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The Topkapi Palace Harem
Harem Lifestyles and Decline

Although the sultans of yesterday are long gone, the hallways and walls of the Topkapi Palace still whisper their stories. Today one can visit the infamous harem confided to the palace, and perhaps one can still hear the silent steps of an odalisque on an errand or an acemi working outside in the harem gardens. The harem at Topkapi was a city of its own, with its own rules and rythms. And a mysterious history.



The word harem comes from an Arabic word meaning "forbidden". Traditionally a harem is the quarters of the women in a household to protect them from male strangers, meaning those who are not related to them. But the harem at Topkapi had so much more to it than that.


In 1453, the Ottoman Padishah, Mehmed II captured Constantinople, a great achievement as the Ottomans had been after the beautiful and legendary city for years. He found the ancient Byzantine palaces, such as Blacharnae, in ruins and shambles. The city itself was a disgrace, merely populated and in poor condition. He set out to build his own palace, which he constructed on the Third Hill of Constantinople, a luxurious plot of land consisting of olive groves and views of the Tunca River. The building consisted of many gardens and complex buildings, which he named Eski Saray, meaning 'the old palace'. A few years later he decided to hand this palace over to the harem of his father and built a massive wall extending from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, which later housed the Topkapi Palace.


Topkapi Palace was added onto for centuries until it became the masterpiece we know of as today. Housing thousands of rooms of all sorts and the judiciary council, the Divan, the training schools, and the Palace School of the padishah, Topkapi became a city inside a city. Hospitals, bakeries, mints, and treasuries were open to the public. The palace housed the sultan, his government, his servants, his students, his guards, his advisers and friends, and countless others. But the area that no one ever dared to enter or speak of, nor had many ever seen, was the harem. 


The entrance to the harem at Topkapi is located at the Second Courtyard, which consists of four other paths to various parts of the large complex. When one enters the harem they pass under the Gate of Felicity, Turkish for 'Great Happiness'. When girls passed the gate when they entered the harem for the first time, they were told that those who pass through the gate would never return. And this was true; a girl who went into the harem never left it again. 


Harem Hierarchy


The harem consisted of everyone from the padishah's wives, daughters, and servants to his wives' servants, his concubines, and any other female who worked and lived in the palace. Virtually, the harem populations were well into the thousands. The highest position in the harem was the Valide Sultana, the mother of the sultan. Padishah Ahmet III even was quoted as saying "the world lies at the foot of the mother." The Valide Sultana ruled over the harem. Her servants were among the best girls and she had as much power of the women as her son had over the empire. After the Valide Sultana came the Hasseki Sultana, one of the padishah's wives who bore him sons. Bearing heirs gave her a place of notice, but if her son died, she was normally dismissed of the title. Afterwards came the Hasseki Kadins, the wives of the padishah. Virtually the Padishah only had four wives, as dictated by the Koran, but it is interesting that a concubine could become a Hasseki Sultana and become more powerful than a wife. Following the Hasseki Kadins came the ikbals, also called hassodaliks (odalisques). These women were the padishah's favorites, basically his mistresses. If one of these women bore him a son, she became a kadin. A gedik was the stage afterwards. She was one that the padishah noticed, but did not bed. Sometimes these women became his personal servants. After these women came the mistresses of the households. These women were there to educate the newcomers to the harem, the apprentices, called acemis or a cariye. Titles included the Mistress of the Household, Mistress of the Flowers, Mistress of the Robes, Keeper of the Baths, Keeper of the Jewels, Mistress of the Sherbets, Reader of the Koran, Chief Coffee-Maker, Mistress of the Lingerie, and the Mistress of the Maladies. These women educated their novices in their areas of expertise, such as gardening, languages, cooking, and housekeeping. And after the mistresses came the acemis. These were normally young girls, some as young as 5, some in their teenage years. They were from Georgian, Armenian, and Russian villages and they were either captured by slave traders or sold by their families. They traveled to Constantinople by ship, over the Black Sea, and then were housed in slave markets until the Aga, the Chief Eunuch, of the harem purchased them. Some of these girls became mistresses, some odalisques, and some even the Valide Sultana. 


Eunuchs also made up a class in the harem. As young teenage boys and children, they were taken and castrated. Without their testes, these 'neutrals', for they were neither male nor female, were perfect for the harem. They were not sexually active and could not harm the women. And also, the only males who could look upon the harem girls were the padishah, his sons, and his male relatives. But the eunuchs were not men. There were different classes of eunuchs. There were the Black Eunuchs, who guarded the harem, the harem baths, and the harem gardens, and then there were the White Eunuchs, who normally advised the Padishah. 


Out of the thousands of harem women, none were Muslim. It is forbidden to enslave Muslims, and so the harem had to be made up of other minorities and religions.


The Kadins


In the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, the padishah married Byzantine, Anatolian, and Balkan princesses. These marriages were simply diplomatic, and since these girls were his slaves, the Islamic law said he did not have to marry them. So he set out to marry others. Those four special women that he did marry were concubines (even though odalisques were often his favorites, they were not his wives), his kadins. The first and foremost kadin was the bash kadin. Then the ikinci kadin, then the uchuncu, etc. When a kadin died, the kadin below her rose to her spot, but not without the approval of the padishah.


Sexuality in the Harem


Normally people think of a harem as a place of nude women lying around in Turkish baths with one another, whose purpose in life was to please their aging padishah. This was not true, as these women lived normal lives, although they were confided from the world. However, sexuality in the harem is questionable. It is said that acemis, who were housed in groups of ten in large rooms of divans gracing the walls, were kept under watch by a woman at night and candles were left lit to expose lesbian practices, which cooled the girls' wanton and unchaste behavior. 


Sometimes the hierarchy of the harem was broken. Girls who did not graduate from their mistresses and were still virgins sometimes were skilled in sexual practices and were presented to the padishah for his use, and sometimes they rose very high, and yet they had skipped many levels. The women who slept with the padishah received their own rooms and servants, including their own maids and euncuhs. If a girl was born, they moved to a bigger apartment and became a Hasseki Kadin. If it was a boy, they were more favorable but one disadvantage was that those who bore sons could not remarry after the death of the padishah, and those who bore girls could remarry. 


When the padishah chose his girl for the night, he came to her the night before so that she could prepare ever piece of clothing and touch of makeup down to the last eyelash (and shave the pubic area, which was favorable among many padishahs). The girls had no humiliation among entering the room where the padishah was sleeping, for they saw the night as conquering their padishah and rising high in the harem. They did show obedience and dignity, although they did not crawl into the bed as many Western sources gossip of. 


To keep track of the beddings, the haznedar, the treasurer, kept a diary of the night it took place and the name of the woman to establish legitimacy and birth dates. Also, these diaries show extraordinary events. The harem girls formed cliques, and often they would become malevolent and jealous of one another, especially if a girl from another clique bedded with the padishah. Girls attacked other girls and mutilated their faces, destroying their beauty. Some even went as far as chasing girls off of cliffs at the palace, poisoning their sherbets, strangling, and some girls often mysteriously vanished. The harem was a dangerous world, and one had to learn how to follow the rhythms of it. But women were also hurt by the padishah for their disobedience. Once, a woman traded her spot in the bed with the padishah with another girl. That woman was executed. 


Although there were padishahs who bedded hundreds of women, many only bed a few, and some only had one wife. They did not indulge in orgies with many women, but did have some insane sexual rituals.


Last Updated, September, 2003