Escape is not a idea that has always been associated with the imperial harem—harem means “forbidden” in Arabic. Built in the mid-sixteenth century, the harem at Topkapi Palace was the personal living quarters of the female members of the Ottoman sultan’s rather large family. Its 400-plus rooms presented lavish (and not so lavish) housing for the sultan’s mother, the sultan’s wives, and, most distinctively, the sultan’s abundant concubines (which during the last days of the Ottoman Empire allegedly numbered greater than 800). Concubines were customarily attractive smart young women from prosperous families in neighboring countries brought into the Harem at a tender age where they were groomed to be prospective wives for the sultan.
The multiplex was controlled strictly by corps of eunuchs, selected because they would be incapable to misuse their standing. Contact with the outside world was via one carefully guarded exit, the Carriage Gate. Within, the harem was a hotbed of conspiracy, where concubines vied for the sultan’s goodwill, hoping to press forward their, and more outstandingly their sons’ fortunes. Undeniably, many concubines rose to positions of great power, dominating the royal household, and in some instances saw their sons’ rise to the rank of sultan, whereupon they would ascend to the coveted rank of sultan’s mother, or Valide Sultan. The second most powerful person in the Empire next to the Sultan, the Valide Sultan or the Queen Mother, had a enormous influence in the matters of the Harem and the relationships between the Sultan and his wives and concubines.
Added to and embellished over a four-century period, the Harem has numerous examples of superb craftsmanship. These days, you can tour many of the harem rooms that make up one of the most fascinating sections of the massive Topkapi Palace, the Ottoman Empire’s seat of authority until the mid-nineteenth century. Paradoxically, bearing in mind the powerful history of the place, the harem quarters are today rather tranquil and quiet—the tour group crowds notwithstanding—and make a welcome diversion from the hustle and bustle of downtown Istanbul and the surrounding Sultanahmet district.