Opulent Topkapı Palace in Istanbul is the subject of more colourful stories than most of the world’s royal residences put together. It was home to Selim the Sot, who drowned after drinking too much champagne; İbrahim the Mad, who lost his reason after being imprisoned for 22 years by his brother Murat IV; and the malevolent Roxelana, a former concubine who became the powerful consort of Süleyman the Magnificent.
These three are only a few of the mad, sad and downright bad Ottomans who lived here between 1465 and 1830. Extravagant relics of their centuries of folly, intrigue, excess and war are everywhere you look. You’ll see extensive manicured gardens that were once lit by candles riding on tortoises’ backs, exquisite tile-encrusted pavilions where royal circumcisions were performed, and golden viewing platforms where the sultans looked upon the Golden Horn (Haliç) and perhaps regretted their sequestered lifestyles. Here great victories in battle were celebrated with lavish banquets presided over by the sultan.
Contemporary accounts written by overawed foreign dignitaries marvelled at the palace’s legendary staff of black eunuchs, its famed musicians and its elegant purpose-built pavilions. The palace collections are no less impressive. Started by Mehmet the Conqueror, they were expanded by a succession of sultans who were as interested in philosophy and the arts as they were in conquest and concubines.
Sparkling jewels from every corner of the empire are kept in the Treasury, which is home to the jewel-encrusted dagger that’s the object of desire in the 1964 film Topkapi. Lavish costumes are on display in the Dormitory of the Expeditionary Force, important Islamic relics are housed in the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms and fine examples of Ottoman calligraphy and portraiture are exhibited in the Quarters of Pages in Charge of the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms.
However, if time is of the essence, head straight to the architecturally magnificent Imperial Harem. Walking through, it’s easy to forget that women spent their entire lives here under lock and key. That’s if they lived for long at all – according to legend, İbrahim the Mad had his entire harem of 280 women tied in sacks and thrown into the Bosphorus when he tired of them.
As popular belief would have it, the Harem was a place where the sultan could engage in debauchery at will (and Murat III did, after all, have 112 children!). In reality, these were the imperial family quarters, and every detail of Harem life was governed by tradition, obligation and ceremony. The word ‘harem’ literally means ‘private’.
The women of Topkapı’s Harem had to be foreigners, as Islam forbade enslaving Muslims. Girls were bought as slaves (often having been sold by their parents at a good price) or were received as gifts from nobles and potentates.
On entering the Harem, the girls would be schooled in Islam and Turkish culture and language, as well as the arts of make-up, dress, comportment, music, reading and writing, embroidery and dancing. They then entered a meritocracy, first as ladies-in-waiting to the sultan’s concubines and children, then to the sultan’s mother and finally – if they showed sufficient aptitude and were beautiful enough – to the sultan himself.
Ruling the Harem was the valide sultan. She often owned large landed estates in her own name and controlled them through black eunuch servants. Able to give orders directly to the grand vizier, her influence on the sultan, on the selection of his wives and concubines and on matters of state was often profound.
The sultan was allowed by Islamic law to have four legitimate wives, who received the title of kadın (wife). He could have as many concubines as he could support – some had up to 300, although they were not all in the Harem at the same time. If a sultan’s wife bore him a son she was called haseki sultan; haseki kadın if it was a daughter. The Ottoman dynasty did not observe primogeniture (the right of the first-born son to the throne), so in principle the throne was available to any imperial son. Each lady of the Harem struggled to have her son proclaimed heir to the throne, which would assure her own role as the new valide sultan.
Highlights of any visit to the Harem include the narrow Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs, Sultan Ahmet’s Kiosk, the Courtyard of the Concubines & the Sultan’s Consorts, the Quarters of the Valide Sultan, the ornate Privy Chamber of Murat III and the Double Kiosk/ Apartments of the Crown Prince.
Allow at least half a day to properly view the palace. And make sure that you walk all the way to the fourth court, with its richly decorated buildings surrounding a serenely beautiful reflective pool.