The harem at Topkapi (often referred to as the Seraglio) was really a large labyrinth of 400 rooms, corridors, and quarters, all strewn into a confusing maze and locked by the other courts of the palace. It was divided into three parts: the actual harem, where the hundreds of concubines, acemis, odalisques, and other women roamed, the black eunuchs' barracks, where the guards of the harem lived daily, and the padishah's private rooms, where he visited his women and entertained them often. The harem was a variety of different rooms. Sleeping quarters, large bathhouses (hamam), pools, spacious gardens, fountains, endless corridors, and apartments for the important women, and countless spaces for the acemis to be learned, all furnished in extraordinary and intricate art forms (tiling, paintings, calligraphy, and countless masterpieces). The rooms in the harem were furnished twice a year. Once in the winter, when the sofas and beds were covered in dark velvets and blankets were spread, and in the summer, when the velvets were replaced with linens and rich colored curtains were hung to lighten the enclosed lives of the women.
The black eunuchs' barracks were located in the harem, stretching from the Carriage Gate in the Second Court to the Cumle Kapisi (Main Gate), located at the end of the main corridor of the harem. The eunuchs' rooms were ostentatiously decorated and glittered with golds, rivaling the classic beauty of the harem. A prince, sehzade, when old enough, also had an apartment in the harem and had a eunuch to watch over them. Because of their castration, they posed no threat to the princes either. The Aga, the Chief Eunuch, also was housed here.
Lifestyle in the Harem
The women of the harem passed their days simply, and in a routine. As acemis, they rose early to begin work with their mistresses, and normally worked all day, being fed at midday, before entertaining themselves with their cliques and friends at night, after a sumptuous dinner. After graduating their school, the girls were free. They rose in the morning and spent their days in pleasure. Whether soaking and swimming in the baths while conversing with their friends, walking in the gardens and having picnics, or entertaining themselves with music and other idless luxuries, the women lived an easy life. They had few responsibilities, most of them feel to acemis or personal servants.
The more important women had a somewhat different life. The mistresses had to work to keep the harem in order. The Mistress of the Robes worked to clothe the girls, the Mistress of the Sherbets and the Chief Coffee-Maker worked to feed the women little snacks, and the Mistress of the Household worked very hard to manage all the needs of the women, such as money for clothes, food, housing, and gardening. The Valide Sultana was a very busy woman. Although she was confided and kept hidden from the empire, she advised her son in all affairs and had a firm grasp on his control. She was rarely seen by the ordinary harem girls, as she had her own apartments with the kadins and children, but she had just a smuch power of the harem as she did over her son. She played a very ambitious role, and in a way, was the true ruler of the house and the empire.
The women were treated to special occasions often. Exclusively, there were garden parties on the harem gardens and parks for the kadins, the sultanas, and the children. They were entertained and they feasted, but the ordindary harem girls were forbidden from these small celebrations, under threats of death. Normal harem girls rarely saw celebrations, but there were some occasions, such as when the padishah would review his harem girls, every single one, in the Hunkar Sofasi, Hall of the Sultan. Ever girl would be presented individually (and often the padishah would choose a favorite from among them), and then the harem would feast and be entertained on the private balconies of the padishah's rooms, overlooking the harbors of Istanbul and the life these women would never be a part of.
The harem clothing reflected normal Turkish women wear, accept it was more refined. The women wore long kaftans, robes, normally decorated with beautiful designs. In the winter, those who could afford it wore fur kaftans. Sometimes the acemis or women strolling outside would ear very loose robes called a ferace. The women wore upon their feet slippers or shoes, basmak. They wore their hair pleated, sometimes extravegantly, and the more important women wore their hair in a headress called a hotoz. All the women wore yemeni, head coverings with little ornaments. The women were drenched in diamonds and jewels, if they could afford it with their monthly allowances. The wore large strands of pearls, emerald earrings, rings, rubies, diamonds, pearls in their hair, and countless jewels strewn into their clothes and shoes. The sultanas and kadins were covered from head to toe in jewels, even the heels of their shoes were furbished with expensive gems.
Tragedy frequently struck the harem. The women were often too young to die, but there were some cases, like the tasters. These girls, who had been educated in the harem schools under a mistress to be a taster for a kadin or a sultana, tasted every drink, snack, meal, or anything else the woman they served would eat to make sure there was no poison. They took pride in their self-sacrifice and had much dignity. Sometimes a taster would die from poison, foaming and writhing on the floors. They were taken to the Mistress of the Maladies, but nobody would ever hear of her fate. If the girl did survive most of the time her liver or another organ would be destroyed and she would be of no service so she was sent home. However, there were many deaths, which was very ominous and left many feeling unsafe in their golden cage. There was one devastating tragedy under Padishah Ibrahim I (1615-1648). When her heard rumors from his lover, Sechir Para (Sugar Cube), that one of his concubines was sporting with a man outside of the palace, he raged for days and had his chief eunuch torture a few of the harem girls to discover the identity of the mysterious girl. None of them spoke and so Ibrahim tied up every single one of his 280 harem women to weighted sacks and had them thrown into the Bosporus River in Istanbul. Only one girl survived (other than the sultana, kadins, and Sechir Para, who were spared) because her sack was not sufficiently tied and she was saved by a French ship. The Valide Sultana became jealous of Sechir Para's power after the drownings and had Sechir Para strangled. Ibrahim was told that she had died of a mysterious illness.
The harem moved with the entire court and household twice a year, they would live at Topkapi normally during the fall and winter. Sometimes the harem would stay in Topkapi the year round, like when the padishah, Ahmed III, was constructing his palace Sadabad on the Sweet Waters of Asia, the inlet of the Istanbul harbor where two streams met with the Golden Horn.
When a padishah died, his entire harem was moved into the infamous Palace of Tears. Originally built as one of the Padishah's Istanbul houses, the palace was given to the women of the harem that was discarded to make way for the new padishah's harem. This was a sad and lonesome place. No man ever entered the building, nor were there many visitors. The women were forbidden to leave and spent the rest of their lives in the dark and morbid atmosphere. Even the Valide Sultana, once a very powerful woman, was now discarded to make way for the new woman to take her position. The women spent the rest of their days here, a sad end to an imprisoned life.
The end of the harem at Topkapi came in the 19th century when the padishahs decided to move into the Yildiz Palace. About 100 years later, the Ottoman Empire fell after World War I and the Republic of Turkey was established. The President, Kemal Ataturk, brought sweeping changes, including forbidding men to marry more than once and forbidding women to be kept imprisoned in their homes and being protected by veils. The days of the harems had died. All the women, including those in the Palace of Tears, were let free, back to the lives they had before they entered the harem. They found this hard, as their lifestyle was that of the harem. Most returned to their villages hoping to find their families. Others began new lives. Today the harem in Topkapi is empty, besides tourists who flock every year to the palace, the #1 destination in Istanbul. The harem is at the top of everyone's list and if you come at the right time, when the tourists have died down, and listen closely, the walls will tell their stories of a long ago world.