A glimpse inside the harem, the forbidden place of the Ottoman sultan

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

Though the Western world fantasizes about the erotic and mysterious nature of a harem, in the Ottoman world it was rather an elaborate institution than a place for orgiastic love. The relationships inside the harem (which translates “the forbidden place”) were rather ceremonial, with a numerous staff, of about 10 servants per room. Polygamy is tolerated by Islam, though it is not a norm or a recommendation of the Prophet Muhammad who himself took eleven wives. The youngest of Muhammad’s wife, Aisha, was only nine years old when the marriage was consummated. The Qur’an mentions polygamy only once, limiting the number of wives to four if the husband can afford to offer proper conditions to all of them and for the sake of taking care of orphans.

In the Harem area of Dolmabahce Palace, the rooms of sultan’s wives and concubines were separated from his apartments by sultan’s mother, who could monitor the movement of women and their treatment. Children up to a certain age lived with their mothers inside the harem, together with a large number of maids, housekeepers, food-tasters, coffee-makers, barbers, eunuchs, all under the coordination of a Mistress of the Harem.

The 15.000 square meters Dolmabahce Palace is the biggest residence in Turkey and one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. It was built in the middle of the 19th century, while the Ottoman Empire was trying to modernize itself by opening to the West. The style of Dolmabahce blends Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classicism with Turkish tradition and Islamic art. With its sculpted facade a few meters from the see, it looks impressive and elegant when looked from the Bosphorus, while the reception hall inside is absolutely breathtaking.

Dolmabahce has seen history: six sultans stayed here, including the last one. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk used it as presidential palace, and some historic decisions were announced from here. Ataturk died in one room inside the Harem area o Dolmabahce, in a bed that is now covered in a silk flag of Turkey.

The main room of the Harem section of Dolmabahce is the Blue Hall, called this way because of the draperies and upholsterers. The Ramadan and other important holidays were celebrated here by the sultan and its court. To enter this room, even sultan’s wives and children needed an invitation and an appointment. In the later years of Caliphate, the blue hall was opened for private meetings with European heads of states and their wives. The Blue Hall has a chandelier of Baccarate crystal and a carpet brought from Yildiz Palace.

The rooms of the sultan and of royal women are heavily decorated with furniture from Japan an Europe and with carpets done by artisans from Hereke factory. The hamam (bath) plays a crucial role here as in Islamic architecture. It includes cool, hot and resting areas. A large Murano mirror, a carved marble platform and the violet ceramic tiles on the wall give the hamam an artistic look.
The Pink Hall has been used by sultan’s mother and later by Ataturk and has one of the finest carpets in the entire palace.

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