The word “harem” comes to us from Arabic via Turkish, but its original meaning got lost in translation. Whereas we understand it to mean a store of readily available concubines, it actually meant ‘forbidden’ or ‘private’, and was applied to the part of a house or palace closed to outsiders. The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul has the largest surviving harem in the world.
Unlike the rest of Topkapi – designed to intimidate foreign dignitaries with its grand courtyards and forbidding battlements – the Harem was a golden cage reserved for the sultan and his intimates. It was a place which fed the fantasies of European artists, who imagined voluptuous odalisques reclining languidly in marble pools amid billowing clouds of steam.
And while for the sultan (and the sultan alone) this was a place of sensual respite, it was also the power center of the Ottoman Empire – a hive of intrigue and conspiracy whose undisputed queen bee was the sultan’s mother. Family feuds could be brutal, with succession disputes often settled by murder.
Fortunately, interlopers need no longer pay for the privilege of seeing the Harem with their lives. Only a small number of the 300 or so rooms are accessible to the public, but they boast some of Topkapi’s most stunning decorative work.
For such a resolutely Eastern institution there are numerous Western touches, including Baroque scrolls and the Delft tiles which line the elegant Imperial Hall. Elsewhere you’ll find quiet courtyards, mysterious corridors and hammams (Turkish baths) atmospherically light by skylights known as “elephants’ eyes.”
A practical note: the Harem only accepts a certain amount of visitors per day, so get to Topkapi early and make your way to the Harem entrance once you’ve entered the main complex. There’s a separate fee and you can only visit on a guided tour.