When Selim the Sot ascended the throne of the Ottoman Empire in 1566, he proposed a new theory of royal governance. Henceforth, the greatness of an emperor was to be judged not by bravery or glory, but by indulgence in comfort and pleasure. In Selim’s case, this meant two things: women and drink. It was the kind of wheeze that modern leaders can only dream about.
I blame the Topkapi Palace – the grand, fortified residence of the Ottoman Sultan that still presides over the Golden Horn in Istanbul. The Topkapi seemed to have a corrupting effect on all its inhabitants – its fragrant luxuries did not exactly encourage effective government. Once Selim had moved in on his ascension to the Ottoman throne, he never seemed to want to come out again. In 1573, the French ambassador noted that, in three months, Selim had only left the palace twice – and that was to nip next door for prayers. What was it about this palace above the Bosphorus that seemed to cast such a spell over its princes? I hurried along to find out.
For outsiders, entrance to the Topkapi Palace was never easy. In the old days, European ambassadors – who were kept waiting for weeks – vied with one another for admittance into the reception halls of the Ottoman sultans. Little has changed: in the Court of the Janissaries, I found myself in an interminable ticket queue, vying with a busload of Italians to whom queuing did not come naturally. After 20 minutes, I realised I was going backwards. When I finally fought my way to the front, I found the ticket window was level with my shins, obliging me to kneel and genuflect slightly to ask for an adult single.
Walled and secluded, the Topkapi is a city within a city where, for four centuries, the Ottoman Sultans were pampered and indulged in a series of salons and pavilions that came to be known as Dar-us-Saadet or the House of Felicities. The palace is onion-layered, with a succession of gateways leading deeper into further courts, progressing from public to private. From the Court of the Janissaries, I passed through the Gate of Salutations, then into the Court of the Divan. In the Imperial Council Chamber, a set of gilded bars were set into the wall. From behind these, the Sultan watched governmental proceedings, more like a prisoner than a ruler.
As if to emphasise its separateness, the harem involved another ticket queue. Prices seemed a trifle steep, but I shouldn’t complain. A hundred years ago, entrance to the harem would have cost me my testicles, so 20 dollars should probably be considered a bargain. Some remnant of Ottoman security was still attached to the place – visitors are not allowed to wander at will in the complex. The guide – a man with a permanent smirk – herded us inside in a carefully marshalled group. Bringing up the rear were two burly guards, like latter-day eunuchs, to ensure that no one strayed.
There are four hundred rooms in the harem, a vast and bewildering complex of labyrinthine passageways, domed chambers, galleried arcades, cloistered rooms, grand salons and intimate courtyards. In Selim’s day, it was said that there were 150 concubines housed in these rooms. The outside world intrudes only as a view through screened windows, or as squares of sky above the courtyards.
The guide led us through the eunuch quarters (a mere 50 rooms) to the courtyard of the Sultan’s mother. The nominal head of this female world, mummy kept close tabs on which women were being despatched to her son’s boudoir. The key thing was that there should be no favourites. In the world of the harem, falling in love was seen as a disaster. Better to be a Sultan devoted to debauchery than to be one devoted to a woman was the received wisdom of the day.
Passing through marbled bathhouses, we arrived first in the domed Imperial Chamber, where the Sultan held banquets and enjoyed evening entertainment; and then into the Chamber of Murat III, the son of Selim. Gorgeous Iznik tiles swarmed across the walls between a bronze fireplace to warm the room in winter and a marble fountain to cool it in summer.
While the rest of the group were examining the architectural details, the guide sidled up to me. He had noticed I was taking notes. He had the bug-eyed look of a family retainer who was keen to share a few royal secrets in exchange for envelopes of well-thumbed cash. Perhaps he thought I was from the National Enquirer.
“Murat was not like Selim, his father”, the guide whispered. “Murat had only one wife when he came to the throne”, he said. “Safiye. He loved her. But the eunuchs, they wanted to diminish her influence, so they presented him with new women for his harem. For a long time, he ignored them.”
We had arrived in the Apartments of the Princes, where the Sultan’s sons were confined until their mid- or late-teens. Theirs was a precarious existence. When one of their brothers ascended the throne, the rest were usually strangled with silk cords by deaf mutes who were unable to hear their cries.
The guide was doggedly pursuing his story. “But finally, Murat’s sister found a woman to tempt him – a slave girl.” He gripped my arm. “Once he had tasted her, pheettt…” He made a sound like a firecracker fizzing. “The floodgates opened. He couldn’t get enough women.”
Writing in the 1580s, the Venetian envoy described Murat’s conversion. “He tried out many beautiful young girls, and his life changed. Every night, he slept with two, and often three… They feared his health was in danger.” The Topkapi had won – Murat, too, became a slave to pleasure. During the last years of his life, he fathered 54 children. He died in 1595, worn out, but happy at the age of 48.
While the Sultans were drinking wine and falling asleep on the shoulders of women half their age, the women of the harem hung out in the hamam, the bathhouse and the centre of female social life in Ottoman times. It was an opportunity for them to get out of the house and to let their hair down in steamy luxuriance away from the eyes of men and eunuchs. For a husband to deny his wife access to the hamam was grounds for divorce.
For the women of the harem, it was also an excuse for physical intimacy – a rare experience when you have scores (or possibly hundreds!) of rivals. Luigi Bassano da Zara, an Italian who served as a page in the Topkapi in the sixteenth century, reports that “as a result of familiarity in washing and massaging one another, women fall in love with each other… I have known women to see a lovely young girl and seek out an occasion to wash with her, just to see her naked and handle her…”
Eager to experience Istanbul undressed, I hurried along to the great Cemberlitas Hamam, found close by the Grand Bazaar. The baths are segregated, so there was no chance of glimpsing women “naked and handling one another.”
In the hararet, the central steam chamber, I stretched out on the gobektasi, the round, marble platform, heated from below, where customers lie like eggs on a griddle. Everyone wore a pestemal, a checked cloth, round the waist. In the male section, at any rate, it is impolite to flash. Above me, the dome was pierced with small holes through which light streamed in steamy shafts.
I was roused from my reverie by the arrival of my masseur. Mehmet had a moustache the size of a cricket bat, a shagpile chest and shoulders that would have made the Hulk seem elfin. He attacked me with a scrubbing flannel. He was to massage what construction work was to ballet. After a vigorous soaping, followed by endless buckets of hot and cold water, he began to twist my limbs into positions that neither God nor I had ever intended.
Post bath, I collapsed in my private cabin with a glass of sweet tea. The harem must have been like this: a good seeing to, then a cushioned divan. Life in the Topkapi was obviously lived horizontally.
The newer Dolmabahçe Palace was an attempt to sit up straight. The Sultan and his harem left the old Topkapi and moved into this new palace on the Bosporus in 1855. Built in the most florid European manner, it was part of the modernising and westernising instincts current among the Ottomans in the nineteenth century. This tilt towards European habits did not come cheap: the bill for the furniture (in the Topkapi, they had got by with cushions) – as well as for European frocks for his harem – equalled the annual expenditure of the entire Ottoman army in Thrace.
I trooped through reception rooms the size of football fields; across vast carpets; and beneath towering chandeliers to the harem quarters that looked no more exciting than middle-class apartments in Paris. After the Topkapi, it all seemed a bit tame. Where was the beautiful tile work? The wonderful courtyards? Or the elegant arcades and the gorgeous pavilions, where Sultans drank wine and dallied with concubines while the empire went to hell? Selim the Sot would have been disappointed.
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.