From its inception in around 1540 until its dissolution in the early 20th century, the Topkapı harem was home, prison and entire world to almost four centuries of palace women. The word means ‘forbidden’, a ruling that applied to all men except the sultan, the princes and the eunuch guards. Women had no problem getting in, but once admitted they were in for life. Most entered as slave girls presented to the sultan as gifts: it was forbidden to make slaves of Muslims so they were all Christians or Jews. Circassian girls who came from what is now Georgia and Armenia were favoured because of their fair skin, although even the fairest was still only valued at a fifth of the price of a good horse. The girls were converted to Islam and ‘palace-trained’, which means they were taught to sing, dance, play instruments and to give pleasure of a more tactile kind.
But notions of the harem as a sensual hothouse are misplaced. It was a highly competitive and cut-throat environment in which each girl sought to catch the eye of the sultan or a prince and so secure a better station. At any one time a dozen or so girls would be chosen as imperial handmaids and bedmates. Giving birth to the sultan’s child ensured exalted status. If it was a boy there was even the chance he might one day become sultan and his mother valide sultana, ‘mother of the sultan’ and, as such, the most powerful woman in the land. With such high stakes, along with the sex came violence a the women manoeuvred, plotted, poisoned and knifed their way up the harem hierarchy. A mother with the sultan’s child was particularly vulnerable – Murat III (1574-95), for example, fathered 103 children, only one of which was ever going to make the throne.
All the while, harem girls also had to court the favour of the present valide sultana, responsible for selecting girls for the sultan, while avoiding the displeasure of the kizlar agasi, the chief black eunuch. These latter characters were the go-betweens for the sultan and his mother and so privy to all palace secrets. At the same time, physically and psychologically mutilated as they were, the chief black eunuchs tended to be a dangerous combination of corrupt, scheming and vindictive. Some of them got their kicks stuffing girls in sacks, loading them into a boat and dumping them overboard into the Bosphorus, usually on the instructions of the valide sultana (although Sultans Ibrahim and Murat II are both alleged to have ordered their entire harems drowned, one out of boredom, the other through paranoia).
Alev Lytle Croutier sums it all up very nicely in her fine book Harem: The World Behind the Veil, describing it as a world of ‘frightened women plotting with men who were not men against absolute rulers who kept their relatives immured for decades’. Far from being a palace of sensual delights, the Topkapı harem must have been more of a nerve-shredding chamber of horrors.