The Harem. Ugly Beauty.
We were standing at the heart of four hundred years of Ottoman intrigue. If I half closed my eyes I saw black eunuchs and concubines, diaphanous fabrics, ewers, jewels, court musicians and the sultan’s dwarves. When I opened them I saw selfie-clicking tourists and tunnels of thick polythene sheeting hiding no-go areas. Not so much the soothing sound of water fountains, as the steady bang of a hammer and the rumble of falling dust and stone. The danger of imagination is that it can let you down – badly.
But still I felt it. The lure of this strange, fantastical fairyland – a beautiful prison, where the enslaved could become all-powerful, and some of those born to a life of privilege lived under the tradition of kafes hayati (cage life).
The Harem was a topsy-turvy world within a world, where cruelty and beauty, love and loathing, power and weakness went hand in hand. The gulf still exists, tall tale and fact jostling for position in our hearts and heads.
Were there really several orders of eunuch who suffered different levels of castration, and some of whom had their tongues cut out? Were rebellious concubines really locked into an iron-barred cage or even tied into sacks and thrown into the Bosphorus? Did the sultan flick his handkerchief at the girl of his choice each night? Did some Sultans have dark obsessions? Sultan Ibrahim I, who died in 1648, seems to have liked obese women, and had an urge to find ever more corpulent girls. He may have ordered the drowning of his entire harem of 280 because he felt so inclined.
May have. What is indisputable is the lay-out of the place. A sense of an an ever-decreasing world, passageways, tunnels and arches – a physical and mental narrowing down of space, freedom and life. From the main gate, it’s a good 10-minute walk through the first to the second courtyard and the harem. The entrance is guarded by the dormitories of the eunuchs. I found a long stone corridor with a marble counter unbearably sad – the concubines meals were left here, and their dirty dishes collected later on; a tiny detail, symbolic of their largely empty lives.
Islam forbade enslaving Muslims, so the concubines were foreigners or infidels. Beautiful girls – many from Eastern Europe – were bought as slaves or received as gifts. Roxelana, who became the consort of Süleyman the Magnificent, was the daughter of a Ukrainian Orthodox priest; captured by Crimean Tatars, she was bought to Constantinople to be sold in the slave market at the age of 15.
Women were divided into kadines (consorts – there were only 4 of them) iqbals (favourites) and guezdes (those noticed for a moment). Guezdes. A romantic way of saying: used and discarded. Many were never noticed at all – constricted to a loveless, childless life, a life in which they were redefined – schooled in Islam, Turkish culture and language, comportment, reading, writing, music, and dancing. Competition amongst these women must have been immense. There could only be one Valide Sultan (the mother of the reigning sultan), who ruled not only the harem, but had huge influence over the sultan and matters of state. Her apartments, with cupboard doors inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother of pearl, are just a few steps away from the sultan’s own.
In the harem, passageways twist and turn in on themselves, it’s hard to know where you are, the world outside recedes. It’s beautiful. Exotic. Erotic – maybe. But stifling. It wasn’t only the girls who were locked away. One of the sultan’s bathrooms had it’s own gilded gates – to save him from assassination attempts while he washed.
Ottoman princes – brothers of the ruling sultan – were also kept under lock and key. The Ottoman dynasty did not observe succession of the first-born and the death of a sultan usually resulted in a fratricidal bloodbath as his sons (often from different mothers) battled for the throne. In 1595 Mehmed III’s 19 brothers were murdered at the instigation of his mother, while 7 of his father’s pregnant concubines were put into sacks and drowned at sea. But Sultan Ahmet I could not bring himself to murder his brother and imprisoned him in the palace harem, beginning the tradition of kafes hayati (cage life). It was house arrest – a pampered, ignorant existence, in which princes had nothing to do but enjoy the finest life had to offer.
The harem. Pretty, or just pretty grim?