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The sultan and his harem

The Topkapi Palace dominates the tip of the cape where Istanbul’s old city is located. For almost 400 years, this was the symbolic and political centre of the Ottoman Empire. Once home to the sultan and his harem, the palace is now a beautiful museum. The palace, which encompasses several buildings, charming courtyards and splendid gardens, is now open to the public.

The Topkapi Palace was built between 1460 and 1478 as the main residence of Mehmet the Conqueror of Constantinople. The building is a stone version of the tent camps of the nomadic Ottomans. Once you pass through the entry gate with its white towers you enter the world of the Ottoman sultans. The kitchen displays a huge collection of Chinese porcelain which was brought to Turkey via the Silk Route. For an additional fee you may also see the living quarters of the women who were part of the sultans’ harem.

The Topkapi Palace on the cape of Istanbul
The Topkapi Palace on the cape of Istanbul

İstanbul

The sultan’s women

A visit to the palace’s harem with more than 400 rooms that housed the Sultan’s women, the female slaves and children is very worthwhile. There is an additional fee to visit this part of the palace, so it is usually pretty quiet here. The lovely rooms with high ceilings and elegantly decorated walls with colourful tiles give the impression that the women lived in comfortable quarters. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case for most other residents. Many women in the harem, who had been taken from Georgia or the Caucasus, or who had been captured on European crusades, lived in dangerous and unhygienic conditions.


The women who were invited into the sultan’s bed received special privileges. If they gave birth to his child, they moved even further up the rank and may have been entitled to their own apartment. The sultan’s bedroom with an enormous golden canopy bed is one of the most beautiful rooms in the harem.

The sultan’s bedroom in the harem
The courtyard at the entrance to the harem

A treasure trove of riches

During their 470-year reign, the sultans amassed an enormous collection of riches. The collection of Chinese porcelain in the palace’s kitchen is unparalleled by any other collection in the world outside of China. Celadon, the earliest Chinese porcelain, is jade-coloured. The Ottomans were very fond of it because they believed that it neutralised any poison in their food. The sultans’ gowns are still very well preserved because after the death of a sultan, the garments were carefully stored in sealed bags. Admire the beautiful caftan of Mehmet II, on display in the Hall of the Campaign Pages, which used to house the palace’s wardrobes.

Photo credits

  • The sultan’s bedroom in the harem: Anibal Trejo, Shutterstock