Harem Section of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul

History of the Harem

Constantly regarded as an enigmatic matter for European voyagers, the Ottoman  Harem was a popular subject for writers,  who wrote hundreds of pages and tried to unveil this secretive center of attention. As the matter is still being discussed by many, the Harem Quarter in Topkapi Palace keeps attracting thousands of tourists each year.

In the early ages of the empire the Ottoman Padishahs used to marry girls of Turkish origin. As the empire expanded, the Palace started to pick slaves from various nations as concubines. Unlike the general belief, the population of the Harem women was not merely comprised of the wives of the Sultan. The maids and wives of former Padishahs and their families were also members of the Harem community.

Formation of the Harem
The first Ottoman Harem was in the old palace – which now lies inside the Istanbul University Campus – until 1550. As the palace was burnt down by a severe fire, the idea of moving the Harem to Topkapi Palace was brought on the agenda. After a while, Suleyman the Magnificent was finally convinced by his wife Hurrem Sultan and approved the relocation of the Harem into Topkapi. Soon after the Harem was annexed to Topkapi Palace, women started to participate in state management.

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A room in the Topkapi Palace Harem Quarter

Management of the Harem
The Harem had a strict ranking system.  In order of command; Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan) was followed by the head wife, the first, second, third and fourth wives of the Padishah (Sultan), his concubines, female servants, their supervisors and the slaves. The prerequisite of becoming one of the prestigious wives of the Padishah was to give birth to son, a potential heir-to-the-throne.

Picking concubines for the Harem
According to the Islamic jurisdiction at the time, slaves had no rights at all. The master was entitled to sell, donate or even offer the slave as a present. Suleyman the Magnificent liked Hurrem Sultan, who was originally brought from Northern Black Sea region. After Hurrem gave birth to a son, she was liberated. Furthermore, the Emperor married Hurrem, with whom he fell deeply in love. Hurrem Sultan was the first slave to have officially married a Sultan in the history of the Ottoman Empire. In addition, she was entitled to manage the entire Harem community. The concubines, on the other hand, were mainly comprised of female slaves captured during the wars. The concubines picked for the palace were  observed for 24 hours before they were paid for. In case she had some sort of a defect – such as being a heavy sleeper or snoring during the night – the price would be reduced and paid accordingly.

The number of the concubines in the Harem
The number of the concubines in the Harem varied from one Sultan to another. It is known that there were not so many concubines during the initial foundation and improvement eras of the empire. While the Harem’s population was 456 during Mahmut’s reign I, it rose to 688 during Abdülmecit’s reign and to 809 during Sultan Abdülaziz’s reign.

Sultan Murat V noted down his encounter with the first concubine presented to him in his diary: “I was around 13 or 14. One day, I was busy with some carpentry work, when I heard the voice of a lady in the next room. I stopped working. My heartbeat increased. The rustling sound of her silk dress became more evident. I was swirling into feelings I had never felt before. A young and beautiful Circassian girl came in smiling and approached my desk with an elegant gesture. She sat by me whispering something. It was the first time I was sitting in a room with a lady I did not already know. I was inexpressibly ashamed and astonished. As I was too stunned to move, she took the tool out of my hand with a smile on her face. She said “Sir, please leave this activity for a moment and take advantage of this opportunity for a five or ten minute pause. No one can listen to us at this very moment. Your Agha (the Padishah) is also informed. He is not far; in fact he is watching us right now…”

During his second visit in 1898, the German Emperor William II had an interesting discussion with Abdulhamit II. Through his translator the German Emperor asked Sultan Abdulhamit II how many wives he had. At that time the Sultan had four official wives and four unofficial wives – concubines, who were the mothers of the Sultan’s children. He replied “I have eight wives.” The Emperor,  remaining indifferent to the reddening face of his wife, Empress Augusta-Victoria, who  was one year older than the Emperor and  criticized for being sort of vulgar, asked  “Eight women? How do you manage eight women while I cannot deal with only one empress?” Sultan Abdulhamit, who spoke French fluently, put an end to the conversation  without waiting for the translator by saying “This is quite  an art, Your Majesty”