Centre for Continuing Education

History Course: Topkapi Palace and the Harem of the Ottoman Empire, 1533-1659

History. See the future. It’s in the past.

COVID-19 update: arrangement of our courses

We are now delivering courses online and in-person. Please check the delivery format of each class before enrolling.

Please note that course materials (excluding prescribed texts) are shared electronically within 48 hours of course commencement. Printing is not available.

Join us on a fascinating journey through the magnificent Topkapi Palace to explore its art and architecture; the lives of its sultans; the culture of the harem; and the politics of the Ottoman Empire. Istanbul’s legendary palace holds the secrets of the women of the harem and the sultans who ruled for four centuries. It was once both a seat of government and a private residence, and is perhaps the best preserved of the Islamic medieval and modern palaces. The 500-year-old palace, which sprawls over four courtyards and more than 100 rooms, is now a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site and has retained its architectural aesthetics, giving great insights into the lives of those who lived and worked there. Conspiracies, intrigue and murder plots all played out within its walls, with some women of the harem advancing to wield great power, leading to an era known as the Sultanate of Women.


This course aims to give you insight into one of the greatest Islamic empires of all time, through an understanding of the palace’s timeless architecture and the political power wielded by those who lived there.


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • discuss the artistic and architectural aesthetics of the Topkapi Palace
  • discuss the purpose of the specific buildings of the Topkapi Palace and their roles in the everyday domestic and political life of its occupants
  • outline the culture of the harem and the includence of its women on the political makeup of the Ottoman dynasty
  • critically analyse the historical development of the Topkapi Palace from the 15th to the 17th centuries.


Part I: The Topkapi Palace

  • Origins of the Topkapi Palace
  • The seat of the government
  • Buildings of the palace and purpose
  • Changing nature of the art and architecture of the palace from the 15th to 17th centuries

Part II: The Harem

  • The layout/buildings of the harem
  • Art and Architecture:
    • Apartments of the concubines and eunuchs
    • Apartment of the Valide Sultan (Queen Mother)
    • Apartments of the Princes
    • Hamam (baths)
    • Private Quarters of the Sultan:
      • The Imperial Hall of the Harem
      • The Room with a Fountain
      • The Fruit Room
  • Harem intrigues
  • The Sultanate of Women 1533-1656: Hürrem, Safiye, Kösem and Turhan

Intended audience

Anyone interested in extending their knowledge of the Ottoman civilisation, institutions and cultural achievements and those with an interest in art and architecture.



Delivery style

  • Lecture with audio-visual presentation
  • Discussion with interactive Q&A
  • Analysis of written and visual sources
  • Researching materials and images of art works when required


Please bring a notebook and pen, laptop or tablet for the research tasks and note taking.

Recommended reading

Croutier, AL 1989, Harem: The World Behind the Veil, Bloomsbury, London.

Freely, J 1999, Inside the Serglio: Private Lives of the Sultans in Istanbul, Viking, London.

Goodwin, G 2006, The Private World of Ottoman Women, Saqi Essentials, London.

Grosrichard, A 1998, The Sultan’s Court: European Fantasies of the East, translated by Liz Heron, Verso, London.

Peirce, L 2017, Empress of the East, Basic Books, New York.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

History Course: Topkapi Palace and the Harem of the Ottoman Empire, 1533-1659

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