Home Muslim World News Of hammams, concubines and eunuchs in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace

Of hammams, concubines and eunuchs in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace

By Ranjana Narayan, IANS,

Istanbul : They were powerful sultans of Turkey and held sway over vast lands in Europe, Asia and northern Africa, but when it came to bathing in the hammams with their numerous wives, the emperors locked themselves up inside a gold-grilled cage – to bathe in peace away from their womenfolk.

That is what a visit to the grand Topkapi Palace in Istanbul reveals, as it was the official and primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for about 400 years of their 624-year reign – from 1465 to 1856.

In the harem section of the palace, special care was given to the design of the hammams, where the sultans and his wives and favourite women got relaxing steam baths and massages.

The water poured out from ornate gold taps on to marble basins. But to escape the squabbling women vying for his attention when all he wanted to do was relax, the sultan had a special grill made of gold to barricade his hammam section. No entry!

The harem section was also home to the numerous concubines whom the sultans picked up as orphaned children during wars and brought to the palace. Here they were educated, taught music, brought up as royal personages, and if not Muslim then converted into one and taught Islam, informs our tour guide Derya Kutucku.

The young girls brought to Topkapi were of strikingly good looks and good health. After they were grown up and the sultan took a fancy to one, she stood the chance to become his wife.

The other concubines, whom the sultan tired of or did not want to marry, had to perform odd jobs in the palace. In the large main hall, while the sultan sat with his wives, the concubines played music and sang – but with their backs to him so as not to make eye contact. Maybe it was a ruse thought of by the Queen Mother of the sultan or his wives to keep the emperor from getting distracted by other charmers.

And the way to the sultan’s heart was through the Queen Mother. The concubine who served the Queen Mother best and won her favour could hope to get recommended to the sultan to become his wife and her son would be the crown prince.

To do the heavy work in the harem section, the sultan had an array of eunuchs. Initially the eunuchs were from the area or from the Caucasian region, but the sultans, ever suspicious of their womenfolks’ fidelity, started getting eunuchs from Africa. If the baby born to the harem women was of mixed colour they would know – whodunnit!

But how could a eunuch become a father, is the incredulous query by tourists. “Well, sometimes the operation (castration surgery) was not done properly and then…” is the explanation given to by a smiling tour guide.

And more foxing is the information that men from rich and noble families would line up to get castrated to become eunuchs in the harem. “It is unthinkable how men could put up their hands and say, ‘me first, me first’, for the surgery?” remarks a tourist perplexedly.

The Ottomans, who held sway from 1299 till 1922, when the sultanate was abolished, did not marry women from the nobility. In the initial period of their reign, they entered into strategic marriage alliances to consolidate and expand their empire, but later they did not need to. The move to marry concubines ensured they had healthy offspring.

The Ottomans also brought home young orphan boys from the war zones. These boys were reared in the Topkapi Palace, educated, taught horse riding, warfare, administration and, if they were not Muslim, then converted and taught Islam. When they grew up, these young men were given choice administrative jobs. This move ensured that the sultans got loyal workers who would not betray them, as they owed their upbringing and life to the emperors.

The concubines were “retired” when they turned 30. They were given a handsome pension and lodgings outside the palace area. Some of them ended up marrying the orphaned young men.

(Ranjana Narayan can be contacted at [email protected])