Behind our fascination with the imperial harem lies a curious question: how could such a private place have played such a public role in Ottoman history? From the moment you enter the gates of the harem, a general air of privacy and intimacy engulfs you. It is a sacred place, after all; the word “harem” itself implies grounds forbidden to strangers. But it was from this extremely private domain that various public affairs of a great empire were decided. This surely presents us with a paradox. In today’s democratic world, a private place with such a public function surprises and excites us. We imagine ourselves sharing the privileged position of living privately public lives in the fashion of monarchs. Putting one’s energy into dealing with private matters while ruling continents seems like the best of both worlds.
But all that changed a few months ago. The sight of a madman who broke into Topkapı Palace last year with a hunting rifle transformed my deep irreverence towards the private histories of Ottoman monarchs. The shooter who unsuccessfully tried to commit a massacre was quickly gunned down by a SWAT team. Watching the scenes from my TV set, the royal palace suddenly seemed like a vulnerable place that might be taken away from me. It was not an eternal but a fragile thing, I realized, something that represented a particular moment in history. I also found myself agreeing with the French philosopher Michel Foucault that the sphere of the “private” might actually be the most public place imaginable, and that without paying proper attention to such private places, it would be impossible to understand any form of political power.
So I decided to finally pay my pilgrimage to the harem. For preparation, I watched The Glorious Century, the popular TV series which portrays the intimate life there in extensive detail. I learned that its episodes were shot on location on Tuesdays, and that the Harem was closed to the public on those days as a result. So I made up my mind to visit the place on a Wednesday.
Reading the newspapers on the morning of my visit, I was surprised to find a juicy article penned by a quartet of male journalists. After confessing that they had never visited the harem, these journalists went on to set up their own imaginary harems (one writer included Patricia Highsmith and Virginia Woolf as concubines). This article made use of the harem as a public place where private fantasies could be contemplated. And now it suddenly seemed as if the harem was the talk of the town and that there was no escaping from it.
For some commentators, the interest shown in serials like The Glorious Century and the growing ticket sales for the harem are signs of an increasingly conservative culture. But watching the episodes and visiting the harem reminded me of quite a different fact— it is a place that challenges our beliefs. Take women, for example. Ottoman women were, in fact, quite powerful in the private sphere to which they were confined; they might not have had political “rights” in the European sense, but in terms of influence, they could not have been stronger. So rather than their confinement, the palace might actually be a symbol of the empowerment of women.
Once inside the place, I quickly walked through the apartments of the Queen Mother, where my attention was grabbed by the beauty of the tiles on the walls. These walls spoke of mixed realities. On the one hand, they preserved the privacy of the sultan’s mother and relatives, and delighted the beholders with their beauty. But for concubines and slaves, they were walls of confinement, and perhaps there was little beauty to be found on the tiles. Walking through the cold rooms, I came to the realization that in this place, everything was double-edged, and that the harem was equally a place of absolute power and absolute submission.
Then I made my way through the dormitories of harem eunuchs, to the main entrance. The close proximity of the lodgings of servants and their rulers was surprising. In such a supposedly “hierarchical” society, I wondered, how did they distinguish themselves?
The answer to my question is probably an architectural one. The imperial harem’s layout and some of its design attest to the genius of Mimar Sinan, the most eminent architect in Ottoman history. The buildings were divided between teams of servants, each fulfilling a different function in the palace. These distinct places were connected through various courtyards and hallways, which also served to keep those spheres distinct from each other. With this model, the sultan’s mother and eunuchs could inhabit the same place without any difficulties—they could live together, each preserving their own sphere of influence.
This model of division used a similarly architecturally ingenious method of security. Through a pair of very large mirrors placed in the main entrance of the harem, trespassers could be carefully monitored. The entrance that houses these mirrors is situated in a crucial intersection. From there, you can make your way either through the sultan’s quarters, the court of concubines, or the court of the sultan’s mother. The sinister but effective placement of these mirrors surely made life very difficult for those who secretly tried to change their spheres. The fact that the guards there would stand in the dark made it impossible to know whether there was anyone on guard. But did it really matter? Once one’s image appeared on the mirror, it was available for others to see and this was enough protection for the monarchs.
Jeremy Bentham, the inventor of the panopticon system in England’s prisons, would be jealous of such a simple solution. In his model, cells of convicts were seen by an invisible center and all prisoners were therefore required to behave themselves or face punishment. In similar fashion, keeping up appearances seems to have been a challenge both for concubines and the sultan’s relatives in the harem. All this adds to our understanding of the palace as a crucially “theatrical” setting, where power was exercised essentially as a visual, almost dramatic affair.
However interesting the courtyard of the eunuchs, the apartments of the odalisques, or the baths (currently closed to the public) might be, my candidate for the most impressive part of the harem is the imperial hall, where the sultan’s throne and the upper galleries present us with the same paradox between public and private spheres. The public and absolute power represented by the sultan’s throne appears in stark contrast to the private aura of the upper galleries that were reserved for ladies and the sultan’s mother.
Before leaving the place with an extended walk along the golden road, I realized that the paradox I found between the intimacy of the place and its political power had not been resolved in my mind. In fact, it was much heightened, and now seemed to transform into an undecipherable mystery. One can only speculate about the inner workings of such a complex political structure, just like we enjoy doing during our common fantasies or through that popular television series. It is indeed a hard nut to crack, but its pleasure lies in trying to crack it open. As we try to fathom the mystery, a public question gradually becomes our very own private affair.
This essay was published in the March 2012 issue of The Guide Istanbul magazine.