Excursions and Entertainments at the Ottoman Harem

Bunu Paylaş

There were four main sorts of entertainments in the Harem:

i. Excursions

So that the women of the Harem did not lead an entirely enclosed life, particularly in the summer, outside trips were organized called ‘beylik’ excursions. One of the most famous of these excursion spots in the Tulip Period was Kağıthane, situated on the stream which feeds the Golden Horn.

Tents and marquees were sent to the excursion spot beforehand, and these were set up connected by walkways so that the necessary rulings on the non-mixing of the sexes could be observed, and the women and slaves could wander about freely without being observed by any men who had joined the expedition who were outside the stipulated degrees of kinship. The same practices were observed even in the family gatherings held in the Palace gardens. The excursions were organized by the Chief and Second Secretaries. The Sultan’s wives, daughters, slaves, servants, and concubines climbed into their carriages and set off for the excursion spot. The convoy was led and accompanied by eunuchs on horseback.[1]

Formerly, many of the Sultans’ kadınefendis travelled to the places where their sons were appointed as beylerbeyis or sancakbeyis, and this was called a göç-i hümâyûn or nakl-i hümâyûn. Those who did not accompany them very often travelled to the palace at Edirne. In the 19th century, the palaces of Yıldız, Çırağan, and Beşiktaş took the place of Edirne.[2]

ii. Musical Entertainments

In Islam some music is lawful (helâl) and some is prohibited (harâm). Music which arouses elevated emotions and love of God is lawful; it silences the instinctual soul, raising the mind and spirit to lofty matters and eternal worlds. While music which excites lust and despairing sadness is proscribed. Music not specified by the Shari‘a is judged according to its effect on the spirit and conscience.[3]

Following fetvas issued by religious scholars in the light of the above rulings, the people of the Harem played musical instruments such as the lute (‘ud), violin (kemân), tambourine (def), castanets (çalpâre), flute (ney), and a sort of lute called a tambur. Groups for dancing, singing, and playing were formed out of the female slaves in the Harem. The slaves selected to be instrumentalists received training in the music school or from teachers in their apartments, particularly in the later period of the Empire. These players were generally concubines who had risen to the rank of kalfa, on whom there were no restrictions to their being in the presence of the Sultan or his sons. They were called sâzende kalfa, and their chief was the Sâzendebaşı.[4]

With the Westernization in the 19th century, the piano entered among the old stringed instruments, and even became the fashion in the Harem. The Sultan’s sons and daughters and even the kadınefendis learnt to play the piano.

With the exception of some entertainments held in the later period, throughout the Ottoman period, the players played music with a religious flavour which arouses elevated emotions, and was accompanied by the flute, lute, and similar instruments. This is learnt from memoirs about court life. Only rarely did any incidents occur that may be said to be unlawful. The unlawful musical amusements depicted in some books are entirely figments of the writers’ imaginations.

iii. Games and Amusements

It is known that the supposedly monotonous life of the Harem was broken from time to time by story-tellers, puppet shows, and theatricals, and that among themselves, the people of the Harem played games known as bekiz, köz, and sürme. In the 19th century, draughts, backgammon, and dominoes were added to these. Card games never exceeded the permitted limits. The female slaves of the Harem held musical evenings among themselves twice a week in rooms assigned to them. Dancing was also performed by a group of them. Formerly, male dancers were called çengi, but later they were called köçek and çengi was used for the girl dancers. But on occasion some of the Harem girls would dress up in men’s outfits and dance the köçek.[5]

After the Tanzimat, these old dances were abandoned in favour of European amusements. European-style dancing was introduced to the Harem in the reign of Selim III, and this was followed by the theatre and operetta.[6] Nevertheless, it was also attempted to keep these innovations within the bounds of the licit.

iv. Ceremonial

There were various ceremonies inside and outside the Harem which the women took part in, apart from births, betrothals, and weddings.

The Friday Procession (Cum‘a Selamlığı): Whenever they were in Istanbul, the Sultans attended the Friday Prayers in one of the big mosques, in the part of the mosque reserved for them. It is recorded that the mothers and Hazinedar Ustas of the Sultans of the later Ottoman period accompanied them to the Friday Prayers. Those of his daughters and kadınefendis who wished could also take part. But this custom was restricted to the late period.[7]

Holy Nights (Kandil) and the Surre Alayı: The Holy ‘Kandil’ Nights were very lively times in the Harem. Particularly in later times, the congratulations were offered in specially prepared halls. An enclosed area was prepared in the hall, and the invited ladies would take their places together with the Sultan’s wives and daughters. After the Mevlid (anniversary of the Prophet’s birthday) had been recited and prayers offered, the Sultan would rise and go to the Harem, where he would receive the ladies’ congratulations.

On Bera‘at Kandili (the sacred night of 14-15th Şa‘ban), the camel litter carrying the Sultan’s annual gifts to Mecca and Medina (Mahmil-i Şerêf) was brought into the Harem garden by the Chief Eunuch and other Harem eunuchs amid cries of “Allahu Akbar! God is Most Great!” All the women of the Harem would visit it here. The following morning the procession (Surre Alayı) would be organized. The Sultan’s wives and daughters all had poor families in Mecca and Medina whom they had undertaken to provide for, and to whom they sent money, goods, and other charity. All these were placed in bags and sealed, then handed over to the procession by means of the Chief Eunuch. The women watched the procession from suitable vantage points.[8]

Ramadan: When the month of Ramadan came round, a religious atmosphere pervaded the whole Palace and Harem. Everyone kept the fast, and those who could recited the Qur’an.

“Ramadan in the Harem was wonderful. Preparations began a week beforehand; a thorough cleaning was done, and large jugs of every sort of sherbet and foods for breaking the fast were sent from the Imperial Pantries to all the apartments. On the first night of Ramadan gilded cages were set up on all the tables, prayer mats were spread and an imam and two mu’ezzins with fine voices would come. Prayers were performed and religious songs were sung. At night the doors would be opened, the trays of foods brought, and everyone would stay up until the cannon was fired for the start of the fast. At noon a religious teacher would come and preach. The cannon would be fired at sunset and the fast broken with Zamzam water, the tables set for iftar, iced lemonade and sherbets drunk… In Ramadan, more than anything the Harem resembled a mosque, everyone passed their days in worship…”[9]

Visiting the Mantle of the Prophet (PBUH) (Hirka-i Sa’âdet): On the fifteenth of Ramadan, the Sultan, the princes, the Sultan’s wives and all his family and attendants would visit the apartments housing the holy relics. This ceremony gained greater importance after the move to Dolmabahçe Palace in 1853. Then, all the women of the Harem would don their finest gowns, climb into the carriages waiting outside and travel in grand procession to Topkapı. They would be accompanied by eunuchs on horseback. The procession would enter by the Carriage Gate and would be met by the eunuchs there. On arriving at the Harem, they were met by the women conducting the ceremonies and taken to apartments to rest until the doors of the relics apartments were opened.

When the doors were opened, the women would line up in order of precedence and move towards the Holy Mantle. First would be the Sultan’s Mother, if alive. Everyone’s heads were veiled. Incense would be burning and from behind a curtain would come the sound of a fine-voiced mu’ezzin reciting the Qur’an. The women would put their faces to the blessed Mantle of the Prophet (PBUH). Afterwards they would greet the Sultan and return to their apartments.

Night of Power Procession (Kadir Alayı): A procession was held on the 27th Ramadan, the Night of Power. Those held in the Nusretiye Mosque in Tophane or the Hamidiye Mosque in Yıldız Palace were always magnificent. The women of the Harem would watch from their carriages, drawn by pairs of fine horses, parked in the squares outside. They would watch the fireworks set off and after the prayers for the occasion, make a short tour of the city to watch the celebrations. They would then return to the Harem.[10]

Celebrating the Feast at the End of Ramadan (Mu‘âyede): Preparations for the feast marking the end of Ramadan (Bayram) would continue for days. A week beforehand the cleaning would be done and new clothes obtained. Roundabouts, swings, and other means of enjoyment would be set up in the Palace gardens. The princes, and at night the princesses, would enjoy themselves here.

The mutual congratulating of the Feast in the Palace was called mu’âyede. It was held in front of the Middle Gate of Topkapı Palace, and after the move to Dolmabahçe, in the Festival Hall.

When in Topkapı, the Sultan would perform the prayers of the feast in Aya Sophia or Sultan Ahmed Mosque, processing there with splendid pomp and circumstance. The women of the Harem would go beforehand in their carriages to where the procession passed, to watch it. On the morning of the Feast, the women of the Sultan’s family who lived in palaces outside Topkapı —or later Dolmabahçe— would come to greet the Sultan. They would be met at the Harem door by the eunuchs, and then taken inside it by the Chief Housekeeper and Secretaries (Kethüda Kadın and Kâtibe). They would be shown to apartments prepared for them.

After greeting and congratulating each other on the Feast, the women of the Harem would await the Sultan. With great ceremony and directed by the Hazinedars and Secretaries, the Sultan would enter. This was announced by the Chief Secretary in loud voice. Then in order of precedence, bowing so low as to touch the ground, all the women of the Harem would greet and congratulate him. The Sultan would make return visits to his wives and daughters.

While the women were congratulating each other inside, celebrations would be held outside in the courtyard. The children would look on as clowns performed accompanied by pipes and drums, boy dancers danced, and jugglers and puppeteers gave their shows. The women would watch from behind their latticed windows. Guests and the people of the Harem would be invited to the Sultan’s guest rooms, where entertainments of a lawful nature would be laid on.[11]


[1] Uluçay, Çağatay, Harem II, Ankara 1992, p. 150-151; Ottoman Archives, Cevdet-Saray, No: 3858. See Penzer, N. M., The Harem, London 1936.
[2] Ünüvar, Safiye, Saray Hâtıralarım, Istanbul 1964, p. 19; Uluçay, Çağatay, Harem II, p. 152; Topkapı Palace Archives, No: E. 4002, 11842.
[3] Nursî, Bediüzzaman Said, İşârât’ul-İ’câz, İstanbul, Sözler Yayınevi 1986, 77-78.
[4] Ottoman Archives, İbn’ül-Emin, Saray, No: 710, 711, 883, 877, 946; Uluçay, Çağatay, Harem II, p. 154.
[5] Uluçay, Çağatay, Harem II, p. 154-157; Ottoman Archives, İbn’ül-Emin, Saray, No: 710.
[6] Osmanoğlu, Ayşe, Babam Sultan Abdülhamid, Istanbul 1994, p. 73-77.
[7] Osmanoğlu, Ayşe, Babam Sultan Abdülhamid, p. 62.
[8] Osmanoğlu, Ayşe, Babam Sultan Abdülhamid, p. 65-64; Uluçay, Çağatay, Harem II, p. 160-161.
[9] Osmanoğlu, Ayşe, Babam Sultan Abdülhamid, p. 65-68.
[10] Osmanoğlu, Ayşe, Babam Sultan Abdülhamid, p. 88; see Hünernâme, IU Library.
[11] d’Ohsson, Muradgea Ignace, Tableau Général de L’Empire Othoman, Paris 1790, iii, (Turkish trans. Ayda Düz, Harem-i Hümâyûn, Hayat Tarih Mecmuası Ilavesi, İstanbul 1972), p. 1-32; Osmanoğlu, Ayþe, Babam Sultan Abdülhamid, p. 72-79.

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