Istanbul, City of Islam

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By Luci Lizares

Saturday, March 29, 2014

ISTANBUL has always been in my bucket list and so I was elated to learn that it was our next port of call.

Turkey has always intrigued me, being a nation that had seen many civilizations from Greek to Roman but most significantly Byzantine and Ottoman. Istanbul is a historic country, once called Constantinople, and was named the European Capital of Culture for 2010.

Just as the Royal Princess was docking, impressive architectures with domes and minarets hugged the skyline. I could feel the adrenalin rush. As there were time constraints, we narrowed our tours to Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar. Hay… what a pity not to see the swirling dervishes.


Our first point of interest was the Topkapi Palace, the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans and their courts for approximately 400 years (1465-1856) of their 624-year reign in the land.

Aside from Topkapi being the imperial residence, it was also the seat of government. It had audience and consultation chambers and areas served for the political workings of the empire. The palace was a setting for state occasions and royal entertainments. Residents need not venture out as it functioned as an autonomous entity. It was a city within a city. Topkapi had its own water supply, a kitchen providing everyone for daily nourishment, dormitories, gardens, schools, libraries, even mosques. It even had a mint.

Topkapi was the heart, the brain, the very center of the Ottoman Empire.
From the exterior to interior, all rooms of the Topkapi Palace are richly decorated with Ottoman tiles dating back to the 15th to 18th century. The handmade tiles in different shades of blue, with floral or geometric decorative patterns were made especially for the sultan’s palace in Iznik.

Going from room to room, you can’t just help but say Wow!!! The tiles kept the rooms cool during hot summers and were relatively easy to maintain.

Tulip designs are found everywhere in Istanbul. The Tulip is the national flower of Turkey. It was Turkey who introduced tulips to the Netherlands hundreds of years ago.

In an area of 700,000 square meters, there are more than a thousand rooms, chambers and hallways in the Topkapi Palace. Intricate designs, frescoes, golden mirrors, tiles and more tiles make you gasp and gasp some more. The King’s chambers are luxuriously fit for a king. An interesting feature of the royal and government chambers is the ubiquitous fountains.

This was not only to cool the room but also to sound-proof it. There are many secrets in the palace and the fountains prevented the walls from hearing them especially since there are over a thousand servants for the kitchen alone.

Life in the Palace started at dawn. Everyone had to abide by strict rules and ceremonies, customs and traditions which were centuries-old. Even with the decline of the empire, these practices of decorum were rigorously observed. The etiquette observed in the Topkapi Palace surprisingly influenced the rules of protocol of the Western World.

The Sultans were sticklers for silence, secrecy and security. When emissaries and state ceremonies take place, absolute silence prevails. Those serving in the throne room were either deaf or mute persons.

However, there is one area that is totally restricted—the harem. This also got the best of our attention. The Imperial Harem contained more than 400 rooms. It was home to the sultan’s mother, his wives, his concubines, the rest of his family, including children; and their servants.

It is verboten to go beyond the gates of the harem. The only person who has access to the harem is the sultan, the queen mother, the sultan’s consorts and favorites, the princes and the concubines as well as the eunuchs guarding the harem. Every detail of Harem life was governed by obligation, tradition and ceremony.

The concubines were beautiful and intelligent girls brought in from neighboring countries either as gifts from nobles or sold by parents at a good price. They had to be foreigners as Islam forbids enslaving Muslims. They were brought up in the discipline of the Palace and promoted according to their capacities. They were educated in Islam and Turkish culture and language. The girls were taught reading and writing, poetry, music, dance, dress, make-up, comportment, embroidery and more.

Prisoners perhaps, but theirs was a life of comfort and luxury. The concubine with whom the Sultan shared his bed became a member of the dynasty and rose in rank to attain the title of Gozde, the Favorite. These Favorites who would bear children to the Sultan came next in rank to the Queen Mother.

As we ventured into the Courtyard of the Favorites, we wondered really how it must have been. Since they ascended by meritocracy, they must have really bested each other to gain the favor of the sultan.

Muslim tradition forbids any man to lay his eyes on another man’s harem, so “less than a man” took the role of watchful guardianship over the harem women. They are the eunuchs. They were castrated before puberty for a life of servitude.

Across the Harem’s Courtyard is where the Crown Prince resides in seclusion. His apartments were called kafes meaning cage. They were also called Twin Kiosk. The Crown Princes were trained in the discipline of the Ottoman Harem until they reached adulthood. After which, for further training in state administration, they were sent as Governors to the provinces.

More on Istanbul next week.

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on March 29, 2014.


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