The surroundings were stunning. Sumptuous Ottoman architecture, Moorish arches, and Iznik tile mosaics. I was at the Topkapi Palace Harem in Istanbul, where the Sultan lived with his numerous wives, children and concubines. And I was trying to imagine what it must have been like to live here.
What Was the Topkapi Palace Harem?
The Harem is part of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, which was built in the 15th century as an administrative area for the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. The harem (or “forbidden place”) was the home of the Sultan and his women, and no unrelated male was allowed inside unless he was a eunuch. Today the Palace and the Harem are included in the Historic Areas of Istanbul, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As you leave the bright sunshine of the Palace grounds to enter the cloistered complex of the harem buildings, the first place you come to is the Courtyard of the Harem Eunuchs. The eunuchs acted as gatekeepers and guardians for the women of the harem. Although they were slaves their position sometimes enabled them to gain considerable power and influence.
Exploring the Harem
The thick stone walls of the harem are heavily decorated and covered with Islamic calligraphy. I peered through small windows into the eunuchs’ living quarters, and passed through a tiled bathing area (then, as now, baths were a feature of Turkish life) towards the Queen Mother’s apartments.
The Queen Mother, the mother of the Sultan, was the most important and influential woman in the Harem. This was a highly structured society, with women plotting against one another and forming political alliances in an attempt to ensure that it was their son who was designated the official heir. As you stand in the arched Courtyard of the Queen Mother, and look beyond to her extensive suite of rooms, you can begin to appreciate why this position was so highly coveted. Not only did she have lavish accommodation, but she was (literally) at the centre of things: the Sultan and his sons all had to pass through this courtyard as they made their way through the Harem.
The Harem was like a city, with more than 400 rooms, including separate areas for the Sultan’s sons and their families. Beyond the Queen Mother’s apartments is the Sultan’s private area. His bedroom has been described as the “pinnacle of Ottoman design”, and compared with Spain’s Alhambra Palace. It is certainly ornate, with its magnificent tiling and stained glass, and verses from the Koran inscribed around the walls.
In Search of the Concubines
By now I was wondering, what about the concubines? Where did they live? It became apparent that these rooms were not on show (parts of the harem are closed to visitors), possibly because, as an information board told us, their living quarters were harsh, cramped and unhygienic. Concubines, who were taken as prisoners of war, or sold by their families, were subject to the whims of the Sultan and the eunuchs, and were often treated most cruelly. This was effectively a prison: unless a concubine found favour with the Sultan, or was given in marriage to one of his followers, she would never enter the outside world again.
I came to an outside courtyard overlooking the (now empty) pool and the Palace gardens. This would probably have been the boundary of most of the women’s lives and, as I gazed over the gardens, I tried (and failed) to imagine living such an impossibly restricted existence.
Back inside, I walked along the Golden Road, where the Sultan would amuse himself by tossing gold coins to the concubines. I questioned what use they might have for gold, but concluded they might send out for small luxuries, or buy favours from the eunuchs. The Golden Road leads to the Aviary Gate: for visitors this is the way out, an exit that was denied to most of the Harem’s former inhabitants.
Visiting the Topkapi Palace Harem: What You Need to Know
- You need a ticket to enter the Topkapi Palace. There is an additional entrance charge for the harem, which you can either buy at the ticket office or at the entrance to the harem.
- If you are planning to visit a number of sites in Istanbul you can save money by buying a Museum Pass, valid for 5 days. Buy it at one of the smaller museums and you will also avoid the long queues at the Topkapi ticket office. Or you can order it online. Note that the pass includes the Topkapi Palace but not the Harem and you will still need to buy an extra ticket. (Alternatively, the Istanbul Welcome Card gives fast track entry to the Palace and the Harem.)
- Alternatively you can book a guided tour that includes entrance to the Palace and the Harem.
- Visit in the early morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the worst of the heat and the crowds.
- There are airport-style bag checks before you go into the Palace grounds, so make sure you leave any sharp objects at your hotel.