26 Aug2008


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…



  1. Artisan Chocolatier says:

    My mind is running wild with imagination on how life was then in the harem!!!!….. ;-)

    Aug 26, 2008 | 11:50 pm


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  3. Artisan Chocolatier says:

    The first photo’s caption should be…The Sultan Returns!!!..hehehehe

    Aug 26, 2008 | 11:52 pm

  4. witsandnuts says:

    Thanks for the tour! You have captured the important details through your photos. The first photo is so magazine-y. =)

    Aug 27, 2008 | 2:33 am

  5. lucadong says:

    next to food-specific posts, i also enjoy a dash of history nowadays, especially from your posts (i am guilty of taking too many shortcuts in world history while in high school). thanks for sharing.
    as for the sultan’s “in-between” meals, i wonder if there was a recipe that would later morphed into puttanesca sauce…or the likes of soup #5 along the silk road:)

    Aug 27, 2008 | 3:21 am

  6. natie says:

    those are really lovely pics, MM. the Kid is turning out to be quite a photographer–chip off the old block..thanks for the vicarious experience.

    i also saw extensive bath tile-work on a few rural houses’ facade a few months ago..made me go ”what the….”…to each his own, i guess..hehe.

    if it were sultanas??? maybe there would be no black male eunuchs..maybe more pinks and fuschas here and there..walk-in closets.

    Aug 27, 2008 | 8:47 am

  7. natie says:

    ..oh, there would still be black male guards, but they won’t be emasculated:-)

    Aug 27, 2008 | 8:50 am

  8. Apicio says:

    Seduction in the seraglio? Isn’t it funny how we associate tile-work with bathrooms in spite of it being one of the pinnacles of Islamic artistic expression. That suggestion is justified though in the case of the old Toronto subway stations because they did look like cavernous pissoires due to the ceramic surfaces. On the other hand, in Portugal and then Brazil who must have borrowed it from the Arabs (odd that it did not take hold as much in Spain), it is the really opulent buildings that were clad with azuleijos and it takes a lot of effort to cast aside the importunate and unfortunate association before beginning to appreciate their artistry. There is this truly lovely example of an eighteenth century church (reputedly the Emperor’s favorite) on a Rio hilltop that is fully dadoed with magnificently intricate blue and white tiles.

    Oh and about the much parodied de-fanged harem guards who knew how it’s done having seen it done countless times but supposedly weren’t able to do it themselves, as it turns out, spading does not really render them totally harmless as witness the scandalous castrati of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. All it did was to definitely alter the modulation of their voices somehow and guess who was the last to quit this outrageous practice, the Vatican. Too bad it won’t be too effective then for them to bring it all back now to carry out on their own priests who prey on the young. Just sayin.

    Aug 27, 2008 | 8:57 am

  9. ajienaissant says:

    I asked about those houses covered in tiles when we went to our place in Mindoro. My uncle remarked that the houses were owned by the OFWs working in Italy, and they started the trend.

    Sure you don’t have to repaint and its easy to clean but Im not sure if they took into consideration how difficult it would be 2-3 years from now when one of those tiles crack and you have to buy the same pattern.

    Aug 27, 2008 | 9:58 am

  10. Tricia says:

    I love this article MM!!! And the thought what if the Sultaness had a harem of men instead hahaha!

    Aug 27, 2008 | 2:11 pm

  11. millet says:

    amazing! thanks for sharing, MM!

    Aug 27, 2008 | 2:39 pm

  12. zena says:

    Bathroom relation notwithstanding, I find the design of the tiles/mosaic very beautiful. And recessed ceilings just automatically draw my attention. Thanks for the virtual tour!

    Aug 27, 2008 | 4:11 pm

  13. nonymous says:

    Turkey has restored the place since I was there 13 years ago.
    Bus loads of tourist get there everyday and the parking lot looks like bus depot!

    Aug 27, 2008 | 6:41 pm

  14. estella says:


    Aug 28, 2008 | 4:25 am

  15. skyemermaid says:

    i am reading “domestic culture in the middle east” by jennifer scarce right now. a thin book that is supposed to be an exploration of the household interior of the affluent of Turkey, Iran, and Egypt, mostly during the Ottoman empire. Many of the photos you posted above are of the same rooms and objects as in the book, including a close up of the tile on your seventh picture.
    hmmm. i need find a way to see it for real like you and family did, and not just through a book…. :)

    Aug 28, 2008 | 1:05 pm

  16. Joy says:

    Hi Marketman – why do you continue to photograph yourself from the back when your front has already appeared on region-wide TV? I mean, why persist with whole anonymous schtick when you’re no longer anonymous? Just curious – your readers might enjoy seeing your face now and again….

    Aug 29, 2008 | 2:18 pm

  17. Marketman says:

    Hi Joy, we were in Istanbul in May, well before the television interview. Besides, I continue to show my backside because I don’t want my face so noticeable or ingrained in people’s memories ( I exist and am real, but I don’t want to be obvious)… I already run into folks in groceries and restaurants and markets and I would like to keep that recognition factor to a minimum, in the sense that this isn’t about me, but the food I eat… I think only 1,500 views of the television video were counted, and maybe 70% of those from abroad… so only a few hundred in Manila have seen it. :) But it will be showing on cable here in a few weeks…

    Aug 29, 2008 | 9:10 pm


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