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Topkapi Palace :: Harem


There can be little doubt that one of the most curious parts of the palace is the harem. The tradition of harem life can betraced here as in other Ottoman palaces, including Dolmabahce Palace.

It is an extremely interesting part of the palace complex, with a history worthy of its mysterious connotations. Known as the "Dar'us-Saade" of happiness, or harem, this complex of apartments consisted mainly of the Sultan's private chambers, and those of the Queen Mother, the Sultan's wives, concubines, crown princes and eunuchs.

The head of the harem was, naturally, the Sultan, and the next most important person in the harem was the Queen Mother or Dowager Sultan. Among the gifts presented to the Sultan from his generals, regional governors and other worthy subjects were often fine female slaves, who were chosen as concubines at a very early age, and were educated in the finer arts, such as music, literature and courtly ceremony for many years, before presentation to the Sultan. The Sultan chose his wives from among these girls; they being given the title of first lady, second lady and so on. Contrary to popular opinion, girls thus chosen, once educated at the court were free to leave after nine years of service, and were, moreover, provided with the means of existence, or their marriage was arranged out of court. This tradition of royal marriage from within the harem was to enable the royal family to remain totally independent of other noble blood. The earlier tradition of marriage between royal and noble families was thus abandoned in favor of this rather more secure way of obtaining royal heirs. The tradition of taking up to four wives may be tied to the wish to assure the birth of an heir, whiles some Sultans added a large number of concubines to their intimate household as well as their official wives.

A very small number of the female slaves were chambermaids to the Sultan or his Crown Princes (odalisque) but most of the slaves had some form of duty in other parts of the harem. As an indication of their distribution throughout the harem, if we look at the period of Mahmut I (1730- 1753) we will see that apart from the Sultan's own concubines, the crown princes had up to 19 maidens at their service, while the first lady had twenty maids in her own apartments, the other ladies between ten and twenty maids. The palace accounts inform us that during the reign of Abdulaziz (1861-1876) when the Sultan was in residence at Dolmabahce Palace, he was attended by 58 maidservants, the Dowager Sultan by 43, the Crown Prince Murat by 47, and the first lady by 15.

As we mentioned, after the Dowager Sultan, the most influential person at the court was the first lady, followed immediately by the influence, and the) were known as Privy Sultan or Haseki Sultan. Immediately after the wives it influence came the four favorite concubines of the Sultan known as ikbal or the fortunate. They were regarded with much respect within the harem so long as they were in the Sultan's favori and in the case of the death of one of the Sultan's wives, the Sultan's most favored concubine could become his wife. Theywere also up to 16 favored concubines especially allocated to the Sultan, who may also have taken as many odalisques as he required from among the other slaves, although these were given no special favors.

Should the Sultan wish to marry, the Grand Vizier acted as his witness and the Chief Eunuch as the girl's witness during an Islamic ceremony, which was presided over by the head of the Islamic faith or Sheyh-ul Islam. The harem was administrated from without by the Chief Eunuch and from within by the chief of the slaves, the most experienced member of the harem, who was aided by a second and third housekeeper, an apprentice housekeeper, chief steward, woman secretary, majordomo, chief barber, taster, laundress, butler, coffee-maker, stoker, casket-maker and apprentice physician, in order of importance. They were in turn aided by many officials of minor importance in the administration of this legendary city.

Suleyman the Magnificent, known to have been the founder of the harem, introduced up to three hundred slaves to his harem. This number rose until during the reign of Murat III up to 500. Several sources tell us that this figure rose to 700 during the reign of Mehmet the Hunter.

There can be little doubt that there was keen competition between so many members of the harem, to come to the Sultan's attention, and consequently much effort was made by the individual members of the harem to prove their superiority to the others. The Sultan informed those who won this constant contest, of their success in various ways, and those with whom he was particularly pleased became his favorites.

The aim of nearly all the slaves ill the harem was to become either the wife or the chief concubine of the Sultan, as only then could they fulfill their dreams of becoming a powerful administrator 01 empress, hence showing the keehness of the competition.

We learn of this competition for the first time during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent. The famous concubine Roxelane, who was Polish of Russian origin, although not renowned for her beauty, managed to become the Sultan's favorite, and was notorious for her intelligence, her talents and skill al intrigue. She awaited the day of her presentation to the Sultan with little patience, and made all effort to assure that the day was not forgotten by the Sultan henceforth. This figure became a legend ill Ottoman history as Hurrem Sultan, who had a great effect on the young Sultan conqueror of continents. With her love letters she captured his heart.

Now let us wander through the once lively, mysterious corridors of the harem, now silent, and imagine the laughter wafting from each corner as the ghosts of days gone by drift by us.


Above text and pictures are from the book titled "Topkapi Palace Hardcover".

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