Exhibition to reveal truth about Ottoman harem

Exhibition to reveal truth about Ottoman harem

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Exhibition to reveal truth about Ottoman harem

The exhibition features 287 works from the palace’s collection, consisting of belongings of both sultans and concubines. ‘Each sultan changed harem according to his own requirements,’ says İlber Ortaylı.

The Topkapı Museum is readying to open an exhibition with the aim of correcting misperceptions about the Ottoman harem.

“The harem was a center of education for concubines,” Topkapı Palace Director İlber Ortaylı, a history professor, recently told the Hürriyet Daily News about the museum’s efforts to spread correct information about the life in the harem of the famous site.

“These non-Muslim women brought in to the palace as slaves were educated to be married to the Ottoman statesmen and bureaucrats who were also receiving education at another center within the palace premises, called the Enderun School. But the harem was also the sultan’s house, where he lived with his mother, wives and children. The life in the harem was not as spectacular as it is shown in fictitious works,” Ortaylı said.

“House of the Sultan: Topkapı Palace Imperial Harem” starts June 13 and runs through Oct. 15 at Has Ahırlar (Sultan’s Stables) within the palace premises.

Sponsored by Bilintur/BKG and TAV Airports, the exhibition showcases 287 works, all from the palace’s collection, consisting of belongings of the residents of the harem, including both sultans and concubines.

The show is the first exhibition ever of its kind in Turkey.

Topkapı Palace’s harem section is also open to museum visitors. The reason the exhibition is not being held within the harem itself is due to the size of the show.

Indeed, size is one of the reasons the Ottoman dynasty moved to the larger Yıldız and Dolmabahçe palaces in subsequent eras, Ortaylı said. “How can you host large diplomatic delegations in a small palace? It is very unbecoming for a monarchy that so strongly holds to its grandeur and identity as an empire even when that [was] no longer the case [by that time].”

Topkapı harem starts with Hürrem

The exhibition is divided into four sections, each focusing on one significant aspect of harem life.
The first section shows the harem’s construction process with a focus on the building’s physical structure. The construction period is shown with miniatures, engravings and architectural plans. The second section explains the organization of the harem’s servants and guards, namely eunuchs and concubines, in accordance with the hierarchical order imposed by the building’s physical structure. The third section focuses on harem women’s rise from being a concubine to becoming a sultan’s favorite, then wife and finally the Mother Sultan, within the larger narrative of life and education of the members of the dynasty, which consisted of the sultan’s daughters, sons and sisters. This section depicts the place of each within the dynastic hierarchy. The fourth section focuses on the daily life in the harem, as well as its traditions and entertainment.

Structural changes

On the whole, the visitors of the show will be able to see the structural changes imposed on the harem throughout the reigns of different successors from the dynasty.

“Each sultan changed the harem according to [his] own requirements,” Ortaylı said.

Ortaylı said the harem was not within the palace but located in the historical Beyazıt neighborhood. “The harem was moved into the palace during Sultan Süleyman’s reign and after Hürrem [Süleyman the Magnificent’s famous wife] asked him to do so. She requested that the family live together. ”

Preparations for the exhibition took only six months. “Because we have been thinking about the project since 2006, the preparations did not take us long. Thanks to our brilliant team, no exhibition takes too much time here. The real work was the preparation of the exhibition catalogue,” the museum director said.

The 400-page exhibition catalogue will be on sale during the opening.