Orientalists from St Petersburg University speak about the layout of the Ottoman Imperial harem in Dolmabahçe Palace
As part of the 17th St Petersburg International Book Fair, St Petersburg University has held a public lecture dedicated to the publication by the Turkish historian Dr Tuncay Cengiz Göncü, Curator of the historic presidential residence of Kemal Atatürk in Florya (Türkiye) — "The Harem of the Last Ottoman Sultans".
Mr Özgün Talu, Consul General of the Republic of Türkiye in St Petersburg, addressed the audience with a welcoming speech. ‘Turkish historical TV series are popular with viewers all over the world and, of course, in Russia. They explore Türkiye’s cultural and historical heritage, including certain aspects of the Ottoman period, thus fuelling the interest of the general public in the Ottoman Imperial harem and its inhabitants. Yet, it would be presumptuous to believe that TV series can satisfy public interest in history. To a large extent, the events depicted in TV series are fictional,’ the diplomat noted. ‘Dr Cengiz Göncü for many years has been engaged in museum tour guiding and curatorial activities in the Ottoman Imperial palaces. His vast experience was integrated and implemented in his academic research works. His monograph ‘The Harem of the Last Ottoman Sultans’ was translated into Russian with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Türkiye and published by St Petersburg University.’
It is a great honour for us to present such a book because it is extremely relevant. Studies on this topic in Russia are scarce, and there are very few translated publications as well. Our joint project contributes to the study of the history, ethnography, and culture of Türkiye, helping us to understand and maintain friendly relations with our neighbour.
Valeriia Malomuzh, Deputy Vice-Rector for International Affairs of St Petersburg University
The book "The Harem of the Last Ottoman Sultans" has been the first in a series of publications entitled "Studies on Modern Türkiye" by the St Petersburg University Publishing House.
Professor Apollinariia Avrutina, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Turkish Studies and Russia-Türkiye Relations at St Petersburg University, said that the publication aims to raise public awareness about the history, ethnography, and culture of our neighbour. Not only academic studies, but also popular science books will be published in the series. ‘The book "Harem of the Last Ottoman Sultans" was selected to open the series because for many of us Türkiye is mainly associated with three things: Anatolian beaches; Orhan Pamuk’s novels; and the "Magnificent Century" (Muhteşem Yüzyıl) TV series. The public perception of the Ottoman Imperial harem has been influenced by these associations due to the fact that this topic has been understudied in Russia,’ Professor Avrutina explained. ‘The public’s continuing interest in the topic, which remains largely unexplored, prompted us to choose this book as a curtain-raiser for the "Studies on Modern Türkiye" series and dedicate our lecture to the life of the Dolmabahçe Imperial Palace.’ Next publications in the series that are scheduled to be released in the near future are: "History of the Ottoman Miniature" and "Istanbul Tales".
Dr Tuncay Cengiz Göncü, the author of the monograph "The Harem of the Last Ottoman Sultans", finished the Istanbul Lyceum, founded by Pertevniyal Valide Sultan, who was the consort of Sultan Mahmud II and the mother to their son Sultan Abdulaziz of the Ottoman Empire. Cengiz Göncü graduated from Marmara University, where he defended two dissertations, one of which studies the architectural layout and administrative structuring of the Dolmabahçe Palace. In 1986, he began to work as a guide at the palace and collect material about the interiors and layout of the palace complex.
‘Working as a guide at the Dolmabahçe Palace, Cengiz Göncü realised how little was known about the history of the palace buildings and premises. In 1993, the part of the harem, called "concubines quarters", was opened for visitors. And along with the flow of tourists, a large number of prejudices about the harem began to form. This book was intended not only for foreigners but also to the author’s compatriots. Cengiz Göncü wanted to let them know the truth about the Imperial harem because the private life of the Sultan was always kept secret from the public,’ explained Aliya Suleimanova, Associate Professor in the Department of Turkic Philology at St Petersburg University and one of the translators of the publication. ‘Every day, Cengiz Göncü would pass through the Sultan’s quarters, pondering about the past. He then came to think that the palace and the ruler’s belongings might help him unravel the secrets of the past. As a true patriot of his country, Cengiz Göncü decided to move away from the generally accepted view of the Sultan’s life. Although someone may think that the author criticises the European view on this topic, you cannot help feeling his deep love for his homeland.’
The original title of the book is "Osmanli’da Harem ve Cariyelik", which translates as "The Ottoman Harem and Concubinage". The translators deliberately chose not to translate the word "cariye" with the Russian word "невольница" ("a female slave"), as it often appears in Russian-language sources, but to transliterate it into the Cyrillic script as "джарийе". They do not want their readers to imagine Russian analogues for positions in the harem that did not exist in the Russian Empire. ‘According to the author, it was not just a woman hiding behind the term "cariye", but the reality that Turkish women would enter the Harem not for a community of the weak, but for a better life. Indeed, for many of them it was a chance to make a career. From today’s perspective, it may seem ridiculous, but we must take into account the time period in question,’ said Aliya Suleimanova. ‘The Imperial harem was the ultimate symbol of the Sultan’s power. The harem’s activities were aimed at creating the image of the Sultan, performing the ceremonial functions in the palace, court, and hence, in the Ottoman state. Cengiz Göncü believes that concubines should be regarded as state employees. Only a small percentage of them were intended for the pleasure of the ruler, the ultimate goal being to ensure the continuity of the dynasty.
How the work was accomplished
Dr Tuncay Cengiz Göncü spent 11 years collecting material for his study. The monograph contains photocopies of authentic Ottoman documents from the Archive of the Dolmabahçe Palace, which was opened to the public only in 1989. Each of the documents included in the publication is accompanied by a Russian translation.
The readers of the ‘Harem of the Last Ottoman Sultans’ will be able to see a photocopy of the payroll records and find out that the concubines received decent monthly salaries for their work, while there might have been insufficient funds to maintain the army or navy. ‘The idea of the Ottoman Imperial harem as a brothel is fundamentally wrong,’ underlined Aleksei Obraztsov, Associate Professor in the Department of Turkic Philology at St Petersburg University, the scientific editor and translator of the publication. ‘No stranger had entered the harem up until the middle of the 19th century: only then the concubines began to receive the wives of foreign ambassadors. Before that, no stranger had been allowed to see them — neither Turkish subjects, nor foreigners. The few exceptions to the rule must have given rise to misconceptions. The first to write about the Ottoman harem was a Turkish Armenian Çelebi Ignatius Mouradgea, who worked at the Swedish Embassy at the Ottoman Porte in the late 18th century. For over 20 years, he collected material about the Ottoman Empire, including information about national customs and traditions, the interior of the harem, the mosques and the private life of Turks. His work, beautifully illustrated, was published in French. Mouradgea, however, was never allowed to visit the harem — his descriptions were based on rumours and gossip.
In the public lecture, the translators compared the palace complexes of Topkapı and Dolmabahçe and explained how their architectural layouts reflected the policy of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, the Topkapı palace, ordered by of the Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, towered above the surrounding hilly terrain, symbolically representing the Sultan’s power as the ruler of the two seas. The palace was built as a fortress, the walls of which were designed to hide the private life of the ruler. Sultan Mehmed II established the basic layout of the palace, where each room was designed to perform its own function. However, over time, the Topkapı Palace became outdated, like the Ottoman state system itself. By the beginning of the19th century, the sultans had begun to move out. Another Imperial palace — Dolmabahçe — began to be used as the main residence, its layout and appearance attesting for the reformation efforts in the Ottoman state, palace organisation and also in public life.
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