Topkapi Palace is more than just an incredible building. Designed by a young conqueror, it was home to a long procession of Ottomans over almost four centuries and the backdrop to one of the most powerful empires in world history.
After the Ottoman conquest in 1453, Mehmed II found the Great Palace of Constantinople in ruins, and certainly no suitable residence for the young Sultan known as The Conqueror. Although he was just 23, the sultan had some grand plans - not limited to world domination - with Istanbul the heart of the new empire. The Conqueror cast around for the perfect site on which to build a new palace, and hit upon Sarayburnu, a hilly site with views over the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus.
During Greek and Byzantine times Sarayburnu was home to the acropolis of the ancient city of Byzantion. Either by coincidence or design, the Sultan chose to found his empire on the very place the original city was founded.
Design and construction
Under Sultan Mehmed II’s critical eye, building began in 1459, and was completed some six years later - a home in Istanbul fit for a Sultan. The Conqueror designed the palace’s basic layout, deciding that the highest point of the site would become his private quarters. From this core, buildings and pavilions grew outwards, spreading down towards the shores of the Bosphorus. The structure was surrounded by high walls, and incorporated some of the walls of the ancient acropolis. When it was completed, the palace was surrounded by five kilometres of walls and occupied an area of 700,000 square metres.
Wanting the end result to be a palace of such beauty and grandeur that it was talked about all over the world, the sultan employed the very best workmen from all over his kingdom. He took a personal interest in the quality of the work being performed and selected the highest quality materials available.
As centuries passed and sultans came and went, various changes were made to the palace, although Sultan Mehmed II’s basic structure remained.
A great many changes were made under Sultan Suleyman, between 1520 and 1560, who wanted the Ottoman Empire’s growing power and influence to be reflected in the great palace.
In 1574 a fire destroyed the kitchens. In addition to their rebuilding, the sultan of the time (Selim II) ordered the expansion of the Harem, baths and a few shoreline pavilions. By the end of that century the palace looked very much like it does today.
The result: a large complex of assorted buildings laid out in a rough rectangle. Few buildings are higher than two stories, and are built around courtyards and connected by galleries and passages. Trees, gardens and water fountains give the complex a natural, restful feel.
For centuries, Topkapi Palace was home to the sultan and his court. Like all the great palaces of Europe, it was an imperial residence as well as the seat of government. There was little need for its 1000 residents to venture outside: the palace and its grounds were a self-contained city with libraries, schools, mosques, doctors, kitchens and its own water supply. There was even a community of artists and craftspeople, known as the Community of the Talented, who produced some of the finest work in the empire. The sultan lived in peace and seclusion. Even within the palace there were secret passageways so he and his family could enjoy utter privacy.
The opulent palace was a centre for intrigue and often debauchery. Selim the Sot drowned in his bath after drinking too much champagne. Ibrahim the Mad was so called after a period of imprisonment lasting 22 years by his brother Murat IV. Murat had already killed four of his brothers and Ibrahim lived in terror that he would be next. The scheming Roxelana, concubine and eventually wife of Suleyman the Magnificent, who ruled in the 16th century, is another intriguing character who lived within the palace. Known as ‘the witch’ due to her influence and astonishing rise to power, Roxelana plotted with her husband to overthrow enemies, including one of the sultan’s own sons, who was strangled by five professional executioners, whose tongues had been split and eardrums broken so they could hear no secrets and could not speak of what they had done.
Following the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the Turkish government decreed that the palace was to become a museum, allowing curious visitors from all over the globe a glimpse into the secret lives of the sultans.
Visiting the palace
You will need at least three hours to do the palace justice.
The Ottoman practice was to seclude their sultan from the people, so the first court was open to everyone, the second to people on palace or government business, and the third and fourth was available to the imperial family, VIPs and staff. After entering through the Imperial Gate, you’ll find yourself in the first court, known as the Court of the Janissaries. On your left is the Byzantine church Aya Irini, built in the sixth century.
The Middle Gate takes you to the Second Court, from where the Ottoman Empire was once run. The gate was built by Suleyman the Magnificent in 1524, and only the sultan and his mother were allowed through the gate on horseback - everyone else had to dismount.
The beautiful, green setting of the second court contains a building with a collection of imperial carriages and some models of the palace. On your right you’ll see the palace kitchens, and on the left the Imperial Council Chamber, where matters of state were discussed while the sultan listened in through a grille in the wall.
You will need to buy a separate ticket to visit the Harem, and we highly recommend you do so as it’s a tour highlight. The popular perception is that the Harem was a place of debauchery. But the reality was that the Harem was a place for family gatherings, and was governed by law and tradition.
The occupants of the Harem were always foreigners, as Islam forbade enslaving Muslims. The girls were bought as slaves or were given as gifts to the sultan from nobles. The girls were taught about Islam and Turkish culture, as well as learning how to dress, how to play instruments and sew, and to read and write. After training they became ladies in waiting to the concubines and children. If they showed promise and were sufficiently beautiful, they were finally presented the sultan himself.
The sultan was allowed to have four wives, and as many concubines as he could support. Some sultans had up to 300 concubines - one sultan fathered 112 children. Interestingly, the Ottomans did not automatically grant the first-born son the throne, so all the ladies of the Harem fought to have their sons proclaimed as heir.
The Harem is built over six levels, but only a dozen or so rooms can currently be visited. Highlights of the tour include the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs, the Courtyard of the Concubines & the Sultan's Consorts, the Apartments of the Valide Sultan, the grand Imperial Hall, the ornate Privy Chambers of Murat III and Ahmet I, the Fruit Room and the Twin Kiosk/Apartments of the Crown Prince.
The main gate to this court is known as the Gate of Felicity and was the entrance into the sultan’s private quarters.
Just inside the gate is the Audience Chamber, built in the 16th century as a place for officials and ambassadors to conduct state business. Behind this is the Library of Ahmet III, built in the 18th century.
You can see an impressive collection of imperial robes, kaftans and uniforms to the right of the Audience Chamber. On the other side of the court you can see a set of holy relics in the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms. The relics include the Prophet Mohammed’s footprint, the rod of Moses and the sword of the prophet David.
The Treasury is a definite highlight of a visit to the palace. Used to store priceless works of art, it also boasts an incredible view from its balcony terrace. Check out the jewelled sword of Suleyman the Magnificent and Ahmet I’s throne. In the second room are tiny Indian figures made from seed pearls.
In the fourth room you can see the Treasury’s most famous exhibit, the Topkapi Dagger. It has three huge emeralds on its hilt and a watch in its pommel. There’s also an 86-carat diamond that was first worn by Sultan Mehmet IV at his accession in 1648. It’s the world’s fifth largest diamond and is known as the Spoonmaker’s Diamond as it was found in a rubbish dump and bought by a street pedlar for three spoons.
Also known as the Tulip Garden, the Fourth Court is full of pleasure pavilions. At the top of the stairs at the end of the garden are three of the palace’s most beautiful buildings, kiosks joined by a marble terrace containing a pretty pool.
You’ve also reached the palace’s most photographed spot: the golden roof of the Iftariye Baldachin is the favourite backdrop for snap-happy tourists. Built by Ibrahim the Mad, the small building was intended as a picturesque place to end the daily Ramadan fast.
At the western end of the terrace you’ll see the Circumcision Room, also built by Ibrahim.
A tour of Topkapi Palace is one of Istanbul’s highlights. Once a place of mystery and intrigue, visitors are now lucky enough to get up close and personal with some of the most intriguing characters in Turkey’s history.
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