Friday, May 28, 2010

Like a bird caged without a key, everyone comes to stare at me...

Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. A place where the treasury is completely and utterly overflowing with the most emeralds you have ever seen (I don't care where you've gone!) and with so many gold this and gold thats, generally plundered from whichever warring amusement the sultans undertook, well, you've got the idea: the Ottomans gathered golden thrones like we pick up postcards as souvenirs of their latest war.

Then there was an exhibit of holy relics, amazing stuff. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to photograph any of these things. What we could photograph was...ironically for an extra charge...

Harem (the opposite of halal) essentially means forbidden; no man other than the sultan could enter beyond a certain point, and that point was historically guarded by eunuchs. Yes, eunuchs. Ouch.

Quirkily, somehow it ended up that our little group worked within those same guidelines; only Colleen and I paid the extra fee to view the stuff of legend, the harem of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years, all the way up to the 19th century. The kids and men stayed outside.

It was beautiful. It was elaborate. And, was disturbing.

The Harem is the most popular part of the Topkapi Palace for tourists by far. Part of me spent time wondering why the facination, but most of me was feeling like one seriously cranky feminist. Which is probably foolish, but couldn't be helped. It's not as if I know how the life of a concubine compared with that of an everyday woman back then. Probably neither was that wonderful. As far as I can tell, the life of a harem girl would be comparably luxurious, and they were educated.

I think the education was a double-edged sword; the girls were denied any semblance of free will after all, and their very lives depended on the whims of the mother of the Sultan, and of course the Sultan himself, and then they were pitted against one another. Intrigue, plots, poisonings, and the killing off of male heirs to the throne was the way of the day.

Would it not be cruel to educate these imprisoned girls, taken from their families at a very young age? Mostly Christian girls (it is illegal for a Muslim to enslave another Muslim), up to 300 of them, intelligent, and, of course, lovely. Three hundred. Three hundred girls whose main, if not only goal in life was to bear a son by the Sultan. And then make sure he ended up on the throne by any means necessary. That's...just...creepy. Not erotic. Creepy. Is it just me?

If the Sultan were alive today, and I was in no danger of, you know, having my head whacked off, (which they did a lot of) I'm pretty sure I wouldn't hesitate to describe him as a serious pig. That's the cranky feminist part talking, there. What most infuriated me was the verses from the Qu'ran, forever in tile, that spelled out his right to do whatever he did, in one of the Sultan's bedrooms, no less.

Tiled fireplace

But again, maybe that's just me. It's probably really bad to call a Muslim a pig, so I'll be backing off now. Even though one of the Sultans (Sultan Ibrahim I "the mad") had his entire harem drowned in the 1600s over a highly unlikely rumor that one of them was seeing a man outside of the harem. So, after torturing a few and getting no answer, he had them all tied into sacks and thrown into the Bosphorus. All 280 girls. Well, that particular fellow only ruled 8 years and met his death by strangling. Lovely place, the royal court.

Which is not to say it wasn't physically lovely. It was. Unquestionably. Just...empty and a bit haunting. The tilework was unbelievable. The entire Topkapi Palace is actually a series of buildings around a green courtyard area, a small, royal city with a wonderful parklike feel to it. The Harem's true purpose was to be the the personal living area of the Sultan and his family. Having as many, or few slavegirls as he desired was each Sultan's choice.

Also of note was that the rooms were decorated in accordance with the Sultan's prefered sports team. Blues or Greens, apparently. This was MAN land for sure. You could also see rooms reflecting tastes from different centuries, moving from gorgeous Turkish patterns to more of what we might expect to see in a European palace, albeit with a distinctly Ottoman flair.

And cold. Very cold, I am sure, in the wintertime.

There were rooms upon rooms, which became something of a maze. Most of all, it felt like a cage, and honestly, I was happy to escape. And let me tell you, I am really, really happy to be an American woman here, today, and now.

Free to admire the walls of the harem, ponder their stories, and then leave them far behind.

Edited to add: This should not be read as an anti-Islamic or anti-male rant. Not at all -I'm fond of both of them. If anything, this is an anti-slavery piece. Please do not assign values of hatred to this blog as they have no place here. Not my style at all.


Ghost said...

Ha! You do sound like a cranky feminist but that probably me. I'm a guy, having a harem of beautiful girls at my beck and's a dream! Wish I was there

Natalie said...

Hey Ghost, more power to ya. What healthy guy wouldn't like the idea? We'll indulge you, especially since it's entirely fantasy. Now, when Mike read this post he exclaimed "Wow...this isn't like you, awfully negative." He's right. I surprised myself with how strongly I felt about the whole idea of it. But you know what? I couldn't pretty it up. So, with all due respect to the people of Turkey, and with gratitude to them for allowing us to visit the amazing Topkapi Palace which is nothing less than a national treasure, that's how I felt, and that's what ended up on the blog. Would I tell someone else to visit Topkapi? Absolutely. Would I say that the harem is 100% worth seeing? You bet. And whatever you take away from it is just fine.

*Paula* said...

I think I'd feel the same way Natalie. The more I learn about the past, the happier I am that I live where I do, right now. Molly and I were just discussing how different the world was when her grandmothers were her age. Loving the education you are giving here :)

AKBrady said...

That's why we travel, isn't it? Lifestyles have changed and evolved from what they were, but in some ways nothing has changed, maybe....hmmm, live and learn, and better oneself. We hope.

Friendly Neighborhood Librarian said...

I had no idea that the harem "girls" were slaves. Somehow it always sounded like a guy had lots of wives.
Some things in history deserve to have a negative light shone on them and this is one. - the thought that anyone could drown hundreds of women and the world was OK with that.
We've had similar things in our own culture, so it's not really a comment on any particular religion - This place just happens to be Muslim. The Salem Witch Trials and slavery in general was done here in the good old USA.