Inside the Harem

Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck

Would you judge me, dear readers, if I said that in a prior life, I might have wanted to be a whore?

The Topkapı Palace, home to Sultans of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 400 years, serves now as a museum. And on this, my third visit to the city (following this two-day Istanbul itinerary), I finally visited while showing my Mom and Aunt around. It wasn’t the grand treasury and all its baubles that fascinated me, nor the elevated view of the historic Bosphorus, instead it was the quiet corridors and labyrinth of the Harem and its 400 rooms.

Only beautiful and intelligent girls became slaves to the Sultans, often they were captives of war. The girls were brought in at a tender age to be taught the ways of the Harem. And they weren’t allowed to leave – only with special permission from the Queen Mother (yes, the Sultan’s mother was in charge of all his concubines.)

But who would want to leave this?

The Harem was often called the “Golden Cage”, and aptly so, intricate tile work lined the walls and ceilings, beautiful inlaid wood decorated shelves and dressers. With so many concubines on rotation, I might have only had to perform once to be allowed to live in such opulence.

The whole idea of keeping apartments full of hundreds of beautiful women to satisfy the sexual desires of one man may sound absurd and demeaning (because it was), but many concubines reportedly found it to be quite a pleasant and luxurious life. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s came freedom for the ladies, many did not want to return to their meager lives.

And as long as they had free wi-fi Palace-wide, I wouldn’t have wanted to leave either.

The Harem was often called the “Golden Cage”, and aptly so, intricate tile work lined the walls and ceilings, beautiful inlaid wood decorated shelves and dressers.
Entrance to the Topkapı Palace

Entrance to the Topkapı Palace


One of the meticulously kept courtyards of the Palace


Beautiful details found everywhere


36 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • May 1 2013

    Opulent indeed! I’d settle for just having morning coffee in the garden 🙂
    Maria recently posted..Wordless Wednesday – Ready to Spit

  • May 1 2013

    Thanks for posting this. I visited Topkapı Palace on a Friday. Big mistake!! It was unbearably crowded. This post gave me a whole new perspective.

    • May 3 2013

      It was VERY crowded throughout the rest of the Palace when we visited, but the Harem was quieter. Less people go through there I think because they charge a little more to get in. IMO, very worth it!

  • Seth
    May 1 2013

    Any room for guys in this harem? Think I could grit my teeth and grin if this could be my home.

  • Melissa
    May 1 2013

    It’s a marvelous place! I read a novelized account of life there under the last high powered Sultan. It was especially fun to visit and explore the rooms and the grounds after reading the book. If you’re up for a good read it was The Sultan’s Harem
    by Colin Falconer.

    • May 3 2013

      THANK YOU for the book recommendation Melissa! I will definitely be getting that!

  • Jana
    May 2 2013

    I have been to the palace. Unfortunately was not able to see the harem. However, the rest of the palace was worth it. Thanks for sharing

    • May 3 2013

      I hope you get back to see the harem Jana! It is so beautiful!

  • May 2 2013

    This was one place I didn’t have time to visit when I was in Istanbul. Kicking myself now, because it looks amazing! I think I might have liked to have been a whore, too, if it meant digs like these!
    Amanda recently posted..3 Affordable Countries in Europe You Probably Haven’t Considered

    • May 3 2013

      That was my third visit to Istanbul and I FINALLY made it! You’ll just have to go back!

  • Nat
    May 3 2013

    I have been twice and would gladly go again. Next time, I want a professional guide though because I am obsessed with the Ottoman rulers. Did you see the harem at the Dolmabahce palace?
    Nat recently posted..Hasankeyf : An Ancient City in Batman, Turkey

    • May 3 2013

      We haven’t been to that palace yet, hopefully on our next visit!

  • May 3 2013

    I only managed to visit the Harem on my second trip to Istanbul (there wasn’t enough time on my first visit) and I loved every second of it! The entire Topkapi palace is stunning, but there’s something special about the Harem.
    Alina Popescu recently posted..Mo’zippity Launches App that Helps Travelers Make Their Connecting Flight

    • May 5 2013

      I absolutely agree. The soft lighting, the blue/green tiles, it is such a beautiful and peaceful place.

  • Charli l Wanderlusters
    May 3 2013

    I have to say I would not judge, especially as the ‘enslaved women’ were chosen for their intellect as well as their beauty! What a stunning structure and such intricate detail. I would have loved to chat with one of the Sultan’s girls, how fascinating their tale would be.

    • May 5 2013

      I agree! Someone else commented above about a book having to do with the Sultan Girls…if you’re interested in finding out more! I know I am!

  • May 4 2013

    It’s exactly one year since I was in Istanbul on a short side-trip to Turkey with my father. The Harem was amazing (though dad sat that one out!) and my second favourite place behind the Hagia Sofia. The blues and greens were just divine!
    hayley recently posted..At rest above the valley

    • May 5 2013

      Oh yes, the Harem has stiff competition with the Hagia Sofia. I think that may be my favorite building in the whole world.

  • Sam
    May 5 2013

    Hey, I won’t judge. I think about this every day! But seriously, the wifi is indeed a must.

  • May 6 2013

    I wouldn’t judge you at all! In fact, I’ve thought the same thing myself. In many ancient societies, courtesans were the only women with the freedom to get an education. Through in a fancy palace and the fact that you’d never have to wash another dish, and I’m in!
    cosmoHallitan recently posted..Shangri-la: Dining and Shopping Guide

    • May 8 2013

      Let’s just start our own? Bring back the tradition!

  • Best opening line ever.
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..Breakfast in Nashville: pork and beer

    • May 11 2013

      Ha! I thought some might like that. 🙂

  • Yeity
    May 11 2013

    One woman is hard enough work – lord knows what this sultan was taking when he got the idea that hundreds would be swell

    • May 11 2013

      Ha! Except that his Mom was in charge of organizing them all. He just had to “show up”. 🙂

  • Ed Graham
    May 13 2013

    Beautiful pictures. I found it to be waaay too crowded last week when I was there, but still an amazing experience nontheless.

    • May 14 2013

      Oh, too bad it was so crowded! All the blues and greens of the harem are just so beautiful!

  • May 29 2013

    Oooo, dramatic!

  • haha yes… wifi is a must.

  • August 14 2013

    One man and so many women – poor guy!

  • nora
    October 23 2013

    Istanbul…I would love to go there!!!

  • suna
    March 21 2015

    Hi, as a Turk and as a history student, I would love to suggest you a great book, If you want to learn about Ottoman women and harem this is the source …

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