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Harem literally means “The protected sacred and venerable place”. Harem is the name given to the place, where women can spend their daily lives comfortably without encountering foreign people, generally with a view to the inner court in the homes, mansions and palaces. The reason that the women living there are also called Harem, which is a word derived from the word “intimate” is the prohibition by Islam of the entrance of especially the men with no blood ties with the women of the household (unrelated), to these parts of the house.


In the Ottoman state organization, the term “harem-i hümâyûn (the emperor's harem)” comprised both the Harem and Enderun. Hümayun is a mythological bird symbolizing wealth and fortune that we encounter in the Ottoman poem. It was believed that Hüma would bring wealth and happiness to any place that it landed or overshadowed. What makes Hüma different is its ability to fly in high altitudes, the impossibility to catch it and its ability not to fall into a trap. The concept of Hümayun as we use it in the Ottoman culture denotes the emperor and also means “belonging to the emperor” and appears in the Iranian and Turkish mythologies.


Enderun is an educational institution for bringing up the men who will be in the service of the sultan, palace and the state while Harem is an educational institution where women are educated, besides being their residence. In this respect, harem may be called a school where high-ranking women are educated. There is a ranking beginning from the concubinage up to mastership.


Women are one of the main elements and basic sources of the Ottoman Turkish music culture. The musical styles of women come across us in different forms in the urban and palace environment and local-suburban environments.


The most basic form of art where women are pictured with music is the art of miniature. Miniature Works rather depicts inside of the palace and the scenes of musical exercises of women there. A miniature painted in the 15th century during the reign of Sultan Mehmet, the Conqueror depicts women performing music together with men by playing harp and tambourine with jingles. Tursun Bey who lived during the era of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror has mentioned odalisque singers and the instruments they played in his narration about the circumcision feast  of the Conqueror’s children.     


“Hünkâr Sofası” (The Imperial Hall) is the central point of the selamlık section (the portion of the palace reserved for men) of the seraglio of Topkapı Palace. The hall built by the Chief Architect Davud Ağa who was appointed as the chief architect following the death of Mimar Sinan in 1585 was the ceremony and reception hall of the sultans. The lights entering through the baroque style windows toward the evening is dazzling, I advise you to be there during those hours. There are many musical instruments, particularly inside the special music room serving this site. The existence of this type of a music room in this place is very interesting in architectural terms and is an indication of the importance attributed to music at the highest level.


While musical education for men was continuing in the musical exercise room of Enderun in the Ottoman palace, the musical education of women continued with the lessons given by music teachers either in the Harem-i Hümayun or mansions outside the palace. The music room (meşkhane) where women had musical education served as a conservatory for them. This gave them the opportunity to deal with music and dancing more effectively both in the palace and city as educated music lovers and to develop a musical identity thanks to their self-confidence of having an education in the urban music. Women who had a musical training not only continued to engage in music as part of their daily lives, they continued their studies in the harem as musician, instrument players and composer and reached the level of being qualified as a teacher. Instrument players generally rised to the level of assistant and also worked in the other services of the palace. They were generally called “assistant instrument players” and their chiefs were called “head instrument player” or “chief instrument player”.      


Ali Ufkî who served in the palace during the reigns of Sultan İbrahim and Sultan IV Mehmet made the following observation while describing the music room of Enderun: “Musicians of the music room used to play in the presence of the Sultan at those times. Sometimes the Sultan was calling the women to his presence. In that case the head of musicians were covered with a scarf and they were instructed to play music with their heads bent forward”. 


Another important source about this subject is the visits and observations made by the European travelers. Female traveler Julia Pardoe, who concretely observed female musicians with her eyes from a woman’s perspective depicted Küçüksu, which was one of the most favorite recreation areas frequented by women, in a similar way and observed that the female musicians played instruments like harp, santur, qanun, circle and tambour.


In the 19th century there was a band formed by girls in the palaces of Esma Sultan (1778-1848), the daughter of Abdülhamid I and Adile Sultan, the daughter of Mahmut II. Abbas Pasha of Egypt presented a band formed by women to Bezm-i Alem Valide Sultan, the mother of Sultan Abdülmecid. The bands of Abdülhamid II’s daughters, Naime and Zekiye Sultan, were also very famous. We even learn from the memories of Lady Leyla who lived in the palace for years as the daughter of Ismail Pasha, who was one of the doctors of Sultan Abdülhamid II that there was a band and orchestra of 60 players with all female members. Likewise the English traveler M. A. Walker writes that there was a band in the palace of Zeynep Sultan, the daughter of Sultan Abdülmecid, dressed in uniforms for men and playing instruments directly used in band music such as trumpet, horn, flute, drum and cymbal, and he describes the band he saw and listened to at length. 


“Imagine a spacious empty room lighted through many windows. Fifteen to twenty women and girls plays various instruments sitting in a semicircular order. Just in the middle of them an ordinary man with eye glasses sitting in front of a music stand was tapping out the rhythm. This is the military band of the sultan and most of the girls were Circassian or Georgian. They were taking a music course under the guardianship of a tall eunuch slumbering in front of one of the doors in the hall. 



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