Harem at Topkapi Palace

We all have our twisted views about what the harems are like, and especially what the women who live there look like. These pictures have been brought to us by 18th and 19th century artists, half of them daydreaming and the Hollywood movie industry. Whereas I enjoy a good story like the rest of us, now is the time to warn you. Those pictures you have in your head are probably all wrong.

Close your eyes and picture the following: Istanbul in March, +9 °C, raining, northerly breeze, or more like a wind (probably from the Siberian winter anyway). You live in a house with a fireplace in each room, but the rooms are huge and high, the walls are brick or marble and not very thick at that, so your fire is probably at least 20 feet away from your couch. You have simple windows, no double or triple glazing here. Now ask yourself, how many pairs of wooly jumpers, pants and socks are you wearing? No lovely see-through silk robes in my mind anymore.

The second part of your imagination probably revolves around the activities of the harem. You’d probably be wrong in that as well. The word harem originates from the arabic word haram, meaning forbidden place, sacrosanct. In the context of the Ottoman empire, it most likely relates to the private quarters of the sultan. This is where the family lived and gathered for private parties and other gatherings. Obviously in a polygamous environment there were plenty of concubines, but I am quite certain that the sultans mother kept a tight reign on the household. So just imagine your extended family with brothers and sisters, all the kids and your mother. What a laugh each and every day. Luckily in this case, we have all kinds of servants running around.

Walking around the harem with these pictures in mind, gives you quite a different view of the glorious harem life in the Ottoman Empire.

Rather lonely for the sultan all the way over there
The Queen mother has a nice room
Imperial hall



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