Objects shed new light on harem

The Topkapı Palace exhibition “Harem-i Hümayûn” shows that »»

The Topkapı Palace exhibition “Harem-i Hümayûn” shows that the Ottoman harem was not simply an abode of pleasure and entertainment as is often believed.

Among items on display in this exhibition are calligraphy sets, horse-riding stirrups for women and various literary works. In concert, these objects do show that in fact the harem offered a disciplined training.

The Imperial Harem is often the place in the Topkapı Palace that receives the most attention and the object of most curiosity. At the same time, though, there is not a lot of information available about the harem; most of what we know derives from the limited accounts offered by historians from the era or from miniatures drawn in reference to the harem. The newly opened “Harem-i Hümâyûnu” exhibition at Topkapı Palace offers detailed information about the harem, also referred to as the “Pasha’s Home.” And the display of objects in this new exhibition do depict that, contrary to what some may believe, the harem was actually, among other things, a place where women received a real education and training.

The harem section of Topkapı Palace was a structure added later to the general layout of the palace. The original harem was located in the area where İstanbul University now stands (Beyazit). The harem that visitors see at Topkapı Palace was built by Mimar Sinan on the orders of Kanuni Sultan Süleyman and was in use from the 16th century onwards.

Even just looking at the architecture of the harem, it is possible to understand that it was not just a spot for pleasure and entertainment. The lines and layout of the structure indicate a general sense of discipline and protocol at work. In fact, the areas where the harem masters and the “cariye” or concubines lived, including the laundry rooms, the sick rooms, the hamam, the kitchen, the storeroom and so on were all laid out in a general “cell” room design. As for the rooms set aside for the sultan and his family, they possess a much richer sense of décor and are much larger.

İlber Ortaylı, the director of the Topkapı Palace Museum, notes that life in the Ottoman harem was not necessarily easy: “When the morning call to prayers were read out, everyone would get up and enter the hamam. There, ablutions would be done; after a quick breakfast, the work of the harem would begin. There were reading lessons as well as lessons in music, religion, language, embroidery and classical arts such as calligraphy. For both the women and the men, time passed in an extraordinarily disciplined manner. There was really no time left over for entertainment per se.” And truly, this is evident from the display of objects now at Topkapı. The instruments such as the tambur, the miskal, the çalpare, the dümbelek and the kanun (all classical instruments) underscore the musical education, the coral inlaid bookmarks the education in the Koran, the tailor notebooks the training in embroidery and stitching, and the letters and poetry written by the women show the literary education they were receiving.

Concubines married off or given duties

The concubines trained in the harem generally took up duties in parallel with their own particular intelligence and abilities. For example, concubines with strong training and abilities in music might be given duties as head saz players or singers. Girls brought up in the harem might wind up being favorites of the sultan, and those who gave birth to male offspring had the chance to become valide sultans, or mothers of reigning sultans. Some of the young women raised in the harem might also be married off with Ottoman officers trained as in the Enderun, or palace school. In this way, the emergence of an influential upper level group was ensured. Those concubines who were married off outside the palace told the people of palace culture and were much respected by the people outside the palace.

As Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertuğrul Günay has noted, the harem was a place that “was a bit secret from the rest of the world, but open to all the information of the world.” Orhan Hallik of Bilkent Cultural Enterprise/Bilintur Murahhas said that this project has meant that around 300 objects have been added to the already 500 or so items on display at Topkapı. Hallik says that the object that most attracted his attention in the six months he spent preparing the exhibition was a gravestone made for a horse that had died but had been much loved by Ottoman Sultan Osman II. This very special exhibition will remain open until Oct. 15, and is sponsored in part by both the Bilkent Cultural Enterprise (BKG) and TAV Airport Holding.


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