We’re back! Apologies for the long hiatus, but we’ve been having some much needed R&R in the UK (yes, we needed a break from travelling because it’s hard work, but someone’s gotta do it, right?). We had a really nice time too, catching up with family and friends. Will post about that if we have the time.
Now on the final leg of our travels, we find ourselves in sunny Istanbul, which as many of you know, has a rich and glorious history. Sitting on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Istanbul, Byzantium or Constantinople or whatever you call it has seen the ebb and flow of many great civilisations and empires as well as had its fair share of glorious battles.
A recent battle that many of you may remember was the so-called “Miracle of Istanbul’. It was right here in the Attaturk Stadium, on the 25th day of the fifth month of the the year 2005, that a rag tag team of warriors representing the Liverpool FC performed stupendous feats of courage to achieve what is widely agreed to be the most astonishing comeback in the history of European Cup finals. Up against the might of an AC Milan side that boasted the likes of Shevchenko, Kaka and Maldini, no one gave them a chance in hell when they fell 3-0 down at half time. Then a six minute spell of utter magic in the second half orchestrated by captain Steven Gerard the Magnificent, plus a couple of miraculous saves by keeper of the goal Jerzy “Spaghetti legs” Dudek saw the Reds claw back from the brink of defeat to emerge as champions of Europe for the fifth time in the club’s glorious history. That night under the Istanbul sky, this group of young warriors ceased to be mere mortals and arose to become legends in their own right. Check out this video if you want to relieve that awesome night.
Other than that, Istanbul is a pretty nice place. In two days we visited some of the main tourist sites, including the Hagia Sofia, Blue mosque, Topkapi palace, and Basilica Cistern. We also went pants shopping along Taskim Road. To tell you the truth, this was quite a pathetic attempt at sightseeing actually. There’s a whole lot more in and around Istanbul that we didn’t see, but the weather was just too hot, there wasn’t enough time and we had to get back to our hostel to catch the Euro 2012 matches each evening.
The Imperial Harem at Topkapi palace piqued our interest in particular, because, you know, it’s a harem. So we forked out the extra charge to get into the harem, and spent some time browsing through the ongoing harem exhibition at the palace stables. We were amazed to find that rather than being the kinky stereotype we had in our minds (you know, of the Sultan lying in the garden being fed grapes by a bevvy of skimpily clad dancing girls), the Imperial Harem was actually a complex social system that was one of the most important elements of the Ottoman Court. It was also not altogether a bad thing for the young girls that entered it. In a nutshell:
- Young girls from around the empire are brought into the harem, either sold by their parents, or captured in war, or through the slave trade.
- In the harem, the girls were educated in subjects such as world studies, language and Islam, as well as taught various skills such as sewing, cooking and singing. They were eventually assigned specific roles around the palace, depending on what they were good at. These roles could be as important as keeper of the treasury.
- Around 600 people lived in the harem at any one time. The harem held an air of mystique to the folks outside, as no one, except for the Sultan, the Sultan’s mother, Black eunuchs and the occasional traders, were allowed inside. Nor were the girls allowed out of the Harem except for the purpose of carrying out their duties.
- The girls were freed after nine years of service, usually married off to noblemen who would appreciate their refinement and education as well as benefit from their connections to the Sultan.
- All of the Sultan’s offspring borne from the ladies of the harem (children of his official wives as well as concubines) had equal chance of being chosen as the next Sultan. The mother of the new Sultan would then rise to become the Valide Sultan, the second most powerful person in the kingdom after the Sultan.
Pretty interesting stuff, eh?
We know that the Malay Sultans of yore had their own harems too. And there are some written accounts of these. For instance, a late 19th century annual report for a certain Federated Malay State on the east coast written by the British noted that all girls residing in the royal town who reached a certain age would have to enter the Sultan’s harem for a few years. An even more bizarre article in an 1892 edition of the Milwaukee Journal alluded to the fact a certain Sultan of a certain Federated Malay State was arm-twisted by the British to accept a Resident after he ran into some trouble involving a Chinese girl whom he wanted to bring into his harem… Wouldn’t it be just wonderful if Muzium Negara held an exhibition on our Sultans’ harems too?
Note: This post is dedicated to our friends Alex, builder of railways and Ee Lynn, friend of animals, both loyal Koppites.
Disclaimer: Sara wishes to convey that she had no part whatsoever in writing the first part of this entry.