The Gilded Cage… A Secret World of Luxury and Confinement

The Ottoman Empire dates from between the end of the 13th Century until the early 20th Century, and was founded by the Oghuz Turkish Tribal leader, Osman I, in the town of Söğüt.

In Turkey’s early history, leadership of the Empire typically passed from father to son, and it was commonplace for succession wars between rivalling siblings to claim power and the throne. Quite often, once a new Sultan had taken his place on the throne, he would order that his brothers be killed, children and babies included, sometimes dozens at a time.  This, of course, lead to the line of succession being greatly reduced and threatened the Ottoman line, who what to do?

This lead to the creation of “Kafes”, quite literally meaning “the cage” and was part of the Imperial Harem on the Ottoman Empire.

The Imperial Harem was a secret world away from prying eyes, where wives, servants, concubines and female relatives where held; governed, educated and enjoyed by the Sultan and his court.  The entrance was hidden and inside the Harem was a guilded cage of luxury, completely devoid of freedom.  Decorated in green and blue tiles, lined in gold and plush furnishings, the outside world was just a memory for those who lived there.

As such, it also became the perfect solution to the threat of the Ottoman line ending and therefore also became home of the possible successors, providing security without bloodshed for the incumbent Sultan, and the assurance of the continuation of the Ottoman Dynasty.

Brothers, cousins and nephews where all confined to the cage, typically after they had left the women’s quarters of the Harem at puberty.  Strangely, this also marked the end of their education and therefore this adopted practice meant that many sultans were ill-equipped to govern affairs of the state, having had no experience outside of the cage; the duration of their time there, having had only servants and the women of the harem for company.

The level of confinement differed from one Sultan to the next and, at times, the imprisoned where only allowed to lay with barren concubines. This meant that they were only able to father children after their succession to the position of Sultan.

In later years, a “rule of elderness” was practiced, which gave priority of succession to older brothers or cousins, meaning sons grew old and died before ever being released from their confinement.

Prolonged confinement to the cage often affected the mental state of those held, and it is said that some committed suicide to escape from their captive state.

In later years, the cage become a metaphor rather than an actual place; the heir of the last ruling Sultan confined to an apartment of this own choosing in the Dolmabahce Palace, located on the shores of Bosphorus, in Istanbul.

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