The concept of sister-wives is an odd and unaccepted tradition by modern standards and perhaps rightly so. However the history of humans is bustling with tales of the multiple wives of kings and emperors. And it is exactly here where everything gets interesting, not in the shack of a penniless artisan, but in the silk sheets and perfumes of the royalty. The Islamic faith set a norm for polygamy and the subsequent muslim sultans kept the idea of multiple wives, concubines, and handmaidens as interesting as it could get.
The tales of the harems of muslim kings the mighty caliphs of the Ottoman dynasty present fascinating yet twisted plotting, conniving, scandal, murder, assassination, and war to say the very least. The tales are neverending, sadistic and perhaps even remotely romantic! The harem was a vicious autonomy on its own, woman against woman. A hotbed of power and absolute control over the monarch and his personal decisions. The battle decisions were made in the day by the all-male ministers and royals, and at night all the other matters of influence were governed solely by the shrewdest woman, sometimes even a mere slave girl could prove the main chess piece in the game of crowns.
Power wasn’t in the throne where the sultan sat, rather the bed where he slept and with whom he laid.
Now that I consider myself slightly adept in travelling I find it wise to speculate exactly how one would be in the place and time being observed. A visit to the Harem section of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul was an exciting prospect. What really went on in these labyrinthine quarters cut off from the rest of the palace and city? There were possibly more intricacies than those in the western palaces, the pardah of women and moral values were varied in terms of religion. As history would have it, plenty of young maidens did meet their demise in the sea, thrown over into the Bosphorus. This was a chess game of lust, greed, power, jealousy, murder, loyalty and ultimately the decision of choosing crown prince. Talk about having a cat fight. This was the arena of cat fights. Competition was tough and ruthless.
I didn’t watch Magnificent Century the tv show. I found it dingy and dull looking in comparison to real palace which I saw by eye. The real environment must have been far more colourful, a visit to the relatively newer Dolmabahce Palace proves that the sultans kept their colour palette vivid and cheerful. In the Topkapi Harem there are chambers upon chambers, balconies and passageways decorated in blue, turqoise, red and gold, with marble floors and walls dulled by the passage of time.
With years of withering the saturated hues of sharp fuschias and turquoise must have faded into greyness but a visit to the power boudoirs of the harem gives you an intense Aladdin like feel merged together with Renaissance style stained glass windows. The Ottomans did merge the european Byzantine heritage with a north arabian levantine one.
The harems were different from the courts of other emperors of the time. Louis XIV e.g. was celebrated for his mistresses the delightful Madame Montespan among the most well loved. But the ladies were mostly all nobles of the king’s court. The harems however had women from all races, backgrounds and religions, slave girls, war prisoners, lady companions and princesses mixed freely. The harems were a separate stronghold of strict separation from males. Tales possibly true of bisexuality and lesbianism also surfaced, whilst the harems were guarded by transgenders and eunuchs, it was a noble profession for them, a kind of an official rank to be a guardian of the harem.
The visit to the palace is a delight with the harem section the star of the show. Do go there and instead of receiving a dull history lecture from the tour guide immerse yourself in the stories of love-making and plotting which the rooms have remained a witness to.
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