Istanbul is famous for it’s skyline, the most picturesque in the world, but beyond this city of winding cobbled streets, endless markets and eateries, there is a beguiling sense of the exotic that seduces the eye and the imagination.
From the bewitching conclaves of Topkapi palace, where Ottoman Sultans ruled and loved, to the glittering bazaars, ostentatious places of worship, and the understated elegance of a craftsman’s workshop, this is a reflection of Istanbul life through a series of rooms.
Topkapi Palace is unequivocally beautiful, with cool courtyards of marble, and pretty gardens spaced between the opulent pavilions and chambers. Accessed through a series of ornate gates, each massive courtyard progresses further into the palace, growing ever more exclusive and intriguing. Here, at its heart, lay the most exclusive community of all: the Harem, where the Sultan’s concubines remained in luxurious isolation. It was here that the mechanism of dynastic succession was ensured, with all its drama and tragedy. This unique institution lasted from the fifteenth century until finally being disbanded in 1908 when the last Ottoman sultan abdicated to make way for the Turkish republic.
But who were these mysterious women, kept in this gilded cage, hidden from the world?
Not withstanding the pressures on their mothers, jostling for power, it can’t have been a pleasant existence for the princes, assuming they had learned of their likely fate, despite the pampered lifestyle. There was little education in statecraft or diplomacy, and no opportunity to experience warfare at first hand. It was a pampered, shallow existence, and a recipe for disaster:
Take for instance, the story of Prince Ibrahim, who had lived his life in the cage and was considered insane. When his brother, Murad acceded the throne, he spared Ibrahim’s life, considering him to be of little threat, but Murad died suddenly without issue and there was no choice but to declare Ibrahim sultan in his place. Poor Ibrahim barred his door against the party that came to tell him the good news, suspecting it was a trick, that they had come to strangle him after all. He insisted they produce his dead brother’s body as proof before he would come out.
Finally released from his long confinement, he lost no time in making up for his years of deprivation, indulging himself in the women of his Harem. Dimitri Cantemir wrote in his History of the Growth and Decay of the Ottoman Empire, “In the palace gardens he frequently assembled all the virgins, made them strip themselves naked, and neighing like a stallion ran amongst them and as it were ravished one or the other, kicking or struggling by his order.”
He was said to have lavished money on furs, jewellery and mirrors to decorate his rooms, to the exclusion of governing, which he left to his mother and officials. At some point, Ibrahim sent his servants to find him the fattest woman in the world. They duly complied and provided Ibrahim with a 300 pound Armenian girl called Sechir Para, (Sugar Cube). He soon grew infatuated with her, and her influence over him eclipsed that of his jealous mother, Kosim. One day, Sechir told Ibrahim that one of the other concubines had been compromised by an outsider. When no-one admitted the crime, he went into a rage and had his entire Harem of 280 women tied into weighted sacks and thrown into the Bospherous, where most of them drowned.
Eventually Kosim disposed of Sechir, murdering her during a private dinner party. She told Ibrahim his favourite consort had died of a sudden illness. There was no doubt in Kosim’s mind that Ibrahim must also be put out of the way before he killed everyone around him, including her. Luckily, he’d fathered sons with his many consorts and was dynastically disposable. She had him locked up and strangled. He was succeeded by his six-year-old son, Mehmed.
Istanbul is steeped in history, from it’s Byzantine beginnings, through Roman rule, and Ottoman invasion. Each has left its trace within the ruined city walls, leaving us with a fusion of religions and continents. Many of the famous mosques gracing Istanbul’s skyline began life as Christian churches. Aya Sofya is probably the most famous of these:
A visit to Suleymaniye, provided another opportunity to capture some ornate domed ceilings, and sweeping chandeliers. Built around 1556, and it has a lighter, more modern feel than Aya Sofya:
This is very much an active mosque with many worshippers in daily attendance.
The Grand Bazaar is a treasure house of stalls, crammed within a confusing warren of cluttered avenues. Carpets hang alongside glittering lamps and Goldsmiths rub along with purveyors of Turkish delight, aromatic spices and the fake designer labels for which Istanbul is ignominious. This is a palace of trinkets, and promise. Who can say, there might even be an Aladin’s lamp or a flying carpet to be found in the gloomy depths of a quirky shop.
The last of my rooms belongs to a furniture restorer taking a tea break in the porch of his workshop.
Istanbul has much to offer the visitor, with cultural splendours in every direction, amazingly cheap and tasty food, fabulous shopping, stunning vistas, and at sunset every evening, the evocative call to prayer issuing from the city’s minarets. It is a city steeped in history and character, and bristling with life.