The The Harem: Inside the Grand Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans Harem

The The Harem: Inside the Grand Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans Harem

by N. M. Penzer

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For nearly four centuries, the Ottoman sultans dwelt amid the secret splendors of Topkapi Palace. Access to the Grand Seraglio--which served as the empire's administrative, legislative, and judicial center and an academy of fine arts, as well as the ruler's home--was jealously guarded, even after the sultans ceased to reside there in the mid-nineteenth century. In


For nearly four centuries, the Ottoman sultans dwelt amid the secret splendors of Topkapi Palace. Access to the Grand Seraglio--which served as the empire's administrative, legislative, and judicial center and an academy of fine arts, as well as the ruler's home--was jealously guarded, even after the sultans ceased to reside there in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1936, a distinguished scholar of Orientalism, Norman Mosley Penzer (1892-1960), was afforded a rare opportunity to step inside the Grand Seraglio; in this eagerly embraced and much-consulted volume, he reveals what he found.
Constructed between 1459 and 1465 at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Topkapi Palace stands in present-day Istanbul, near the confluence of the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, and the Marmara Sea. Penzer surveyed the entire palace from end to end during numerous visits over the course of two years, and he presents photographs and floor plans that provide a comprehensive view of Topkapi's structure. Penzer's illustrations of the opulent gardens, chambers, and pavilions come to imaginative life with his explorations of day-to-day palace life--particularly among the women of the harem and their eunuch guards. His evocative accounts of the manners, dress, and politics of Turkish court life continue to influence the scholarly work of the twenty-first century, and this classic history remains indispensable to studies of harem life.

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The Harem

Inside the Grand Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans

By N. M. Penzer

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14758-1



IT would probably be impossible to think of any Eastern institution that is more familiar by name to the whole of the Western world but less understood in actual fact than the harem. From early childhood we have heard of the Turkish harem, and have been told that it is a place where hundreds of lovely women are kept locked up for the sole pleasure of a single master. And as we grow up but little is added to this early information. We perhaps realize the difference between wives and concubines, and appreciate their position in Muhammadan law. We may even discover that very few Turks ever had more than one wife, and that few could afford to keep more than a negro cook as maid-of-all-work. But most of us still imagine that the Sultan is—or, rather, was—a vicious old reprobate, spending all his time in the harem, surrounded by hundreds of semi-naked women, in an atmosphere of heavy perfume, cool fountains, soft music, and over-indulgence in every conceivable kind of vice that the united brains of jealous, sex-starved women could invent for the pleasure of their lord.

There are perhaps two main reasons why such false ideas have lingered so long in the Western mind. In the first place, so great has been the secrecy which has always surrounded the Imperial harem that first-hand and reliable information was seldom forthcoming. In the second place, the dividing line between fact and fiction, as far as the harem was concerned, was very thin and ill defined. After all, it had only been popularized in Western Europe early in the eighteenth century, when Antoine Galland first published the Arabian Nights, and the public were much too intrigued by the novelty and fascination of the tales themselves to entertain any desire to question the mise en scène or seek to dissipate the clouds of romance and hyperbole that hung so heavily over this newly discovered creation of the Orient.

The vague, and sometimes conflicting, descriptions of travellers that followed, the meagre accounts of English governesses and companions, the letters and diaries of ambassadors' wives or secretaries, were the sole sources of information. But even so the number of the intelligent reading public was small, while many of the more important first-hand accounts still remained in manuscript, and had long since found their resting-place amid a host of dusty archives or on the shelves of some State library uncatalogued and forgotten. Thus all kinds of misunderstandings, exaggerations, distortions, and occasionally deliberate fabrications, have merely tended to add confusion to the indifferent and scanty accounts of the harem already existing.

It is not only in the more intimate details of Court etiquette that misconceptions have occurred, but even in generalities, the appreciation of which is absolutely necessary to the understanding of the whole harem system. For instance, it is still quite widely believed that harem rule was coeval with the great days of the Ottoman Empire—with the first Murad, Bayezid, Muhammad, Selim, and Suleiman the Magnificent—whereas in reality the harem must not be connected with the Ottoman power at its height, but should be looked upon as the beginning of its decline and fall. To the early rulers of Turkey the harem was unknown; it was unwanted. They were much too busy overcoming their numerous foes and establishing an empire to find time to indulge the appetite for a sensual life that only follows in the wake of security, well-filled treasuries, and abundance of leisure. Yet it must not be imagined that the harem system was solely responsible for the ultimate fall of the Ottoman Empire. It was not the system that was wrong, it was those in charge of it. So far from being a palace of women lazing about marble halls awaiting their master's pleasure, the harem was a little world of its own, governed with the utmost deliberation and care, not by a man at all, but by a woman. Every member of it had her exact duties to perform, and was forced to comply with all the rules and regulations that in many respects were as strict and rigid as in a convent.

No one knew the etiquette of the harem more than the Sultan, and once it was respected all would be well. Even if that great lady the Sultan's mother and the Grand Vizir were placated he still had the janissaries to reckon with. A Sultan could go so far, but no farther: deposition was certain and death probable.

And yet it is hard to lay all the blame on a man who may have spent his whole life locked up in a room in the Palace, suddenly to find himself set free and hailed as Sultan. No wonder excesses often followed, with dire results to all concerned. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A nation born and bred in slavery and dependent on slavery for its very existence is safe only so long as the machine runs smoothly, but as soon as a single cog ceases to function the whole mechanism may be affected. At the same time the machine may be well worth a close inspection, and here and there we may come across a part that will hold our interest, and perhaps even teach us something as well.

For instance, the enormous activities of the Palace seem to have almost entirely escaped general notice, and while idle curiosity has always centred on the harem, the fact that the Palace contained a great military School of State, over a dozen mosques, ten double kitchens, two bakeries, a flour-mill, two hospitals, and various kinds of baths, storerooms, sports fields, etc., is almost wholly ignored.

It is impossible to understand the harem unless we consider it merely as a single unit in a large and highly complicated system.

As the work proceeds the harem will appear in its right perspective; it will no longer be a vague term used as synonymous with Seraglio, but will be clearly defined as regards its scope, and described as fully as possible with the aid of a detailed plan and occasional photographs. And here it is necessary to be quite clear as to the real meaning of words such as harem and seraglio. Let us take harem first. The word is borrowed from the Arabic haram, and means that which is unlawful,' as opposed to halal, 'that which is lawful' Thus the whole region for a certain distance round Mecca and Medina is haram— that is to say that certain things allowed elsewhere are not permitted there. Consequently, owing to the sacredness of those holy places, the word also signified 'holy,' 'protected,' 'sacred,' 'inviolate,' and lastly 'forbidden.' In its secular application the word was used in reference to that portion of a Muslim house occupied by the women, because it was their haram, or sanctuary. The Turks softened the word into harem, and added to it the termination lik. Thus the correct Turkish word for the woman's part of the house is haremlik. The suffix when added to substantives denotes place, and the 'place of sanctuary' exactly expresses that portion of the house allotted to the wife, her children and servants.

The abbreviated form harem is more correctly applied to the personnel of the haremlik, although the shorter form is now almost universally adopted with all its various meanings. But in the case of the word selamlik, which signifies the domain of the husband, no change has occurred. This could not well be otherwise, as selam simply means 'greeting' or 'salutation,' and the one place in the house where guests could be received was naturally the selamlik.

Relations with European Powers soon gave rise to the coining of a word that would embrace not only the haremlik and the selamlik, but the entire Royal buildings as a whole. By a curious Italian adaptation of a Persian word the term seraglio was introduced, and came to be generally accepted by both Europeans and Turks. Its etymological history is interesting, and helps to explain its exact meaning. The modern seraglio is directly derived from the Italian serraglio, 'a cage for wild animals' (Latin sera, 'a bar,' with aculum added as suffix), and was adopted owing to its chance similarity with the Persian words sara and sarai, which originally simply meant 'a building,' and particularly 'a palace,' and which are familiar to us in the word 'caravanserai' (Persian karwansarai), 'a (halting) place for camels,' and so 'an inn for travellers.' In its proper sense of 'a building' or 'a palace' sarai was largely used by the Tatars, from whom it was borrowed by the Russians, who degraded it to mean merely a shed.' But in the language of the Levantine Franks it became serail and serraglio. It was at this point that a mistaken 'striving after meaning' with the Italian serrato, 'shut up,' etc., connected it with the private apartments of women. But as the old idea of 'palace' was still recognized in both serail and seraglio (spelled now with one 'r') they were universally adopted to mean the entire Royal Palace on the hill of the ancient Byzantine acropolis. In fact, the peninsula itself became known as Seraglio Point, and is still so called to-day.

The adoption in recent years of the Western alphabet and phonetic spelling has caused many curious-looking words to appear, and it is with difficulty that some of them can be recognized at all. The tourist of to-day on getting into a taxi in Pera and wishing to go to the Seraglio should ask for the Topkapi Sarayi, and he will at once be understood. As mentioned in the Preface, the meaning of the phrase is 'the Palace of the Cannon Gate,' and refers to an old gate that once stood at the very tip of Seraglio Point, and which was protected by several pieces of cannon now in the arms museum in the ancient church of St Irene. The 1933 Turkish guide-book to the Seraglio calls itself Topkapi Sarayi Müzesi Rehberi (Guide to the Museum of the Cannon Gate Palace). But in spite of this the terms seraglio and the abbreviated serail or serail are in general use, especially among foreigners.

Yet the visitor may be perplexed when the hotel guide asks him if he has yet visited the Old Serai, or Vieux Séraï, especially if he already knows that the Old Serai, or Eski Serai, was pulled down long ago and the site first occupied by the Seraskerat, or War Office, erected in 1870, and then, since 1924, by the University.

But the reference is really to the Seraglio. The explanation is as follows: after Muhammad II had taken Constantinople he built a palace on the Third Hill in 1454, and when between 1459 and 1465 the larger palace on the First Hill superseded it the former was known as Eski Serai, or Old Serai, while the latter was called Yeni Serai, or New Serai. Among European writers, however, it was usually referred to as the Grand Seraglio.

Now when the Yeni Serai was abandoned in 1853 it immediately was called the Old Palace by Europeans. The Turks, however, preferred to call it the Top Capu (now spelled Topkapi) Sarayi.

Even so that is not all, because in 1709 Ahmed III had started building a summer palace near the Marmora on Seraglio Point. This palace was also known to the Turks as Top Capu Sarayi, but to us merely as the Summer Palace. It was totally destroyed in 1862–63. It will thus be seen that there is plenty of justification for the visitor to be confused by the redundance of names. I find it clearest to refer to the 1454 palace as the Old Serai or Old Seraglio, that which forms the subject of the present work as the Grand Seraglio, or simply the Seraglio, and the 1709 one as the Summer Palace. In this way, I think, everything will be clear.

Having now looked at the true meanings of harem, selamlik, and seraglio, we can appreciate the fact that, whereas the former two must be used only to refer to the apartments of the women and the men respectively, the term seraglio can be very conveniently employed for the entire Palace and all its buildings.

As is well known, among all Eastern nations the gate was most important both architecturally and politically, whether it was the gate of the city wall, the gate of the palace, or the gate of a private dwelling. We have just noticed that the Seraglio itself is known by the name of a gate; the seat of Ottoman Government was named after a gate—the Bab-i-Humayun, or Sublime Porte. So also the divisions of any large building were regulated by its gates. I shall have a good deal to say about gates later; here I am merely anxious to stress the importance of gates not only in the understanding of the plan of the Seraglio, but in giving their name to the court into which they lead, and in some cases to the buildings surrounding or in the vicinity of that court.

Thus in the case of the Seraglio, although the haremlik and the selamlik were the two main divisions of the buildings which formed the private apartments of the Royal household, there were other buildings beyond the famous Gate of Felicity, or Bab-i-Sa'adet as it was called. Hence all that unknown part of the Seraglio beyond that gate was known as the House of Felicity.

As we shall see in a later chapter, the semi-public First Court was bounded on its inner side by a thick wall pierced by a gate known as the Ortakapi, past which admittance was limited to those seeking audience at the Divan. Only the Sultan was allowed to proceed past this gate on horseback. From the Second Court access was gained to the House of Felicity only through the Gate of Felicity, and only members of the Sultan's own household were allowed entrance.

With these few details we are in a much better position to understand the early descriptions of the Seraglio that have come down to us, and from what direction attempts to view the Palace were made, and how far the would-be sightseers got.

During the whole period over which the Seraglio continued to be the Royal residence the number of people who claim with good justification to have seen any part of it past the Gate of Felicity can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Even if we include men who at one time were actually employed in the Inside Service of the Seraglio itself, the total still remains under a dozen.

In considering these early accounts we must differentiate between these two groups. But even when we have read what ex-pages of the Seraglio have to tell us we realize more than before how segregated the various units of the Palace system were, and how any information about the harem was still trivial and unreliable, if, indeed, any was forthcoming at all. Thus the first three accounts, those by Angiolello (1470–81), Bassano da Zara (c. 1530–40), and Menavino (c. 1545), deal almost entirely with the Palace School. Bassano da Zara, however, discourses on the general manners and customs of the Turks as well, and I shall have occasion to refer to his work again.

The first definite account we have of the harem is contained in a description of Constantinople by one Domenico Hierosolimitano, entitled Relatione della gran città di Costantinopoli (sic), a manuscript which we shall consider in due course. The author occupied the unique post of physician at the Court of Murad III (1574–95), and this alone could account for knowledge of the quarters of the harem shown in his writings. But so secret and jealously guarded was the harem and all that happened inside it that nothing of any consequence whatever was definitely known (let alone seen) until after the deposition of Abd ul-Hamid II in 1909. And even since that date the number of people who have visited any of the closed rooms is a mere handful. As these early accounts have a distinct historical value I shall devote the next chapter to a more detailed discussion of them. True, after 1853, when Abd ul-Mejid had changed his residence to the more airy shores of the Bosphorus, certain 'showrooms' were open to privileged foreigners, but the harem still remained the place of mystery it ever was.

In 1615 the well-known traveller Pietro della Valle had told his readers that nothing could be learned about what existed beyond the Gate of Felicity. And as recently as 1926 we find such an authority as Sir George Young telling us the same thing, only in an even more emphatic way. "Up till now," he says,

the Seraglio Hareem and the Hirkai Sherif Odassi [Chamber of the Holy Mantle] remain two of the very few places on earth that no Anglo-Saxon or American foot has as yet trod. As the Pole used to be for explorers—as Everest still is for mountaineers—so have the Sultan's Hareem and the Hirkai Sherif been for tourists.


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