Secret Garden: Topkapi Palace Harem
You might enter the Topkapi Palace Harem hoping to meet a Harem Slave girl, her long skirt trailing on the ground as she walks towards you. The word harem originates from the Arabic harîm, a place of secrecy, passion and mystery that cloaks the rooms and hallways of this centuries old place of the Sultan’s women….and no one else.
The Mysterious Harem
The harem section of Topkapi Palace was carefully situated so that it could not be seen from the state apartments and the courtyards where public affairs were conducted. Tursun Bey, a chronicler at the time of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror wrote, ‘If sems [the sun] had not been a word which in Persian takes the feminine article, even the sun would not be admitted to the harem.’ Known in other eastern countries as perde (purdah), zenâne or endrûnr, the royal harem at the Ottoman Palace was known as the Dâr-üs-saâde, or Place of Felicity, while the section of the palace known as the Imperial Harem encompassed both the harem proper, the state apartments of the sultans, the quarters of his household and the pavilions in the fourth courtyard.
The secrecy associated with the royal harem and the harems of upper and middle-class Ottoman houses aroused the keen curiosity of foreign travellers and artists who visited Ottoman Turkey, but their written accounts and pictures of the harem were based for the most part on hearsay. With a few exceptions it was not until the end of the 18th century, during the reign of the enlightened reformist Sultan Selim III (1789-1807) that the architect and draughtsman Melling, Daniel Clark and other artists were admitted to the palace harem to draw from observation instead of imagination.
In 1909, following the deposal of Sultan Abdülhamid II, the Ottoman historian Abdurrahman Seref Bey made a detailed study of the buildings and apartments of the harem, and the women, princesses and princes who lived there. His findings were published as a series of articles in 1910 and 1911 in the historical journal Encümen-i Osmani Mecmuasi. The harem was home to the sultan himself, his mother, wives, daughters, sons, brothers, the high ranking female officials who managed the affairs of the household, hundreds of maidservants, and black eunuchs.
The earliest parts of the harem quarters are the Golden Road, the sultan’s private kitchen, and that section known as Eski Hasekiler. The service sections of the harem included kitchen, food cellar, baths, laundry, sick room and the dormitories of the maidservants and black eunuchs. As the population of the harem increased from the end of the 16th century onwards, mezzanines and additional buildings were constructed containing bedrooms for the serving women and self-contained apartments for the wives of the sultan. The 17th century Ottoman writer Evliya Çelebi records that until the late 16th century the harem did not move to Topkapi Palace, although the sultans conducted their daily business there and often spent the night, going occasionally to the Old Palace to visit their wives and children. Sultan Süleyman the Magnificient (1520-1566) took only his wife Hürrem Sultan and some women-in-waiting to this palace, the complete transferral of the harem from the Old Palace taking place during the reign of Murad III (1574-1595). On 24 July 1665, while Mehmed IV (1648-1687), his harem and household were at the palace in Edirne, a great fire broke out at Topkapi Palace, destroying the Palace of Justice, the Council of State, the Treasury, the Land Registry Office, most of the harem from the Carriage Gate to the Apartment of the Sultan’s Mother, and the kitchens.
The 17th century Turkish scholar Katip Çelebi wrote in his Takvimü?t-Tevarih that the fire was started by a maidservant who had stolen a ring. Mehmed IV and his mother returned to Istanbul to inspect the situation, and the sultan ordered the construction of a new harem building whose interior walls were entirely decorated with tiles. This was completed in 1668, but since Mehmed IV and his successors who reigned during the second half of the 17th century lived for the most part at Edirne Palace, the harem at Topkapi did not regain its importance until the reign of Ahmed III (1703-1730), a period popularly known as the Tulip Era. European baroque began to influence Turkish art and architecture at this time, and the Tulip Era is characterised by a new naturalistic style which is perhaps most strikingly exemplified by the painted wall decoration consisting of vases of flowers and plates of fruit in the Fruit Room of Ahmed III in the harem.
The passion for garden flowers became evident everywhere, on clothing, furnishings and in architectural decoration, and extending even to the names of the harem women, who began to be given melodious Persian names like Laligül (Ruby Rose) and Nazgül (Shy Rose) that suggested they were as beautiful and graceful as flowers. Later in the 18th century, rococo, with its delicate colour schemes and light romantic motifs, began to influence Turkish art, and the Pavilion of Osman III built on a terrace facing the Hünkâr Sofasi (Throne Room of the Harem) and the gracefully decorated wooden structures known as the Gözdeler Dairesi (Apartment of Favourites) above the Golden Road are typical of this later style. Life in the royal harem was very different from that imagined by Europeans. As an institution in Ottoman society the harem reflected the secluded privacy of family life. The cariyes or maidservants who served the women of the household were trained and educated in the skills and accomplishments thought appropriate for women at the time, and after a certain number of years in service allowed to marry. In the royal harem, under the guidance of the sultn’s mother or the principal officer of the harem household, a woman known as the chief treasurer, the girls were taught to read and write, play music, and the intricate rules of palace etiquette and protocol. Very few were honoured even by the privilege of waiting at the sultn’sg table, and still fewer became royal wives. After nine years of service the harem girls were given their manumission document, a set of diamond earrings and ring, a trousseau and some gold as their marriage portion, and suitable husbands found for them. They were renowned for their good breeding and for their discretion, never being known to reveal any intimate details about the royal family to outsiders. Nevertheless, graffiti on the harem walls shows that not all cariyes were contented with their lot: ‘Dilferib whose heart burns / Is wretched / O God / Alas alas.’