Harem is a fascinating attempt to separate fact from seedy legend. The viewer is placed inside Istanbul's Topkapi Palace during the 16th century reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, and given an authoritative glimpse into the lives of the concubines who worked and resided there.
Undoubtedly, there have been many stories about the Imperial harem that have been passed down throughout the years, and they've only grown more fanciful and salacious with each passing generation. That's presented a great challenge to modern day researchers and enthusiasts of the time period. This probing feature-length documentary presents the most historically accurate version of events that is currently available.
The harems were not the sex-drenched establishments many have been led to believe. The concubines were trained and mannered for the purpose of reproduction, and the Sultan was selective in choosing who would conceive his heir. The birth mothers did not have the same rights that were afforded to a Sultan's wife, but they were nevertheless entrusted with the care and nurturing of each child throughout their development. Of course, only one of them could become heir. When that moment came, custom dictated that they were to compete for the throne, and that the chosen one would be required to assassinate his siblings.
The filmmakers illustrate how these young girls were taken and molded from an early age. At times, the harem resembled an all-female university setting as each pupil was given rigorous training in religion, etiquette, and embroidery. In most cases, the harem women were better educated than most females in society.
The most riveting segment of the film recounts the unusual relationship between the Sultan and his concubine Hurrem, a slave girl from Russia who first entered the harem in 1520. She quickly became the Sultan's favorite, and ultimately gave birth to four of his five sons. Departing wildly from custom, the two fell in love and eventually married. This sparked a controversy that harbored seismic political and cultural implications.
Featuring polished reenactments and an ongoing commentary from a panel of expert historians, Harem shows us how these young innocents would ultimately play a central role in the history of the region.