Istanbul Stories and Tips

The Harem Tour - concubines, eunuchs and the jewells of the Sultans

The Fourth Court overlooking the Bosphorus Photo, Istanbul, Turkey

Once on the throne, Ibrahim proved to be the most detestable and debauched of the Ottoman sultans. A picture of him shows the bleary countenance of a drunkard, his turban tipped crazily to one side. From the moment of his accession he seemed to have one thought in his head - to make up for lost time. A man who regarded sex as a duty to be practised almost daily, his excesses were so much that even the harem murmured in protest, to say nothing of the government.

Noel Barber, Lords of the Golden Horn, 1973

Mere mortals could not pass beyond the first court but for those chosen to go into the 'harem' its few rooms would become their world.

The word harem means 'forbidden' . The only men allowed in there were the harem guards, the Sultan himself and the famous eunuchs. The world outside did not exist. But it was also a minefield, one wrong step and a girl may find herself ostracised or sidelined by the famous Valide Sultan (Queen Mother) and then there were the eunuchs to maneuver around. A harem concubine had to have her wits about her but the benefits if she caught the Sultans eye were stratospheric. She became the most powerful woman in the empire.

I'd heard about the tour from friends who had recommended it. So it was with high expectations and a fluttering stomach that I bought my 10 lira ticket. The tour starts in the northwest corner of the Second Courtyard. The tours are in English, French, and Turkish and the tour guides are very professional. You go with twenty people at a time which means it can take a little while to get around due to stragglers. But if you want to get the feel of the Ottoman Empire at its height with its legendary court then this tour is for you.

First of all, you pass through the door to the harem.

This is no ordinary door. Guarded at all times it allowed none of the residents of the harem to leave. Once through they never saw the Second Courtyard again. Muslims in the Ottoman world were not allowed to be slaves so the best harem girls come from the Christian world such as Greece and Armenia. The Circassians were especially favoured due to their fair skin. Each girl was converted to Islam and trained in the ladylike arts such as singing, dancing and playing instruments. They were watched over by the palace eunuchs. Feared and respected in equal measure, they were usually sold as African slave boys and castrated in their youth. They often grew to immense size with food and power taking the place or sex and relationships. The capricious nature of the eunuch was another hazard in the harem.

Inside the entrance passage are mannequins of the eunuchs. They guard a stone passage covered in cool blue iznik tiles which leads into the women's ablution area. An open stone courtyard is set up with a trough and a set of washbasins. The cells where the girls were kept until they caught the Sultans eye were just off this courtyard. Next we passed down a narrow courtyard to the quarters of the Valide Sultan (Queen Mother). She was the real power in the harem with everyone deferring to her. She got the best rooms too with gold filigree, carpets, and green tiling. The Valide Sultan had a big say in choosing the girls for the Sultan so it was best to be in her good books. She was also often involved in the Palace warfare when certain girls bore sons and became sultanas themselves. If a concubines son was in direct competition with one of the Valide Sultans own children then it made the girl and child very precarious.

Further passages took us to the Sultans quarters and his white marble bathroom was in a beautiful state of preservation with its gold taps and white marble flooring. It looked like he used it yesterday The Audience Chamber was impressive - Anatolian carpet covered the floor and there was a little balcony for musicians to play. The royal bedroom was richly decorated with a tiled dome, chandeliers, book niches and a divan in the corner. Finally we came to a set of rooms that was almost skirted through anonymously. It was covered in carpets and intricately tiled. But it was only when we were in the courtyard that we found out that we had just passed through the infamous Kafes (Cage). History knows this was where the Sultans relatives were kept often for decades. The tour guide seemed strangely embarrassed when she recounted this. It's funny how other people latch on to different aspects of the tour. One American lady was genuinely disturbed at the thought of the girls of the harem not even being allowed into the Second Court for the rest of their lives.

After the harem tour I crossed the Third Courtyard to the Royal Jewels. With wealth pouring in from a massive empire the Sultans could afford to indulge themselves. But the sheer ostentation took my breath away...golden water carriers with glittering jewels, swords with diamond encrusted pommels, medals of distinction from both British, Germanic and Tsarist empires, eggs made by Carl Faberge and most famous of all - the Topkapi dagger. A curved wicked blade with an enormous emerald on the hilt.

The Topkapi Palace takes you to another world.

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