In the harem
When I confessed in my last post that I had never been to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, the full truth was that I had never before been to Istanbul. So after some serious work on the antiquities, I made straight for the Topkapi Palace – HQ of the Ottoman rulers and the tourist high-spot of the city.
It was a nicely multi-cultural kind of tourism. Grubby backpackers in shorts rubbed shoulders with parties of head-scarved (and gratifyingly badly-behaved) Moslem school girls. Elderly guide book-readers shared benches with elderly Moslem pilgrims – there to see the numerous relics of Mohammed himself that the Sultans had acquired.
I left the relics till last. And once I’d paid the money and passed the security check (liquids, thank heavens, were still allowed), I made straight for the harem.
You have to pay extra to visit the harem and technically speaking you can only go round with a guide (parties leave every half hour). But despite fierce notices about not getting separated from your group, none of the guards seemed too much bothered if you hired an individual “audio guide” and wandered pretty much at will.
It’s an extraordinary place, wonderfully decorated, with some of the best views in the whole palace – and its intricate social and sexual hierarchies, and mechanisms of surveillance, are built into the architecture. It was hard to work out exactly how everything fitted together (that was presumably part of the Sultan’s point). But the basic principles were clear enough. The favourite women had better accommodation and were closer to the Sultan than the less favourite; the eunuch guards could watch everyone coming and going, with the help, if necessary, of some very big mirrors.
It is the politics of the place that poses more problems. The old orientalist image of decadent and luxurious sexuality seems completely out of fashion (except on the postcards and Turkish Delight tins on sale outside the palace). My guide-book (Time Out) had replaced this with an image of sheer terror. The harem, it stressed, was “a cut-throat environment . . .. the women manouevred, plotted, poisoned and knifed their way up the harem hierarchy.” And if the jealousies of the other women weren’t enough, there was the murderous whim of the Sultan and his eunuchs. “Some of them got their kicks stuffing girls in sacks, loading them into a boat and dumping them overboard in the Bosporus.” Two Sultans apparently disposed of their whole harems that way.
So it came a bit of a shock to find that the audio guide took a very different line. According to that commentator, the harem was a rather cultured kind of place. It was one of the few contexts in which a woman could learn the liberal arts -- and from time to time the soundtrack played music that, we were assured, was actually written by a harem resident. Many of the girls apparently went on to make happy marriages with members of the Sultan’s court. (“A bit like an Oxbridge woman’s college” I kept thinking it was going to say – but it didn’t.)
There is not much point trying to get to the bottom of this. For it’s actually a classic example of how difficult we find it, from the outside, to understand what actually goes on inside all-woman institutions. In fact, it reminded me of all those dilemmas Classicists face in working out how to make sense of the Greek poetess Sappho and her community of girls. Should we see her as a school mistress with a crush on her favourite pupils? Or was she more like a brothel keeper? Or leader of a louche lesbian coven?