1. The Harem in Turkish Life
In Ottoman palaces, houses and residences, there was a private section called “Harem”. The Arabic word “haram”, pronounced in Turkish can mean “wife” among other things, and is a symbol of “sacredness” and of privacy. At the beginning of the 15th century, a number of foreign visitors to Istanbul described the many facets of the city, providing accounts of the Turks, and especially of the palaces and the harem that the Ottoman rulers called home. Every family’s harem, where its women lived and where men from outside were not permitted to go, was the very honor of that family, its sacred niche. What we know concerning life in the harem is known only indirectly. Consequently, there is no clear information in the sources about the form of life in these places, which were very private. Foreign diplomats and merchants described palace life during the 17th and 18th centuries.
2. Topkapı Palace Harem
In the Topkapı Palace, there were the Sultan’s Harem (Harem-i Hümayun) and the Harem Apartments(Harem Dairesi), which belonged to the Sultan himself. They were designed and used according two different basic concepts.
The official life of the sultan, his administrative relations, and his reception of ambassadors were realized within the Sultan’s Harem. The Privy Residence of the Sultan (Has Oda) where the Sultan slept and the Weapons Storage Depot (Silahdar Hazinesi) were also here. Under the orders of the Sultan, the Palace School (Enderun) and the Internal Treasury were also connected to these places. The purpose of these institutions was to maintain the Ottoman political system. The educational system of the Enderun was maintained to found the substructure of a high-leveled multicultural social organism, educating selected children according to Ottoman culture and to establish a strong Islamic aspect against non-muslimans in the expanding territories during growing Ottoman Empire, and to establish a strong Islamic influence among non-muslimans who lived in the expanding Ottoman territories.
These were the Harem sections where the Sultan lived together with his family, other than his official life. The Harem Apartments were built with almost no connection to the official palace and the city, but over time, the passages for various purposes were kept under tight control. During Ottoman times, no one could enter in this section except the Sultans, queen mothers (Valide Sultans), Sultans’ wives, concubines (gözdeler), princes, princesses, and servants and eunuchs.
To enter the Harem, there are several gates. Primary among these are the Carriage Gate and the Aviary Gate, which are the main gates to the Harem. The gate linking the Golden Road to the Privy Room was another important gate in the Harem, while the Funeral Gate and the Curtain Gate were only used on special occasions. The Harem entrance was renovated after the fire in 1665. The curtain Gate had a special importance in terms of a sultan’s accession to the throne.
The Harem Apartments underwent various small-scale location and design changes in accordance with the private lives of the different sultans and their families throughout the centuries. In the beginning, the Eski Palace, which was the first Ottoman palace, was used as the harem. In the Topkapı Palace, there was the women’s apartment, known as the “Kadınlar Sarayı” (Saray-ı Duhteran). As of today, this place is known as First Woman’s Apartment (Başhaseki Dairesi).
The first additions were made in the reign of Sultan Süleyman I (r.1520-1566) on the original structures and locations, which were built during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II (r.1444-1446, 1451-1481). During the reign of Sultan Süleyman, his wife Hürrem Sultan (1500-1506 c.-1558) moved to the Topkapı Palace from the Eski Palace with her children, and began living at the Harem in the Topkapı Palace. Along with family, their servants also moved with them. The Apartments of Kara ağalar and the concubines were constructed side by side. By the end of the 16th century, the Harem institution was established within the Palace. The Harem was also called the Winter Palace (Kışlık), because the Sultan’s family would stay at their spring and summer palaces in different districts of Istanbul during the spring and summer months. In the initial years of the Topkapı palace, the sons of the Sultan lived in the Princes’ Apartments (Sehzadeler Dairesi) together with their mothers until puberty. Subsequently, they were sent to rural cities. However, their order changed in the second half of the 16th century, and the young princes were forced to live in the “Cage” chambers within the Harem Apartments.
The Harem buildings in the Divan Meydanı were under the supervision of the Agha of the Virgins (Kızlarağası), and were administered by staffs that were under the command of Black Eunuchs. A complex built around a courtyard had to be created, having in mind to protect and guard the inmates of the Harem. For centuries, every place within the Harem was sized according to the importance and priority of the people living in it, and it was thought to bring together one or many functions within it. Consequently, it was also necessary for there to be illumination, ventilation, heating, cleaning and easy use in the summer and winter months of every independent place or chamber. The court apartments in the Harem, which were formulated by chief architects such as Sinan and Davud Ağa, reflect the dynamism of Ottoman Classic Art.
3. Concubines and their apartments:
In accordance with historical tradition, the majority of the concubines in the harem were acquired as captives or slaves. The sisters and mothers of the sultans would sometimes present them with concubines whom they had educated and raised, as would state officials of varying degrees. Women taken as captives in war or purchased as slaves, mainly from the Balkan countries or from Circassia, Georgia, and Russia, would be separated according to their beauty, talent, and intelligence when they were taken into the palace. Those newly taken into the palace would first be trained in palace customs, and would receive lessons in such essential subjects as religion, Qur’an reading, calligraphy, sewing, and embroidery in addition to reading and writing. They were also trained in palace etiquette and various other subjects such as literature and music, designed to enable them to converse on numerous difficult topics. Those with special talent would be taught to play musical instruments such as the oud or the kanun, or receive lessons in dance, speech, and manners. After reaching puberty, some would be groomed to be concubines or royal concubines, chosen for the sultan and trained under the supervision of the chamberlain or supervisory concubine. All of the concubines received a salary in accordance with their position. The quotidian expenses of keeping concubines were very high. Their clothing was paid for directly out of the treasury, and in addition they were occasionally given gifts for various reasons. The number of concubines in the Harem changed constantly. There were 456 concubines in the Harem in the reign of Sultan Mahmud I (r.1730-1754); 688 in that of Sultan Abdülmecid (r.1839-1861); and 809 in the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz (r.1861-1876).
Just like skilled workmen and master craftsmen, the concubines could obtain their independence and leave the palace after having served for a period of nine years. Those who wished to marry and leave the palace would make a formal declaration to this effect. When these concubines were leaving the palace, they would be given gifts of jewels and other valuable items.
Among the most important palace women in Ottoman history was Hürrem Sultan, also known as Roxelana. She is thought to have been captured during the course of the Ottoman campaigns in the Ukraine and Galicia. Hürrem Sultan was one of those women of the Harem who bound the sultan to themselves through love, and was thereby able to exercise great power and influence over him. She had five sons with Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent: Mehmed, Selim, Bayezid, Abdullah, and Cihangir; and one daughter Mihrimah. The letters written by Hürrem Sultan to Sultan Süleyman, which have been kept in archival records, are very famous. Several love poems written by Sultan Süleyman to Hürrem Sultan have also survived to the present. Hürrem Sultan funded the construction of the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Complex including a mosque, a school, and a madrasa. To meet the expenses of these places, Hürrem Sultan endowed a number of rentable properties across the country such as inns, bazaars, and shops. After her death, she was buried in the mausoleum, decorated with beautiful Iznik tiles, beside the mausoleum of Sultan Süleyman at the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul.
There is a hospital in the Harem. With the aim of keeping contagious disease away, the hospital, which was made up of two storey buildings arranged around a paved courtyard, was kept at a rather great distance from the rest of the Harem. Any concubines who died would be washed and prepared for the funeral in the gasilhane, situated at one end of the courtyard, with their bodies then being left there behind a lattice work screen for subsequent removal. Apart from the Topkapı Palace, none of the other palaces had a special section devoted to such purposes.
4. Hamam of the Harem:
There were many traditional Turkish baths (hamam) with different attributes within the Harem. The Kara Ağalar Hamam and the Sultan’s Hamam, which are known to have been built by Architect Sinan, were able to preserve their internal characteristics. The Valide Sultan Hamam and the Cariyeler Hamam, which is situated beside the courtyard, are large baths built in the 18th century. Though there are no sources describing the hamam entertainments of the sultans, judging from stories told about sultan Ibrahim, who would throw gold and pearls into the palace pool to get his concubines to jump in after them, it can be assumed that musicians and dancers participated in such entertainments.
5. The end of Harem life
After the assassination of Sultan Selim III (r.1789-1807), Sultan Mahmud II (r.1808-1839) left the Topkapı Palace and began to live in the Beşiktaş Palace. Subsequent rulers followed him and stayed in palaces such as Dolmabahçe Palace, Çırağan Palace, and Beylerbeyi Palace. In those venues, palace life and traditions continued, but certain fundamental changes began to make themselves felt. Today, the Topkapı Palace serves as a museum. Though the Harem had lost its former significance, it has retained its symbolic importance.
Deniz Esemenli, Osmanlı Sarayı ve Dolmabahçe. (Istanbul: Homer kitabevi ve Yayıncıklık Ltd. Şti., 2002).
Nurhan Atasoy, Harem (Istanbul: BKG, 2011).
Önder Küçükerman, One Empire Tow Palaces “Topkapı” and “Dolmabahçe” in the Industry and Design Competition (Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Publications, 2007).
Topkapı Palace (Istanbul: Akbank, 2000).