After my rather cursory glimpse of the European side of Istanbul with Birsen just the day before, I decided to go back across for some exploration. It was my only day to go before heading to Cappadocia on the following evening, but unfortunately it also happened to be a Monday, when many places were closed (including Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar). However, the Topkapi Palace (and its Harem) were happily open, and as it was at the very top of Birsen’s list of things to see and do in Istanbul, I was excited to go. I crossed the Bosphorus and walked along the narrow streets, passing the assortment of sweet shops and antique rug shops mixed with modern shops selling cell phone accessories and fancy footwear. Eventually I came to an upward sloping street with a great old wall on one side, with a green strewn with broken bits of Byzantine columns and statuary. I noticed the sign for the palace and continued on my way.
The Topkapi Palace was the primary residence for the Ottoman Sultans, as well as the seat of government for over 400 years. Construction for it started in 1459 by Sultan Mehmed II, shortly after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (marking the end of the Roman Empire). The site chosen was breathtaking: built right on top of the ancient Byzantine acropolis, situated on the tip of land between the Golden Horn to the north, and the Sea of Marmara to the south, with the Bosphorus visible to the east. Built not only as a city within a city, with internal gardens, courts, libraries, schools, mosques, a hospital, and mint, it was also intended to hold many spaces of silence. The tradition of imperial seclusion had carried over from the Byzantine court, and speaking within the inner courtyards was forbidden. Of the four great courtyards, only the first was open to the general public, and the fourth was only open to the Sultan and his guests. The palace is an enormous complex (up to 7.5 million square feet) and contains a long shoreline, hundreds of interconnected chambers and low buildings, pavilions, gardens, courtyards, and grand gates in between them.
One of the most well-protected and insular areas of the palace (and a must-see) is the Imperial Harem, which was the private area of the Sultan and his sons, where the women were kept. “Harem” means “forbidden,” and there were many ways in which the meaning of that word were imposed. For one thing, it was forbidden for any males to enter beyond the Sultan, his sons, and his staff of Black Eunuchs (who were completely castrated).
Included in the up-to-thousand residents of the Harem were all of the Sultan’s wives, concubines, consorts, the prince’s consorts, their children, the Black Eunuchs as well as the Queen Mother, who would have come into power when her son became the Sultan. With over 400 magnificently ornate and lavishly decorated rooms spread out over a host of interconnected suites, apartments, and courtyards, it requires purchasing an extra ticket to get into and requires a sizable portion of the day to fully take it all in. There are several courtyards: one for the Eunuchs, the Queen Mother, the “Favorites” (those concubines who became pregnant and were thus elevated to the status of “official consort”), and the Consorts and Concubines.
There are grand halls and marble fountains, privy chambers, baths, an aviary, a “Passage of Concubines,” and apartments of the Crown Prince as well as the 40-room apartment of the Queen Mother (of which only two of the rooms are open to the public).
A few words on the women of the Harem: as Islamic law forbids enslaving Muslim women, most of the consorts and concubines were either Jewish or Christian captured slaves or otherwise “gifted” to the Empire. Others might have been conscripted into the Harem from more local populations. Apparently many of them were taken from Circassia (modern day Georgia and Armenia), as they were favored for their spectacular beauty. Upon entry into the Harem, the girls were first converted to Islam before receiving schooling in palace etiquette as well as in how to please the Sultan. For the most part this included reading and writing, playing an instrument, singing, dancing, as well as other entertaining skills. The top-ranking woman was the Queen Mother herself, who basically ran the Harem, with even the Black Eunuchs reporting directly to her. Not only was she the primary decision maker on all affairs of the Harem, she also had tremendous influence on the Sultan’s selection of wives or concubines. Below her in rank were up to four Kadin (“woman/wife”), then an unspecified number of Ikbla (“fortunate”), followed by the Gözde (“favorite”), and finally the remainder of the concubines and consorts, who lived in basements underneath the Harem. As for the Black Eunuchs, they were distinct from the “white” eunuchs in that they were mostly enslaved from the Sudan, completely castrated, and given the task of staffing the Harem, whereas the White Eunuchs were given secretarial tasks. The Chief Black Eunuch was in a very powerful position indeed, with access to the Sultan’s ear as well as bedchamber and second in political power only to the Grand Vizier. The position also included the position of head of an imperial army corps.
As the throne was available to any of the Sultan’s sons (there was no custom of the eldest son inheriting the throne) and as a Sultan could have many heirs (as many as 103 children for Sultan Murat III) from many different mothers, all living in the same enclosed space, one could easily imagine the intrigue and political wrangling that took place in the confined, albeit beautiful prison. Rivalry and competition must have been fierce, and violence between the residents was fairly commonplace. If a girl were to cross the Chief Eunuch (otherwise known as “Master of the Girls”), she could find herself tied up in a sack and tossed into the Bosphorus. It was certainly a prison for the women perhaps less so for the eunuchs, but it even became one for the Sultan’s heirs as well. During the late 17th century the Harem earned the name “golden cage,” as succession law reforms led to the princely heirs being moved into seclusion in a particular area in the Harem called kafes, or “cages.” There they remained until they either ascended the throne or else were executed so as not to be a threat to the crown prince. Prior to those reforms the heirs were often sent to work as governors to distant cities in order to learn how to rule a country. Of course such a change had its impact on the quality of future Sultans. It may have even led to what became called the “Sultanate of Women,” in which the mothers exerted a tremendous influence over their enfeebled teenage sons, effectively ruling the empire from the Harem for a 130-year period. For all its intricate beauty, I found it a gruesome place just by imagining the average woman’s daily life there. Needless to say, I would consider the Harem to be one of the main highlights of the Topkapi Palace, and I spent a good chunk of the day within its labyrinthine halls and chambers, admiring its ornate beauty, including its incredible tile work.
As for the rest of the Palace, most of the museum artifacts were displayed in a variety of different buildings spread throughout the grounds. Many of the artifacts on display (and there are apparently many more that are kept in storage) are simply breathtaking, mind-boggling, and beyond priceless! Unfortunately in none of the displays are photographs allowed, so I can only give some written description of some of the countless items: from hundreds of ornately scripted copies of the Qur’an to jeweled weaponry spanning 1,300 years of history, to one of the largest collections of calligraphies and miniatures, portraits of the Sultans, ornate thrones, armor, as well as entire Imperial Treasury filled with all manner of household items studded with precious gems and made of gold. One of my favorite displays was the Hall of the Prophets which included the Staff of Moses, a cooking vessel of Abraham, the sword of David, the turban of Joseph (son of Jacob), John the Baptist’s hand and forearm (!) as well as up to 600 of the holiest items from the prophet Mohammed: his sword, seal, sandal, footprint, beard hairs, mantle, standard, and even his tooth, broken at the battle of Uhud. Such relics were apparently discovered, collected, and preserved over the years and eventually made their way to Istanbul for safe-keeping with the line of Sultans in the Topkapi Palace. They were first put on display in 1962, almost forty years after the dissolution of the Sultanate and end of the Ottoman Empire in 1924. For a wonderful collection of the stories and detailed photographs of these items, along with their historical and religious importance, there is a beautiful book called The Sacred Trusts (relics of the prophets), written by Hilmi Aydin.
There was a non-native display on the premises as well, tucked away led upon it while I was looking for the rather hidden entrance into the Harem. It was a collection of Korean Buddhist items, of all things! They were nice to stumble upon, if just a little bit strange and out of context. Just as they appeared to me suddenly as a non sequitur in my tour of the Topkapi Palace, so the following photos will be in this blog post:
I spent pretty much the entire day in the palace and its grounds, taking in the museum displays as well as the palace architecture and its beautiful wood and ceramic tiling. Of course the Harem was somewhat emotionally intense for me as well, reflecting on the conquest and slavery and subjugation that provided the backbone for the so-called “glorious” days of the Empire. Afterwards I wandered the side streets of Sultanahmet and the nearby Hippodrome for a few hours, catching a light snack before heading back to Kadikoy in the setting sun on the ferry. I could not imagine trying to fit all that in along with Hagia Sophia as well! It was a lot to take in and my feeling a little overwhelmed was due in part to how amazed I was at all that I had seen. On the following day I would head inland on my own, to visit a much earlier time in the long history of the region…