Topkapi Palace Harem

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The concept of the harem in Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, has provoked much speculation. Curiosity about the unknown and inaccessible inspired highly imaginative literature among the people of the western world. People always basically thought that in a harem there were hundreds of beautiful girls and a sultan who had fun with all of them. This is generally not correct as the sultan could not, perhaps unfortunately for him, just leap into a roomful of beauties and have his way. There were certain rules with life in the Harem.

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The word harem which in Arabic means “forbidden” refers to the private sector of a Muslim household in which women live and work; the term is also used for women dwelling there. In traditional Muslim society the privacy of the household was universally observed and respectable women did not socialize with men to whom they were not married or related. Because the establishment of a formal harem was an expense beyond the means of the poor, the practice was limited to elite groups, usually in urban settings.

Since Islamic law allowed Muslims to have a maximum of four wives, in a harem there would be up to four wives and numerous concubines and servants. Having a harem, in general, was traditionally a mark of wealth and power. Though the women of the harems might never leave its confines, their influence was frequently of key importance to political and economic affairs of the household, with each woman seeking to promote the interests of her own children.

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The most famous harems were those of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. The harems of the Ottoman Turkish rulers were elaborate structures concealed behind palace walls, in which lived hundreds of women who were married, related to, or owned by the head of the household.

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