There are few words in Turkish history that carry more evocative weight than harem. In popular imagination, the word symbolizes the exoticism, intrigue, and sexuality of what used to be known, back in the days before political correctness, as the Orient.
So it was fascinating to visit the Sultan’s harem within the Topkapi Palace, which, along with Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, dominates Istanbul’s Seraglio Point. The modest door shown above marks the entrance to the harem—my first indication that the reality of this place wasn’t quite the same as my image.
For one thing, our guide explained that harem is simply a word that referred to the Sultan’s household. The enclosure would have included his mother, wives, daughters, female relatives, and young sons, as well as eunuchs and slave servant girls.
Can you imagine the dysfunctional dynamics of such a household? Think of the worst family reunion you’ve ever attended and multiply it by 100.Then throw in the fact that many of the eunuchs were both castrated and had their tongues cut out. Now that’s a combination sure to generate some resentment–though as our guide explained, for many it was likely a better alternative than a life of desperate poverty on the streets.
As we wandered through the faded magnificence of the rooms, I found myself thinking, oddly enough, of King Henry VIII. My own denomination, the Episcopal Church, traces its origin to Henry’s desperate quest for a legitimate male heir. When he was refused a divorce by the Pope, he started his own church. But the whole vexing problem of dynastic succession was not a problem for the Sultan, as he had a bevy of wives and offspring. The result was that the same dynasty ruled the Ottoman Empire for six centuries—quite a feat among the world’s royal families.
It was also interesting to learn that the most powerful person in the harem—and sometimes in the entire empire—was the Sultan’s mother. She typically wielded enormous influence over both private and public matters. One of her most important tasks was to keep track of her son’s sexual partners, which she did to ensure that her favorites would rise in rank. So if your fantasy is to have your mother arranging the most intimate details of your private life—well, the harem would have been the perfect place for you.
As we wandered through the interconnected rooms of the harem, it was easy to imagine the countless intrigues and betrayals that no doubt went on within its walls. I was struck by the view from this window, in particular, which overlooks the Bosphorus. Its gilded bars are a powerful symbol, are they not? I would image that many a young woman looked through this window, dreaming of home, dreaming of a different life, dreaming of bearing a son for the Sultan.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.