Turkey 2. Welcome to the Harem.

Several years back, I got hooked on The Lymond Chronicles, a series of historical novels by Scottish writer Dorothy Dunnett.  The fourth novel in the series, Pawn in Frankincense (which I have now read about four times), brings our hero to ‘Stamboul’ in the year 1544.  The court of Suleiman the Magnificent, in particular his notorious wife the Sultana Roxelana, have a huge impact on the lives of the main characters, and some of the most dramatic events of the series take place in Topkapı Palace.

Suleiman the Magnificent

Suleiman the Magnificent

Sultana Roxelana

Sultana Roxelana





Romantic notions dialed up to eleven, I was absurdly excited to see the harem where Philippa and Kuzum spent months evading the clutches of the evil Gabriel, walk the Golden Road, and perhaps even find the audience chamber where Roxelana commanded Lymond to play a brutal game of live chess.

I know that the Topkapı of today looks very different from how it would have looked in 1544, but that didn’t stop me from trying to retrofit the reality to the fiction.



The gates of Topkapı Palace.

The gates of Topkapı Palace.

The enormous doors at the palace entrance gave me a little chill; I couldn’t help but think of the many young women who passed through those gates, never to leave.


In reality, I believe women were brought to the harem through another more lowly entrance, but I wasn’t about to let pesky historical details interfere with the fun of trying to fit scenes from the book to various locations in the palace.

The line to enter the harem was unusually short, so we started there. The decor was a strange hodgepodge of styles, from the famous Ottoman Iznik tiles to European-style murals of fruits and flowers.





A fireplace hood.

A fireplace hood.

Small fountains were built into the walls of many rooms so the inhabitants could hear the constant soothing trickle of running water.

Wall fountain

Which brings me, in a rather awkward segue, to the topic of Turkish toilets.

I never know quite what to expect when going to a public toilet in a foreign land, and in spite of warnings about ‘bomb sites’ I was taken by surprise by my first squat toilet in Turkey, and the fact that I was expected to pay for the privilege of using it.

Yes, I took a picture. I couldn’t resist. I decided against inserting it here — that didn’t seem very classy. Instead, I’ve added it to the very end of this post, available for your edification should you be considering travel to Turkey.

Honestly, once you get used to them, the squat toilets aren’t so bad. Most ‘water closets’ (WCs) actually had both kinds (squat and bowl style), and by the end of the two weeks, I didn’t care nearly as much which style I encountered. I did send some psychic love to my Austrian friends, who helped me get comfortable with quick ‘pee stops’ behind random shrubbery while hiking the Jakobsweg, and to Norway for getting me used to pay toilets. If paying for them means they are cleaner and there are more of them, then sign me up! The cost was only 1 TL, or about 50 cents, so it was quite a bargain compared to paying $1.50 in the US for a pack of gum in order to use the ‘Restrooms for Customers Only.’


There isn’t really a graceful way for me to transition back to the harem, except to say that with all that running water trickling in the wall fountains, I hope the WCs were plentiful.

I couldn’t help but notice the bars on all of the windows. I’m pretty sure these weren’t installed in 1544, but they fit with my image of the place as a well-decorated prison.

Window Bars

Although many women were brought to the harem as captured slaves, by most accounts it wasn’t too rough a life, especially once Suleiman married Roxelana and stopped availing himself of the young women in his harem. The worst danger from a life of endless manicures, hair braiding, and exfoliation is probably death from boredom, but I think I’d have chosen that over the fate of the young boys brought to the harem. Past a certain age, they were turned into eunuchs.

I’m not sure of the translation of this panel … rules of conduct, perhaps? Some verses of scripture?


The Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan), a very powerful woman in the palace hierarchy, had rooms within the harem.


Her sitting room was painted in a dainty European style.


The Golden Road was the walkway to the Sultan’s quarters, which I guess makes it one of the original ‘corridors of power.’  To be honest, it sounded a lot more impressive in print than it looked in real life.

The Golden Road.

The Golden Road.

In one of my favorite scenes in Pawn in Frankincense, Philippa runs to the highest point in the harem to look out a window, searching for Lymond’s ship as it sails up the Bosporous and enters the Golden Horn. The closest window I found that fit the description presented me with a comical modern version of the scene, complete with luridly painted cruise ship.


It felt good to leave the harem and wander the sunny courtyards of the palace.






Palace balconies overlook the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphoros Strait. We ate lunch under the umbrellas in the restaurant attached to the palace.


I blame this first lovely cup of Turkish Coffee for an addiction that lasted well after we got home.


Leaving Topkapı to explore greater Istanbul, I had to admit that the palace had not quite lived up to my expectations. In spite of the tiles and the murals and daggers sporting egg-sized emeralds, it seemed small and mundane compared to the Topkapı of my imagination. Dorothy Dunnett was an impeccable historian, so I hope her shade will forgive me if I can’t quite bring myself to let go of my version.

That evening, we ate dinner at the local ‘fish house,’ and experienced first-hand two Istanbul specialties: fresh fish, and stray cats.


I fed this lucky fellow the eyeball from my fish. After that, he considered me his personal territory and did not hesitate, small as he was, to fight with other cats that tried to woo me.


You could definitely tell the cat lovers among the diners — the best efforts of the proprietors to shoo away the cats were undone by patrons ‘accidentally’ dropping bits of fish onto the sidewalk.

The following day, we visited friends both old and new.


Turkish Toilet