Visiting the Topkapi Palace, literally a stone’s throw from our hotel balcony in Istanbul, started off on a rather hesitant note. At the gates of the Palace, huge throngs of tourists from all over Turkey and around the world waited as tickets were purchased, guides and interpreters contracted, and lost children frantically sought. It was a scene from outside the gates of a Disney theme park during the summer months. And I guessed it would be a zoo inside the Palace… But as luck would have it, and the tourist Gods were definitely looking out for Marketman & Family, we entered the Palace grounds just after lunch and decided to head straight to the entrance to the Harem. Despite everything we heard and read that we should be prepared for a several hour wait for a pre-determined viewing time slot, it seems the Harem now closes for lunch and it is first come, first served basis rather than a ticketing process as all the guidebooks indicated. So we decided to line up and waited for 20 minutes for the empty harem booth to re-open. I was first in line and soon after I stood there, dozens if not hundreds of other tourists decided to line up behind me. This turned out to be a lucky move as we were among the first to enter the harem after the lunch break, and we motored past the entrance courtyard ahead of the crowds, and then we had quite literally an unaccompanied, unharried view of the entire harem… almost as though we were on a private tour!
I know very little about the history of the Ottoman empire, but I have heard my fair share about the concept of a harem. And to almost any person, I suspect it is a word and a place that would elicit at the least, a sense of curiousity, if not awe and wonder. I had recently read a few books set in the Ottoman empire and one of them was a fascinating book about life in the harem (sorry, title slips my mind just now) so it was an absolute thrill to have this sort of unfettered and undisturbed access to the harem. If you want more information on the harem itself, read this link. In the photo up top, Marketman in the entry courtyard, historically guarded by the black eunuchs who carefully controlled ingress and egress from the harem… And in the second photo, one of the public meeting rooms were the Sultan met with some of the residents of the harem.
Actually, the proportions of the harem struck me as being a bit downscale, really… not five-star luxury, more like an opulent Howard Johnson’s… no, that is unfair. It was the just the feeling of narrow corridors, small rooms, tiled everything that smacked of a very tight, dark and un-private like space and existence for the ladies, maids, and hundreds of folks who lived in the harem. The materials used were certainly opulent and beautiful. Carved and gilded mirrors in this third photo (taken by the Kid)…
Stained glass windows in some outer rooms, stunningly pretty tiles covering many walls (reminded me that the place was like some big bathroom), beautiful carpets, etc. all spoke to this being a seriously special place. But 200 years since it was last in use, the soft furnishings are mostly gone and you are left with the opulent bones of the harem – cabinetry, tromp l’oiels, mirrors, chandeliers, etc.
The faucets and marble in one of the bathrooms was very OTT,
while the toilet was well, a basic (you think they had wooden chairs sitting above?) hole in the ground, albeit in thick marble… And HELLO?!?, what, they forgot to TILE the bathroom?! Heeheehee.
The tilework at the harem was absolutely stunning, but again, it made me feel like those homes in the province that choose to plaster their entire outer wall with tiles because it is easy to clean and doesn’t require painting again and again… it’s an observation I have made in the past 5 years from Bohol to Ilocos and the exterior bath design style is quickly taking on a life of its own in rural Philippine towns… hmmm, is it actually a return of the harem style? Yikes.
Of course, in this case, the tiles used in the harem were all hand painted in intricate patterns and in vibrant colors that still stand out today!
And the in-laid mother of pearl cabinets were absolutely STUNNING!
The one room that I found incredibly fascinating was the dining room that had walls covered in paintings of fruits and other foods. This was where the Sultan took a little snack between, ahem, business in the harem. Not full blown heavy meals with several course menus, this was the place the Sultan had his equivalent of Sky Flakes and Magnolia cheddar cheese food witha Diet Coke… :)
Finally, little details like this recessed ceiling piece/interior mini-dome that looked painted but it turns out was done in a really fine carpet that was stuck to the ceiling… Overall, the harem was totally worth the visit. And we would highly recommend it if you had a chance to visit it. A beautiful way to experience some of the place and history, but with Mrs. MM and The Kid in tow, without any risk that they might end up locked behind its wonderfully carved wooden gates. Now imagine if the tables were turned and a Sultananess had a building filled with men instead…