Loading Posts...

October Obituaries: Category XIII – Dilhayat Kalfa


In Memoriam

d. 1740

The harem of Istanbul’s Topkapı Palace was more than just a forum for the erotic arts. Like many of the concubines that preceded and succeeded her, Dilhayat Kalfa was learned, skilled and highly educated in many areas. She is notable in Turkish musical history as being the first known female Muslim Ottoman musician and the first with a respectable amount of music still in existence today. However, in Turkey – and especially in the Western world – very little information exists about her, and no in-depth articles about her are present in English. She is largely an enigma, and, save for some of her sheet music, a lot of what we know about Dilhayat can only be surmised from the Ottoman Archives of her estate and by looking at contemporary knowledge of the period.

Even the exact dates of Dilhayat’s life are uncertain. Many scholars give them as being 1710-1780, but more modern research puts stronger emphasis on her death being no later than 1740, with her date of birth being unknown. Dilhayat was raised in Topkapı Palace, the home of the Sultans throughout the Ottoman Empire. The name ‘Kalfa’ does not refer to her original surname but the rank she was given in the harem hierarchy. Kalfas were concubines who were relatively high up the harem pyramid and who were given important administrative tasks such as being the First Secretary and the First Seal-Bearer. It was a respected position in the palace and shows that Dilhayat had moved far up through her skills and intellect. Ironically, and in spite of the fact that she was a highly talented composer and musician, her estate records show no musical instruments as being kept in her house at the time of her death. This was most likely because, as she had a serious position in the harem, it would be looked down upon if she kept her musical interests as anything more than just a hobby.

In order to visualise Dilhayat’s position and context in the Imperial Harem, some understanding of its ranks and purpose is necessary. In the West, when we think of a harem, we picture it as little else than a place for lascivious activity where monarchs partook in all kinds of sexual indulgences, from personal convergences to all-out orgies. Certainly, much of the European orientalist paintings of the 18th and 19th century gave this impression too. While some opinion articles proffer that this was far from being true, the likelihood is that it was occasionally so depending on who held the throne. Over Topkapı’s lifetime from its opening in 1453 through to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, many sultans went through its doors, and each one had his own way of conducting his personal, political and sexual affairs. While many sultans such as Selim I, Mehmed III, Murad IV and Ahmed II are thought to have led quite staid sexual existences within the harem – with others such as Osman III despising the company of women altogether – it is doubtless that there were others such as Murad III and Ibrahim I who indulged in far more experimental sexual encounters with the women present.

Harem life is often inaccurately overeroticised in the Western imagination.

Harem life is often inaccurately overeroticised in the Western imagination.

The harem [stemming from the Arabic ‘haram’, meaning ‘forbidden’] was strictly the women’s quarters of the palace and combined the households of the Valide Sultan [the Sultan’s mother], the Sultan’s favourites [hasekis] and other concubines. It was an extremely important feature of the Ottoman court, and, as well as being the main living-quarters for the Sultan and his family was a place for education and training of the palace women, some of whom would be brought up the ranks to be the Sultan’s wives, and others who would hardly advance beyond being chambermaids, never even seeing the Sultan. Either way, all women within the harem had an important role to play within palace life. As such, the harem could be a competitive environment with some of the women being notably manipulative and spiteful in order to advance their way up the system.

The exact reasons for the existence of the harem can be traced through Ottoman history. The Ottomans relied on marriage through concubinage in order to continue their line. It was, at its basest level, an idyll of artificial selection so the Sultans could have the best sons they could to develop the family and Empire. Not only this, but seeing as the concubines would effectively have their identity stripped of them when first entering the harem, their own personal lineage would not affect or interfere with the Sultan’s. Taking wives from other families was thought of as particularly poor and dangerous practise since wives would often have vested interests in their own families, whereas concubines had no such luxury. Henceforth slave concubinage circumnavigated these risks, the power that the concubines had being earned throughout their time at the palace: it was up to the concubines to impress and find favour with the Sultan, not the other way round. The main aim of any concubine was to bear children for the Sultan and become his wife. This led to fiercely competitive interactions between some of the concubines, the most notable being between Mahidevran and Hurrem Sultan who suffered a bitter rivalry which lead to Mahidevran’s exile, while Hurrem went on to become one of the most powerful women in the history of the Ottoman Empire.


Charles Nicholls’ “Light of the Harem” shows an ambiguous concubine often thought to be Mahidevran Sultan.

Many concubines came from Eastern Europe. They were mostly bought from slave markets, kidnapped or sold by their poor parents, with some families encouraging their daughters to become concubines through the promise of a better and more luxurious life. Voltaire cited the Circassians similarly: “the Circassians are poor, and their daughters are beautiful, and indeed it is in them they chiefly trade. They furnish with those beauties the seraglio of the Turkish Sultan, of the Persian Sophy, and of all of those who are wealthy enough to purchase and maintain such precious merchandise.” When entering the harem they were termed ‘odalisques’, meaning they were general servants of the harem, and were often renamed upon harem entry according to their beauty. This was literally the entry-level and lowest rank. Nevertheless, the odalisques were still girls of incredible beauty and talent. They were taught dancing, poetry, music and the erotic arts. Those odalisques in training were known as cariye. They were trained under the kalfas and after graduation could be given to the Sultan as his personal maids or gedikli. The kalfas were assisted by lesser servants known as halayiks, who could be as young as twelve years old, each kalfa having six halayiks. Those gedikli who found particular favour with the Sultan would progress to become ikbals [favourites]. This was a high rank within the harem and if an ikbal bore the Sultan a child they would become haseki and be granted their own quarters and maids. If that child was a son, the ikbal would become a kadin, or wife, of which there were only four positions. The ultimate aim of any kadin was to become Valide – or Queen Mother – meaning she was at the apex of the harem pyramid, and controlled all aspects of the harem system from approving entry of the odalisques to all financial and personal matters within it. Ambition to become Valide sparked everything from vicious gossip to murder. There were pacts, alliances and ongoing silent campaigns between the women. Historian Alain Grosrichard described the harem environment as little more than a glorified “prison”.

The exquisite architecture extended especially to the harem bedchambers.

The exquisite architecture extended especially to the harem bedchambers.

We can see from this tier system the area that Dilhayat occupied within the harem. As kalfa she would have been relatively high up the harem line and overseen some of the more important duties with the palace. However, we know that she was also a very skilled musician. Even though hundreds of pieces can be attributed to Dilhayat, only fifteen have been confirmed as written by her. Ottoman classical music was much more complex than any Western system, working through makamlar [Arabic – maqamat] as opposed to simple modes and scales like in the West. Makalmar are particular modes which rely on micro and quartertones as well as half and whole tones to produce melody. As such, the Ottoman ear was far more acutely trained, each tone comprising nine intervals or commas, as opposed to just two in the West. A lot of the Ottoman rhythms were also highly unusual and even within a Western 4/4 system could have many complex rhythmic changes.

Out of the pieces attributed to Dilhayat, the best known are her Evcara Pesrev and Evcara Saz Semai, “evcara” relating to the makam name, and “Pesrev” or “Saz Semai” denoting their position within a fasıl [Ottoman musical suite]. Her work within evcara shows excellent knowledge, flow and melodic progression. She was exact in bonding a relationship between emotional and melodic meaning. As for her personal choice of instruments, it is hard to say exactly what she favoured: Ottoman music demanded a wide variety of different instruments, with many falling in and out of court fashion over the centuries. We do know that Dilhayat played the tambur, a long-necked stringed instrument similar to the bağlama, which also took its place within the court. Other instruments that made their way in and out of the palace at the time were the oud, ney, kemençe and kanun, all of which are still in use in Turkey today.

turkish instruments 2

A collection of instruments used in Ottoman music, L-R: oud, kemence, lavta, tambur, kanun. Credit: Xavier Serra.

Dilhayat’s life was primarily within the Sultanage of Ahmed III, who took the throne between 1703 and 1730. The Sultan’s rule was relatively successful and the finances of the Empire flourished under him. Particularly in the period of 1718-1730 the financial and cultural state of the Empire came to a zenith in what was known as the Tulip Era. This was a peaceful period in which society embraced a fondness for the tulip as an emblem of nobility and prestige. Tulips were grown everywhere in Istanbul and symbolised in art and architecture; a flourishing of artistic culture followed, and to this day the tulip is still seen in Turkey as an emblem of beauty. However, this period spawned an era of related excess which came to a head in 1730 when Ahmed had come to be despised for the intense level of pomp and luxury in which he and his first officers indulged. In the same year he was overthrown by his military and it is likely to be at this time that Dilhayat left the palace.

Unmentioned in many sources is the fact that Dilhayat rose above the role of kalfa and was promoted to usta, or treasurer. After she left the palace she was granted a place near Blue Mosque in central Istanbul with her two concubines. Before she died, she released one of her concubines from her service and kept the other, a black woman known as Taravet. According to her estate she left Taravet a healthy amount of jewellery, enough for her to live off until her own death. In spite of the fact that concubine workers attained high salaries, since they were all educated and lived in the harem, they had little to spend their money on there, and on retirement they had quite a healthy sum to live with. However, Dilhayat’s estate shows that she led a middle-class, unostentatious life. She is portrayed as a generous and humble woman who kept a wide variety of literature, and the amount of prayer mats and birdcages she left behind at her death shows her as being devout and with a particular fondness for canaries. She died single and possibly a virgin since there is no legal indication to say that she was married. At this time, no marriage indicated no loss of virginity: unless she had a relationship with the Sultan or married within the palace, there would be no casual relationships.

Though many portraits and images exist of concubinage and life within the palace, none can be said to be an accurate depiction of Dilhayat, though the illustration of Ottoman musicians is commonplace, especially through the Western orientalist painters like Frederic Arthur Bridgman and Rudolph Ernst. Dilhayat’s music is her most enduring asset, in spite of the importance she held within her office in the palace. Ottoman culture is often overlooked in the Western world, but the skills and arts that thrived within Topkapı show that the harem was a sanctum for all kinds of human accomplishments, not just of the erotic, but of the artistic and academic.

Written by Lysander

Known works:

Çifte Düyek Evcara Saz Semaîsi
Muhammes Mahur Saz Semaîsi
Hüseynî Peşrevi, (Hezar-Dînar) Hüseynî Saz Semaîsi
Neresin Peşrevi – Neresin Saz Semaîsi
Sakiyi Müselles Saz Semaîsi
Büzürk Peşrev
Evç-Çok mu figanım ol güli ziba hiram için
Evcara Peşrev
Evcara Saz Semaisi
Mahur-Ta be key sinemde ca etmek cefa vü kineye
Müselles Peşrev
Müselles Saz Semaisi
Rast-Nev hiramın sana meyl eyledi can bir dil ki
Saba-Yek be yek gerçi meramı dili takrir etdin
Sipihr Peşrev