Located in Istanbul, Turkey, Topkapı Palace served as one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years (1465–1856) of their 624-year reign. At its peak, this imperial playground was home to as many as 4,000 people, containing mosques, a hospital, bakeries, a mint and a sumptuous harem. We spent several hours exploring the palace during B.’s birthday trip to Istanbul in February 2012. The design and scope of the harem was, in our opinion, particularly striking, as hopefully demonstrated by the photographs below!
Construction began on the palace in 1459, ordered by Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople. The complex was expanded over the centuries, with major renovations after a 1509 earthquake and a devastating fire in 1665. After the 17th century, Topkapı Palace gradually lost its importance as the sultans preferred to spend more time in their new palaces along the Bosphorus. In 1856, Sultan Abdül Mecid I moved the imperial court to the newly built Dolmabahçe Palace, the first European-style palace in the city. Some functions, such as the imperial treasury, library, and mint, were retained in Topkapı Palace. Following the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the palace was transformed by government decree into a museum of the imperial era.
The literal meaning of the word harem in Arabic is “a holy place that everyone is not allowed to enter”. In Ottoman tradition, the term “sultan’s harem” was used to refer both to his family and to the space where his family lived. Indeed, the Imperial Harem at Topkapı Palace was the living space of the Sultan, the Queen Mother, the Sultan’s favorite wives, concubines, children, family members and servants. It was also the living space for the Harem’s protectors: eunuch slaves of predominantly North African origin. Movement beyond the gates of the Harem was strictly forbidden to all its occupants, except for the Sultan, Queen Mother, the Sultan’s favorite wives and consorts, crown princes, concubines and eunuchs.
Expansion and reconstruction from the 16th to early 19th century produced a present-day Harem consisting of approximately 300 rooms, 9 baths, 2 mosques, 1 hospital, 1 laundry, and numerous wards of various forms and functions. Only a few of these rooms are open to the public today.
The double chamber at the entrance of the Harem is known as the Hall of the Ablution Fountain. Conceived as an entrance to the Harem under the control of its eunuch slaves, the hall once housed a marble fountain beneath its dome. The fountain was moved to a pool basin in the Privy Chamber of Sultan Murat III following a devastating Harem fire in 1665; the present-day chamber – decorated from floor to ceiling in hand-painted Kütahya tiles – represents a late 17th century remodel.
The main entrance separates the harem in which the Sultan’s family and concubines resided from the Courtyard of the Eunuchs. This gate, an open platform with domes and arches, leads to a sentry post where the three main sections of the Harem are connected. The lateral wall of the platform is covered with panels using the famous cypress-dotted tiles typical of the Topkapı Harem. The access to this space is provided through a crowned archway (dating to 1667) bearing inscribed Qur’anic verses.
Confidantes and intimates of the Sultan were referred to as musahib (companion). These gentlemen-in-waiting were usually chosen by the Sultan “from among knowledgeable and courteous people, skilled in making sharp witty remarks and conversation”. The quarters built to accommodate the musahib consisted of multi-level cut stone structures. While the portion of the pavilion facing the courtyard retains its classical tile-work, the interior walls survived only until the 19th century.
The Courtyard of the Concubines and Chief Consorts was built in the mid-16th century and renovated after the fire of 1665. It is the smallest of the Harem’s courtyards. The courtyard is surrounded, behind porticoes, by service units such as the laundry fountain, the kitchen, and the concubines’ baths and dormitories.
Women whose sons ascended the throne as a monarch acquired the title of Queen Mother, or Sultana. The Apartments of the Queen Mother, initially commissioned in the 1580s by Sultan Murat III (1574-1595), constitute the center of the Harem (indicative of the Sultana’s role as chief authority on the premises). The Apartment received its present appearance following a series of repairs and additions made at different periods following the Harem fire of 1665.
The Privy Chamber of Sultan Murat III dates to the first construction period (1578 and 1590) of the Harem, and is the oldest and finest surviving room in the complex, retaining its original interior. The structure was utilized for several centuries as the private quarters and reception hall of the Ottoman monarchs. It is one of the most spectacular examples of classical Ottoman architecture of the late 16th century.
The Privy Chamber of Sultan Ahmet I was built in 1608 in front of the Privy Chamber of Murat III. It is a domed dwelling in cut-stone erected on arched buttresses. The entrance features a high-arched ceiling coated with plain green tiles. Window shutters and cabinet doors are inlaid with nacre, tortoiseshell and ivory.
The Apartments of the Crown Prince consist of two privy chambers built in the 17th century, but at different times. One of the units is domed; the other has a wooden ceiling. The unit located at the entrance is thought to have been built by Sultan Murat IV, while the one situated inside is believed to have been built by Sultan Mehmet IV. The apartments – also known as the Twin Kiosks – were used as the privy chamber of the Crown Princes from the 18th century onward.
The Courtyard of the Favorites forms the last section of the Harem and overlooks both a large pool and the palace’s Boxwood Garden. Surrounding the courtyard is a mid-18th century neo-classical wooden mansion serving as the Apartments of the Favorites. The favorites were conceived as the instruments of the perpetuation of the dynasty in the harem organization. When the favorites became pregnant, they assumed the title and powers of the official consort of the Sultan.
Many chambers in the Imperial Harem are sumptuously decorated with hand-painted 17th century Iznik and Kütahya tiles. We didn’t manage to capture as many as we should have, but the following photographs display some of the most beautiful designs.
For visitor and additional historical information, please visit the Topkapi Palace website.
Thank you for joining us on this journey in Istanbul! – T. & B. June
Next week’s journey: Staircase Rapids Trail – Washington, USA