Behind the imperial council chamber, known as "under the dome" or "kubbealti", is the entrance to a section of the palace that we may regard as a key to the social history of the Ottoman Empire. The harem is a complex of structures dating from successive eras, the architects of which are largely unknown. Many of the rooms are tiled with polychrome tiles and were enriched with ornamentation by every sultan who restored whole sections of the harem after successive fires and earthquakes, as well as adding new quarters in accordance with their own taste. One interesting feature of the complex is the contrast between the narrow corridors and staircases linking one magnificent apartment to the next, while the low ceilings and darkened courtyards are typical architectural features.
The ladies of the court entered the harem through the Carriage Gate, so- called as it was here they alighted from their carriages. The gate, which is next to the Tower of Justice, leads to a court-like room, a domed area lined With cupboards known as the Dolapli Kubbe. This in turn leads to the black eunuchs' guardroom, a rectangular area divided by a central arch with a dome before it and a coffered vault beyond. Also known as the Porch with a Fountain or Sadirvanli Taslik, it was originally thought to have housed a fountain. The walls are embellished with 18th century decorative tiles bearing floral patterns whereas the names of the ten companions of the Prophet Muhammed are inscribed in medallions. The Inner Gate to the Harem or Meskhane Kapisi, is situated at the far end of this room. The gate, surmounted by an inscription containing verses from the Koran, was also the entrance used by the sultan on his return from the Investiture Ceremony at Eyup, one that was carried out by every sultan upon ascending to the throne, which consisted of girding the Ottomans' royal sword.
To the left of the guard room stands the chapel mosque or Mescit of the Black Eunuchs, a square-planned structure decorated with 18th century tile panels showing symbolic views of the Holy Sites including the Kaaba and graced with , mihrab, also in decorative tiles. From here a colonnaded paved walk leads to the dormitory of the black eunuchs chambers on both sides. The dormitory is three. storied, whereas the rooms on the firs' floor belonging to the Chief of the Eunuch Guards or Bas Kapi Gulami Agasi, who was second-in-command to the chief eunuch of the harem or Kizlar Agasi. The tiled chambers on the left were the public rooms or selamlik bedrooms and guestrooms, while those on the right were used as storerooms. The second-story rooms belonged to the lower ranking Chief Eunuch Guards or Kara Agalar, while the upper story was allocated to the chambers of the middle and high-ranking regular eunuch guards -the ortanca and the hasli. At the end of the corridor stands a large hearth decorated with 18th century tilework. The chambers of the Chief Black Eunuch or Kizlar Agasi are beyond the eunuchs' dormitory and look onto the small court before the main door of the harem privy quarters. They are linked to the princes' school by a stairway, and consist of the chief black eunuch's private apartment complete with hamam or bathhouse. The stairway to the princes' school is decorated with damaged European tiles bearing parrot motifs on a yellow ground. The tutoring rooms are rectangular in plan, the second room being covered with a wooden cupola. In the center of the wall is a marble baroque hearth. The dome, closet entablatures and niches are decorated with gilding in the Rococo style.
Entering the privy apartments of the harem, one passes through a massive iron gate, which opens into the mirrored porch of the quarters of the harem ladies, where the eunuchs kept guard. This in turn leads to the Dowager Sultan's court via one door and the Golden Way of the female slaves via another. A third exit to the left leads into a corridor on which trays of food were set. The court of the slaves contained the apartments of the Kadinefendis and Cariyes, and is fronted by a colonnaded portico on three sides. Also arranged around the court are a bathhouse and storerooms. To the left of the Bas Kadinefendi's apartments, a staircase leads down to the Harem Infirmary.
A separate entrance from the court of the female slaves leads to the chambers of the Dowager Sultan, which are arranged behind an open court. Her private apartments, the room of the Mistress of the Privy Slaves as well as the Dowager's Reception Hall with a Hearth look out onto the court, their facades decorated with 17th century tilework.
The reception hall is rectangular in plan and has a domed roof. The walls are decorated in tile and fine brushwork tracery covers the pendentives to the dome. An inscription band in decorative tiles bearing verses from the Koran encircles the room below the dome. Known as the heating source for the harem, it was here that hot coals were prepared for distribution throughout the other parts of the harem, where they were used in braziers.
Opposite the Dowager Sultan's chambers was an entrance to her court from the eunuchs' quarters, from which the Golden Way also ran parallel to the Dowager Sultan's Court and beyond it to the court of the Revan Pavilion.
The Dowager Sultan's apartments, which were some of the most important rooms in the harem, consisted of a dining room, bedroom, prayer room and the chambers of Mihrisah Sultan.
The dining room is square in plan, with a high dome over the walls, the lower part of which is decorated with 17th century Kutahya tiles. The walls are lined with sunken closets, the doors of which are inlayed with tortoise-shell and mother of -pearl. Scenic views traced on the wall belong to the period of Mahmut II and th dome is embellished with brushwork patterns of vine scrolls and grapes. In on part of the room a gallery was built t contain the apartment of Mihrisah Sultan the Dowager Sultan and mother of Selim III. Reached by a staircase outside the main room, decorated in Baroque an Rococo styles, the inner-chamber being decorated with European tiles and containing a baroque hearth.
The Dowager Sultan's bedroom opens into her sitting room, a square- planned room with a coffered-vaulted ceiling. The door to the bedroom is inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the walls are covered with Kutahya tiles dating from the 17th century and the bed was mounted on a dais under a gilded carved baldachin at the left of the room. From here a small door leads into the prayer room of the Dowager Sultan, which contains decorative tile depicting Mecca on the wall to the left of the entrance.
From these chambers a narrow, corridor leads directly to the Sultan , Chambers, first to the Imperial Hall a Hunkar Sofasi, then to the royal baths (to the right) .This latter was built in the 16t century by the architect Sinan, an contains three sections, a dressing room, cool room and a hot room. Just behind is the Dowager Sultan's bath restore during the reign of Mehmet IV by hi mother, Turhan Sultan. The paired bathhouse system, which was a common feature in Ottoman architecture, is repeated here, with both the sultan's bath and that of the Dowager Sultan's being heated by the same furnace. The hot room of the sultan's bath is vaulted. To the left, one sees the sultan's own basin and taps in a section set aside for his own use and enclosed behind a bronze grill. A corridor separates the bath from the Chamber of Abdulhamit I. Dating from the reign of Mehmet IV, this section underwent certain changes under Osman III, Abdulhamit I and Selim III. The walls of the Abdulhamit Chamber are decorated with Baroque and Rococo carvings and a wall fountain in European decorative tiles. The bed was originally set under a gilded baldachin of Selim III, which was first built by Osman III, although it underwent its final alterations under Selim III. It is embellished with motifs in Baroque and Rococo styles.
A long corridor leads from the room of Selim III to the Osman III Pavilion, begun during the reign of Mahmut I and completed under Osman III, which consists of three interlinking chambers. It is embellished with Baroque and Rococo wall decorations and also with a number of paintings on an architectural theme in the European mode.
A separate door from the Sultan's Bath leads into the Imperial Hall or Hunkar Sofasi which dated originally from the end of the 16th century, although much restored during the reign of Osman III. It is covered by a large central dome set atop four pointed arches. Three vaulted areas to one side add further dimension to the room, which also has a gallery. It was here that the sultan presided at assemblies seated under a baldachin at the opposite end of the room. High-ranking members of the harem sat on sofas under the gallery. The dome and the walls of the chamber were decorated at various times and therefore represent a number of decorative styles. Verses from the Koran (the Throne Verses) are inscribed in jali- thuluth Arabic script on a broad blue and white band encircling three of the four walls, whereas the name of Mehmet IV and the date 1666 is inscribed behind the sultan's baldachin. Passing through the Imperial Hall, one comes to the Hall with a Fountain and then to the Privy Chamber of Murat III, one of the most notable rooms in the harem to have preserved its original form. Square in plan, and high-domed, this 16th century room was the work of the architect Sinan. In the center of the room is a large hearth, to the right are sofas under a baldachin and the walls are decorated with fine tilework. The fountain on the left is decorated with tiles which are dominated by the typical coral red hue of the period, while around the walls runs an inscription in jali-thuluth Arabic script in blue and white decorative tiles from the verses of the Throne. Containing some of the finest examples of the Ottoman arts, this room also gives access to the so- called library of Ahmet I, a square, domed room, well-illuminated by several windows. The shutters are inlaid with ivory on one side. A fountain dated 1608 can be seen left of the entrance. The blue and white embellishments date from the 17th century.
A narrow door opens from this room into the Fruit Room or the Chamber of Ahmet III, over the entrance of which is an inscription dated 1705. It is a square- planned room with wood panelling on the walls and ceiling, and decorated with lacquered paintings of flowers and fruit separated by inscription friezes, mirrors, niches and glazed closets. There is a painted gesso hearth on the wall to the right of the entrance.
A two-room apartment leading off the opposite end of the Chamber of Murat III was allocated to the crown prince. Also known as the twin kiosks, or Cifte Kasirlar, the two rooms are connected to each other. One first enters a square- planned chamber whose cupola and ceiling are fronted with canvas that ha~ been embellished with gilded brushwork tracery. Floral motifs and inscriptior friezes of contemporary 17th century tastes decorate the walls. From here, one passes through to the second chamber, a rectangular area which is dominated by a fine gilded copper hearth and a blue and white inscription frieze in jali-thulutl Arabic script which encircles the wall: between the upper and lower floor windows.
Beyond the princes apartments one passes a fountain and the Chambers of the Privy Wives or Haseki Odalari to the left, and the Courtyard of the Favorites or Gozdeler Tasligi to the right before reaching the Golden Way once again. The Courtyard and Chambers of the Favorites date to the period of Abdulhamit I.
The Golden Way, one of the oldest parts of the harem, resembles a narrow alleyway, and is believed to have been named after the fabled procession of newly enthroned sultans into the harem along this way, whereas it was said they scattered gold pieces among the harem folk lining their path. The far end of the way opens into the chambers of the Sacred Mantle or Hirka-i Saadet Dairesi, which was the site of a number of important historical events. Perhaps one of the most famous of which took place during the reign of Mahmut III when the faithful slave-woman Cevriye Kalfa threw ashes into the eyes of rebellious subjects attempting to assassinate the sultan. One end of the golden way opens into the main entrance to the harem, while the other end open: onto the third court of the palace via the Kushane Gate.