in a special dormitory for apprentices. They would receive strict education in the Ottoman traditions and rules of Islam, reading and writing. Based on their talents, they would tutor them in areas such as music, embroidery, sewing and belly dancing. Then, they would only select the most cultured, intelligent and beautiful ones to serve the sultan. They also received a private training hoping to one day become the sultan’s favourite.
They would also select a number of concubines to marry the aghas (the aghas received education at the palace’s prestigious Enderun school and held top ranking positions in the Ottoman empire). Other girls worked as servants and were doing laundry, cleaning and similar tasks. The concubines received salaries and clothing according to their rank and title. They served in the palace for a minimum of nine years. When they wanted to marry they received their freedom with the document of liberty. The sultan covered every concubine’s wedding costs and provided a rather opulent dowry.
The most beautiful and intelligent concubines received a private privy room education. The concubines that entered in a personal relationship with the sultan became Gözde (favourites). If they bore children, they gained certain powers and privileges and earned titles of Ikbal (favourite) or Kadinefendi (head woman). The sultan’s wives were also Haseki. This title first emerged in the 16th century with Hürrem Sultan and her successors used it until the 18th century.
VALIDE SULTAN’S APARTMENT
The women whose sons became sultans earned the title Valide Sultan (queen mother). New Valide Sultan would move from the Old Palace in the Bayezid district in Istanbul to the Topkapi Palace in a grand ceremony Valide Alayi.
Valide Sultan held the highest position in the harem and in the 17th century she had even more authority. When the sultan either stepped down from the throne or passed away, they would escort Valide Sultan back to the Old Palace. That event marked the end of the reign of that particular sultanate.
In 1580s, during the reign of Sultan Selim II, Mimar Sinan and Davut Agha built the Valide Sultan apartment for Nurbanu Sultan, the mother of Sultan Murad III. The apartment is in the middle of the harem.
Following the fire, the apartment was renovated in 1665. They added the second floor in 1789 for the mother of Sultan Selim III, Mihrişah Sultan.
Various upgrades and extensions since then has enabled it to survive into the present day. The apartment contains various rooms, but Valide Sultan probably spent most of her time in the reception area, the prayer room and bedrooms.
The finest examples of the 17th century Ottoman tiles adorn the walls of the apartment. There are also the 19th century western-influenced landscape paintings. The Valide Sultan apartment is certainly one of the most important and the most beautiful rooms in the harem.
VALIDE SULTAN’S BATH
The double hammam of the sultan and the women, primarily of Valide Sultan, was built in 1585 by the imperial architect Mimar Sinan. Sultan Murad III commissioned its construction, as he wanted a new hammam to meet bathing needs of the royal family.
The heightened sofas in the frigidarium, tepidarium and private rooms created resting areas.
But, the bath used by Valide Sultan and other women of the harem is smaller than the sultan’s bath.
Beatufiul Iznik tiles decorate the corridor that connects two baths.
Sultan Osman III restored the bath of the sultan and constructed a new pavilion to fit the Rococo style of the time.
The gold gilded taps of the fountains and the basins, as well as gold gilded bronze railings that separate the sultan’s private bathing area, were also added in the second half of the 18th century.
The baths of the sultan and Valide Sultan and the Imperial Hall were floor-heated with a common heating system.
Beautiful inscriptions that cite the name of Sultan Osman III decorate the corridor of hammam.
Also, the wooden doors of the bath are in the Ottoman Rococo style.
The biggest and the most impressive room in the harem is the Imperial Hall.
Centrally located between the Privy Chamber of Sultan Murad III and the baths, the Imperial Hall was built by the chief imperial architect Davut Agha after 1585.
It underwent many changes over the centuries due to fires and various repairs. The largest dome in the Topkapi Palace is in the Imperial Hall, together with the baldaquin that covers the sultan’s throne. There is also a gallery where Valide Sultan and other female members of the household used to sit.
The hall served as the sultan’s venue for ceremonies and audiences. Also, the imperial household met there for entertainment, weddings, birth ceremonies and religious holidays. It was there that members of the harem congratulated the new sultan upon his enthronement.
The tiles inscriptions date from after the fire of 1665. The blue and white Dutch (Delft) tiles and Rococo decorations date from the reign of Sultan Osman III, in the mid-eighteen century. The wooden arches in the portico and the windows are in the baroque style.
The inscriptions above the door and the windows contain information regarding repairs on the building during the reign of Sultan Osman III, as well as eulogies to him.
The inscriptions under the windows are probably from the same period and contain verses 257-263 of the surah al-Baqara in the Qur’an.
SULTAN MURAD III’S PRIVY ROOM
Sultan Murad III commissioned Mimar Sinan to build this privy room in 1579, in place of Suleiman the Magnificient’s privy room. For centuries, various sultans used the building both as their private and the official apartment.
The room is a magnificent example of the late 16th century Ottoman architecture.
There are two gilded Ottoman Baroque baldaquin wooden beds in the room that date back to the 18th century.
Furthermore, the finest 16th century Iznik tiles adorn the walls of the room. The art of Ottoman tile making was at its peak at that time.
Indeed, it is a magnificent room and because there are so many exquisite details, you simply don’t know where to look first.
MABEYN COURTYARD AND APARTMENT OF SULTAN’S FAVOURITES
The Mabeyn Courtyard and the Apartment of Sultan’s Favourites were built in the 18th century for women of the harem.
The apartment was designed as a raised Baghdad-style wooden villa, with neo-classical porticoes. Specifically built during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid I, the mezzanine level of the building contains a dormitory of the favourites. The dormitory faces the portico arches through the lattice framework.
Sultan Abdülhamid I’s apartment is on on the bottom level, right above the semi-demolished tower of Sultan Selim I. That’s where he lived together with his family.
One more interesting feature of this courtyard is Kafes (the cage). It is where they kept possible successors to the throne under the house arrest and constant surveillance.
The early history of the Ottoman empire is a history of fratricide. Every new sultan would kill all his brothers, including infants. At the start of his reign, Sultan Mehmed III executed 19 of his brothers. The practice reduced the number of claimants to the throne and prevented instability.
The “Rule of Elderness” was adopted after the death of Sultan Ahmed I. His oldest son was 13 years old at the time of his death, so his brother Mustafa I became a sultan. The basic premise was that all males within the older generation should be sultans before the oldest male from the next generation.
But, new sultans confined their brothers, cousins and nephews to the cage as soon as they had left the harem, at puberty. That marked the end of their education and consequently many sultans came to the throne unprepared. In the cage, they only had the company of servants and women of the harem.
The Harem Mosque (Harem Mescidi) of Topkapi Palace was built in the 17th century.
It was a prayer hall for the sultan’s mother, sisters and daughters, but also for his first consort and other senior women of the harem.
The mosque is adjacent to the Mosque of the Aghas in the inner (third) courtyard of the Topkapi Palace.
Its baroque prayer niche (mihrab) has a lattice window.
Its walls are covered with tiles made in the Tekful Palace.
A pottery workshop was established in the Tekfur Palace in 1719. There, they produced ceramic tiles similar to Iznik tiles, but influenced with European design and colours.
Finally, the mosque is the end of the visit to the harem.
To exit the harem, you have to pass through the Golden Road. It takes you back to the Black Eunuchs’ guard-post, the exit is there. This is the harem’s longest, oldest and the most important passageway. In the past, they called it the Long Road (Uzun Yol), the Sultan’s Path (Rah-ı Pâdişâhî) and also the Avenue of His Excellency the Sultan (Sokak-ı Hazret-i Pâdişâhî). The sultan used it as a shortcut to the harem apartments.
However, the name does not come from its appearance. The road is a plastered wall and stone pavement, without any decoration. Its name comes from the fact that on certain special days, the sultan would pass there and throw gold coins to the harem’s inhabitants who would stand along the road.
If you visit Istanbul and the Topkapi Palace, make sure that you also visit the harem. I say this because they charge a separate entrance fee for the harem, in addition to what you have to pay to see the palace. The harem is really the best part of the palace.
Undoubtedly, its history is fascinating. Imagine, you could enter the palace as slave boy or a slave girl and become a Grand Vizier or Valide Sultan. All on merit and with a bit of luck, unlike in royal courts of the western world where the aristocracy only married between themselves.
But, I will write more about that in my next post!