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Commandingly located on the very tip of the promontory on which the Old City of İstanbul is set is the Topkapı Palace. The symbolic and political centre of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries, its sheer opulence defies its origins in the tented encampments of nomadic Turkic warriors. Originally known as Sarayı Cedid, or New Palace, Topkapı was built between 1459 and 1465 as the seat of government of the newly installed Ottoman regime. Similar to the Alhambra of Granada and just as unmissable, the palace consists of a collection of buildings arranged around a series of courtyards and attractive gardens.
The first courtyard and Aya Irene
The first courtyard, the palace’s service area, entered from the street through Mehmet the Conqueror’s Bab-ı Hümayün, the great defensive imperial gate opposite the fountain of Ahmet III, was always open to the general public. The palace bakeries are behind a wall to the right of the courtyard and the buildings of the imperial mint and outer treasury are behind the wall north of the church of Aya Irene. In front of Aya Irene were located the quarters of the straw-weavers and carriers of silver pitchers, around a central courtyard in which the palace firewood was stored.
Today, Aya Irene, “the Church of the Divine Peace”, is only opened for large groups by special request at the Directorate of Aya Sofya, located at the entrance of Aya Sofya, It is also open for concerts, especially in the summer İstanbul music festival. The original church was one of the oldest in the city, but it was rebuilt along with Aya Sofya after being burnt down in the Nika riots of 532.
Ortakapı, the second courtyard and the Divan
To reach the second courtyard you pass through the Bab-üs Selam, “the Gate of Salutations”, otherwise known as the Ortakapı, or middle gate (where the entry fee is collected). Entering through Ortakapı, with the gateway to the third courtyard straight ahead of you, the Privy Stables of Mehmet II (closed to the public) are on your immediate left, while beyond them are the buildings of the Divan and the Inner Treasury and the entrance to the Harem. Opposite the Divan, on the right side of the courtyard, is the kitchen area.
The gardens between the paths radiating from the Ortakapı are planted with ancient cypresses and plane trees, rose bushes and lawns. Originally they would also have been resplendent with peacocks, gazelles and fountains. Running water, considered to have almost mystical properties by Muslims, was supplied in great quantity to the palace from the Byzantine cistern of Yerebatan Sarnıçı. This second courtyard would have been the scene of pageantry during state ceremonies, when the sultan would occupy his throne beneath the Bab-üs Saadet, “the Gate of Felicity”.
Entering the buildings of the Divan, to the left of the courtyard, is a metal grille in the Council Chamber (the first room on the left), called “the Eye of the Sultan”. Through this he could observe the proceedings of the Divan, where the eminent imperial councillors sat in session and which took its name from the couch running around the three walls of the room. The building dates essentially from the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror, and the Council Chamber was restored to its sixteenth-century appearance in 1945, with some of the original İznik tiles and arabesque painting. Next to the Divan is another building from Mehmet the Conqueror’s original palace, the Inner Treasury, a six-domed hall with displays of Ottoman and European armour.
Across the courtyard are the palace kitchens and cooks’ quarters, with their magnificent rows of chimneys. The ten kitchens, which had a staff of 1500, all served different purposes, including two just to make sweets and helva.
The third courtyard
As you pass through the Bab-üs Saadet, “the Gate of Felicity”, the Throne Room is immediately in front of you. This building, mainly dating from the reign of Selim I, was where the sultan awaited the outcome of sessions of the Divan in order to give his assent or otherwise to their proposals. The grey marble building at the centre of the third courtyard, the Ahmet III Library, is restrained and sombre compared to his highly decorative fountain outside the gates of the palace.
The room to the right of the gate and throne room and library, southwest of the courtyard, is the Hall of the Expeditionary Force, sometimes referred to as the Hall of the Campaign Pages (Seferli Koğuşu), which houses a collection of embroidery and a very small selection from the imperial costume collection.
The two-storey Imperial Treasury is housed in the rooms that once functioned as the Pavilion of Mehmet II, which takes up most of the southeast side of the third courtyard, to the right of the entrance. This two-storey building, with its colonnaded terrace, boasts the shell-shaped niches, stalactite capitals and pointed window arches so typical of the fifteenth century.
The first room contains a number of highly wrought and extremely beautiful objects, including a delicate silver model of a palace complete with tiny birds in the trees, a present to Abdül Hamid II from Japan. The big crowd-puller in room two is the Topkapı Dagger, which starred alongside Peter Ustinov in the Sunday-matinée classic Topkapi. A present from Mahmut I to Nadir Shah that was waylaid and brought back when news of the shah’s death reached Topkapı, the dagger is decorated with three enormous emeralds, one of which conceals a watch. In the third room is the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, the fifth largest diamond in the world.
The fourth room boasts a bejewelled throne, and the hand and part of the skull of John the Baptist, but otherwise it’s a relative haven of restraint and good taste. Ivory and sandalwood objects predominate, refreshingly simple materials whose comparative worth is determined by craftsmanship rather than quantity.
Across the courtyard from the Treasury, the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle houses the Rooms of the Relics of the Prophet, holy relics brought home by Selim the Grim after his conquest of Egypt in 1517. The relics were originally viewed only by the sultan, his family and his immediate entourage on days of special religious significance. They include a footprint, hair and a tooth of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as his mantle and standard, swords of the first four caliphs and a letter from the Prophet to the leader of the Coptic tribe.
The fourth courtyard
The fourth courtyard is entered through a passageway running between the Hall of the Treasury and the display of clocks and watches in the Silahdar Treasury. It consists of several gardens, each graced with pavilions, the most attractive of which are located around a wide marble terrace beyond the tulip gardens of Ahmet III.
The Baghdad Köşkü, the cruciform building to the north of the terrace, is the only pavilion presently open to the public. It was built by Murat IV to celebrate the conquest of Baghdad in 1638. The exterior and cool, dark interior are tiled in blue, turquoise and white, and the shutters and cupboard doors are inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl. If you think this is redolent of unseemly excess, take a look at the attractive pool and marble fountain on the terrace, scene of debauched revels among İbrahim I and the women of his harem. Deli İbrahim, or İbrahim the Mad, emerged dangerously insane from 22 years in the Cage, his reign culminating in a fit of sexual jealousy when he ordered death by drowning in the Bosphorus for the 280 concubines of his harem – only one of them lived to tell the tale, picked up by a passing French ship and taken to Paris.
The Circumcision Köşkü, in the Portico of Columns above the terrace, also dates from the reign of İbrahim the Mad. The exterior is covered in prime-period İznik tiles of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. At the other end of the Portico of Columns is the Revan Köşkü, built to commemorate the capture of Erivan in the Caucasus by Mehmet IV.
The Mecidiye Köşkü – the last building to be erected at Topkapı – commands the best view of any of the Topkapı pavilions. It’s been opened as the expensive Konyali café and on a clear day from its garden terrace you can identify most of the buildings on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus.
It is well worth visiting the Harem as many visitors (put off by the steep extra entrance fee) give it a miss, often leaving it relatively uncrowded. The word “harem” means “forbidden” in Arabic; in Turkish it refers to a suite of apartments in a palace or private residence where the head of the household lived with his wives, odalisques (female slaves) and children. Situated on the north side of the Second Court, it consisted of over four hundred rooms, centred on the suites of the sultan and his mother, the Valide Sultan.
The Harem was connected to the outside world by means of the Carriage Gate, so called because the odalisques would have entered their carriages here when they went on outings. To the left of the Carriage Gate as you enter the Harem is the Barracks of the Halberdiers of the Long Tresses, who carried logs and other loads into the Harem. The Halberdiers, who also served as imperial guardsmen, were only employed at certain hours and even then they were blinkered. The Carriage Gate and the Aviary Gate were both guarded by black eunuchs, who were responsible for running the Harem.
The Court of the Black Eunuchs, dates mainly from a rebuilding programme begun after the great fire of 1665, which damaged most of the Harem as well as the Divan. The tiles in the eunuchs’ quarters date from the seventeenth century, suggesting that the originals were destroyed in the fire. The Altın Yol or Golden Road ran the entire length of the Harem, from the quarters of the Black Eunuchs to the fourth courtyard. Strategically located at the beginning of the Golden Road were the apartments of the Valide Sultan, also rebuilt after 1665. They include a particularly lovely domed dining room.
Beyond the Valide Sultan’s apartments are the apartments and reception rooms of the selâmlik, the sultan’s own rooms. The largest and grandest of them is the Hünkar Sofrası, the Imperial Hall, where the sultan entertained visitors. Another important room in this section is a masterwork of the architect Sinan: the bedchamber of Murat III, covered in sixteenth-century İznik tiles.
The northernmost rooms of the Harem are supported by immense piers and vaults, providing capacious basements that were used as dormitories and storerooms. Below the bedchamber is a large indoor swimming pool, with taps for hot and cold water, where Murat is supposed to have thrown gold to women who pleased him. Next to the bedchamber is the light and airy library of Ahmet I, with windows overlooking both the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn; beyond this is the dining room of Ahmet III, whose walls are covered in wood panelling painted with bowls of fruit and flowers, typical of the extravagant tulip-loving sultan.
It’s usual to depart from the Harem by way of the Aviary Gate, or Kuşhane Kapısı, into the Third Court.