Inside the Seraglio: Private Lives of the Sultans in Istanbul

by John Freely

I (Dave, 2006) recently read this account of life in the Imperial Harem in Istanbul over the ages and found the following extracts which describe well the debaucheries of the Sultans, veiled life inside the Topkapi and other aspects of the harem that may prove to be interesting - and useful for fiction writing - to visitors of this site.

Sultan Murat III (1574-95)

"I am witness to the fact that these black infidels are so traitorous that they may fall in love with one of the odalisques and spend all that they earn on them. At every opportunity they meet secretly and make love. You might ask, do the odalisques who establish relations with these black eunuchs find pleasure in them? It is notorious in Istanbul that the odalisques find such pleasure. Two halberdiers of our unit who married odalisques from the imperial palace divorced them within the week when the odalisques told their husbands: 'We do not enjoy relations with you as we did the black eunuchs.'"

Ali Seydi Bey (18th century)


"Nor is it lawful for any to bring aught into them, with which they may commit the deeds of beastly and unnatural uncleanness, so that if they have a will to eat radishes, cucumbers, gourds, or such like, they are sent in unto them sliced, to deprive them of the means of playing the wantons: for they are all young, lusty and lascivious wenches, and wanting the society of men'"

Ottaviano Bon, Venetian bailo 1605-7

The Sultana

"She [Sultana Hafise] assured me that the story of the Sultan's throwing a handkerchief is altogether fabulous, and the manner upon that occasion no other but that he sends the Kuzlair Aga to signify to the lady the honour he intends her. She is immediately complimented upon it by the others, and led to the bath where she is perfumed and dressed in the most magnificent and becoming manner. The Emperor precedes his visit by a royal present and then comes into her apartment. Neither is there any such thing as her creeping in a the bed's feet."

Lady Mary Wortley Montague 1718

Harem girls

"The females of the seraglio are chiefly Georgian and Circassian slaves, selected from all that are either privately bought, or exposed to sale in the Avret Bazar, and, for many reasons, are admitted at an early age. We may readily conclude than an assemblage of native beauty so exquisite, does not exist in any other place."

"The Avret Bazar consists of an inclosed court, with a cloister and small apartments surrounding it. It is supplied by female slaves brought from Egypt, Abyssinia, Georgia and Circassia, who are exposed to sale every Friday morning. Those from the first mentioned countries are generally purchased for domestic services, which in a menial capacity, no Turkish woman will condascend to perform; their persons or countenances are rarely beautiful, and their price seldom exceeds forty pounds English. The exquisite beauty of the others is enhanced by every art of dress and oriental accomplishments, and they are usually sold for several thousand piastres. Many are reserved for the seraglio, where though they are considered most fortunate."

Dallaway, James: Constantinople Ancient and Modern 1797

"Here, through two small gimlet holes, bored for the purpose, they beheld very distinctly the features of the women, whom they described as possessing extraordinary beauty. Three of the four were Georgians, having dark complexions and very long dark hair, but the fourth was remarkably fair; and her hair, also of singular length and thickness, was of a flaxen colour' Long spangled robes, open in front, with pantaloons embroidered in gold and silver, and covered by a profusion of pearls and precious stones, displayed their persons to great advantage; but were so heavy, as to actually encumber their motion, and almost to impede their walking. Their hair hung in loose and very thick tresses; falling quite down to the waist, and covering their shoulders behind. Those tresses were quite powdered with diamonds, not displayed according to any studied arrangement, but as if carelessly scattered, among their flowing locks. On the top of their heads, and rather leaning to one side, they wore, each of them, a small patch or diadem. Their faces, necks and even their breasts were quite exposed; not one of them having any veil."

Edward Daniel Clarke (late-18th century)

Sultan Murat III

"He tried out many other beautiful young girls, whom everyone brought to him, and in this way began the life he now leads. This is very different from his old ways; he is now not satisfied with one or two but has relations with more than twenty. Every night he sleeps with two, often three. Since their religious laws require a man who has been with a woman to wash before going to another, he often bathes two or three times a night."

Morosini: Relazione 1585

"Most of the women go to the bathsin parties of twenty ata time and wash each other in a friendly manner ' one neighbour with another, and sister with sister. But it is common knowledge that as a result of this familiarity in washing and massaging women fall very much in love with each other. And often one sees a woman in love with another just like a man and a woman. And I have know Greek and Turkish women seeing a lovely young girl, seek occasion to wash with her just to see her naked and handle her'"

Luigi Bassano da Zara (Italian Page in Topkapi in the mid-16th century).

"When he had showed me many other thinges which I wondered at, than crossige throughe a litle sqar courte paved with marble, he pynted me to goo to a graite in a wale, but made me a sine that he myghte not goo thether him selfe. When I came to the grait the wale was verrie thicke, and graited on bothe the sides with iron verrie strongly; but through the graite I did se thirtie of the Grand Sinyor's Concubines that weare playinge with a bale in another courte. At first sighte of them I thoughte they had bene yonge men, but when I saw the hare of their heades hange doone on their backes, platted together with a tasle of samle pearle hanginge in the lower end of it, and by other plaine tokens, I did know them to be women, and verrie prettie ones in deede.

Theie wore upon theire heades nothinge bute a little cappe of clothe of goulde, which did but cover the crowne of her heade; no bandes a boute their neckes, nor anythinge but faire cheans of pearle and a jeull hanginge on their breste, and juels in their ears; their coats weare like a soldier's mandilyon, som of reed sattan and som of blew, and som of other collors, and grded like a lace of contraire collor; they wore britchis of scamatie, a fine clothe made of cotton woll, as whyte as snow and as fine as lane [muslin]; for I could desarne the skin of their thies throughe it. These britchis cam doone to their mydlege; som of them did weare fine cordevan buskins, and som had their leges naked, with a goulde ring on the smale of her legg; on her foute a velvet panttoble [shoe] 4 or 5 inches hie. I stood so longe loukinge upon them that he which had showed me all this kindnes began to be verrie angrie with me. He made a wrye mouthe, and stamped with his foute to make me give over looking; the which I was verrie lothe to dow, for the sighte did please me wondrous well."

Dallam (1599)

Ibrahim the Mad (1640-8)

"Previously frigid, dosed with aphrodisiacs and brought illustrated pornographic books. Treatment successful so that he became, according to Rycaut 'indulged in the highest excess of sensuality; for having been accustomed to a Prison, and restraint, he knew not how to enjoy the freedome he had recovered, but by subjecting it to the imperious servitude of his Lusts."

"As Murad was wholly addicted to wine, so was Ibrahim to lust. They say, he spent all his time in sensual pleasures, and when nature was exhausted with the frequent repetition on venereal delights, he endeavour'd to restore it with potions and art. Every Friday, which is the Turkish Sabbath, he dedicated to Venus, and commanded a beautiful Virgin richly habited to be brought to him by his Mother, Prime Vizir or some other Great man. He cover'd the walls of his chamber with looking glass, that his love-battles might be seen to be acted in several places at once. He order'd his pillows to be stuffed with rich furs, that the bed destin'd for the imperial pleasure might be more pretious. Nay, he put whole sable skins under him, in a notion that his lust would be inflam'd, if his love-toil were render'd more difficult by the glowing of his knees. In the palace garden call'd Chas, he frequently assembled all the virgins, made them strip themselves, and himself naked, neighing like a stallion, ran among them, and as it were ravish'd one or another kicking and struggling by his order. Happening once to see by chance the privy parts of a wild heifer, he sent the shape of them in gold all over the Empire, with orders to make enquiry, whether a woman made just in that manner could be found for his lust. At last they say, such a one was found and receiv'd into the women's apartment. He made a collection of great and voluminous books of pictures, expressing the various ways of coition, whereby he invented some new and before unknown postures."

Cantemir, Demetrius: The History and Growth and Decay of the Othman Empire 1734-5

"The heifer-like woman described by Cantemir was an Armenian from the village of Arrnavutk'y on the Bosphorus, who is said to have weighed three hundred and thirty pounds. Rycaut writes that Ibrahim became so enamoured of his new favourite that he could deny her nothing, which led to her undoing, for she incurred the enmity of K'sem: 'By these particulars the Queen Mother becoming jealous, one day inviting her to Dinner, caused her to be Strangled, and perswaded Ibrahim that she died suddenly of a violent Sickness, at which the poor man was greatly afflicted.'"

"Ibrahim now fell in love with a daughter of the mufti, whose charms had been described to him by 'eker Para. The mufti was well aware of Ibrahim's depraved character and did not want to give up his beloved daughter to him. But out of fear he disguised his feelings and said that he did not want to force his daughter into marriage, though he would try and persuade her to wed the sultan. Ibrahim was satisfied with this, but the mufti returned the following day to say that his daughter was not willing to go through with the marriage. 'eker Para was then sent to persuade the mufti's daughter, bringing with her an enormous diamond as a present from the sultan, but the girl persisted in her refusal. Ibrahim's patience was exhausted and he ordered the grand vezir Ahmet Pasha to seize the girl and bring her to the harem. He enjoyed her for a few days, but her tears and reluctance took the edge off his pleasure, so he eventually returned her with scorn to her father. The outraged mufti complained to Sofu Mehmet Pasha, a member of the Divan and also to Murat A'a, the commander of the Janissaries, who agreed that the time had come to depose Ibrahim and also to eliminate his grand vezir, a conspiracy in which they were joined by K'sem."

"He reposes in the courtyard of Aya Sofya along with Sultan Mustafa and his tomb is much visited by women, because he was much addicted to them."


All quotes from:
Inside the Seraglio: Private Lives of the Sultans in Istanbul
John Freely
Penguin, London, 1999