top of page


CONSTANTINOPLE [Istanbul] in early 19th Century. View of the Sultan's Palace [Topkapi] and the Bosphorus from Pera.


In 1810, Lord Byron and his friend John Cam Hobhouse arrived in Constantinople. During their stay, they accompanied the British Ambassador on a formal visit to the Sultan, Mahmud II. Hobhouse later wrote that the Sultan, dressed in yellow satin, his milk-white hands ‘glittering with diamond rings’, had an ‘air of indescribable majesty’. This was confirmed by the wife of the retiring British Ambassador, Robert Adair. She had attended the ceremony, disguised as a man.

The following year, Lady Hester Stanhope arrived in Constantinople. The Sultan ordered that she was to be treated with great honour, as befitted a close relative of a former British Prime Minister.

When Robert Adair left, Stratford Canning, [ later Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe ], became Minister Plenipotentiary in Constantinople in 1810.  He was an energetic young man with robust ideas on protecting British interests. He helped to mediate the treaty of Bucharest between the Ottomans and Russia. This was signed on 28th May, 1812.       









Two Cariyes [concubines] wait on the Queen Mother [Valide Sultan].

     An Iqbal - a Favourite of the Sultan



Life in the Ottoman harem was very different from what was imagined by Europeans.  In Ottoman society, as an institution, harem life reflected the secluded privacy of family life.
The 'cariyes' served the sultan's wife or his mother. Under the guidance of the sultan's mother, they were trained and educated in the skills and accomplishments considered appropriate for women at the time. They were taught to read and write, play music, and the intricate rules of palace etiquette and protocol.  After a certain number of years  ( usually 9 years) in service, they were allowed to marry.  Very few were honoured even by the privilege of waiting at the sultan's table, and still fewer became royal wives.  Hurrem Sultan  was a good, but rare, example of palace opportunities for cariyes. 

Before leaving, the harem girls or 'cariyes' were given their leaving document. In addition, they received a set of diamond earrings and ring, and some gold as their marriage portion. After the harem, their lives and well-being were closely supervised or else suitable husbands were found for them. Outside harem life, they were renowned for their good breeding and for their discretion, never being known to reveal any intimate details about the royal family to outsiders.

Nevertheless, graffiti on the harem walls shows that not all cariyes were content with their lot:

'Dilferib whose heart burns / Is wretched / O God / Alas alas.'

bottom of page