The Topkapı Palace, the symbolic and political centre of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries, stands commandingly on the very tip of the promontory on which the old city of İstanbul is set. Its sheer opulence defies its origins in the tented encampments of nomadic Turkic warriors. Similar to the Alhambra of Granada, and every bit 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 of the Topkapı Palace, its service area, was always open to the general public. It’s entered from the street through Mehmet the Conqueror’s Bab-ı Hümayün, the great defensive imperial gate opposite the fountain of Ahmet III. The palace bakeries lie behind a wall to the right of the courtyard, while 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 stood 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 generally only opened for large groups by special request at the Directorate of Aya Sofya, located at the entrance of Aya Sofya. It does however also open for concerts, especially during 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 and the second courtyard

To reach the second courtyard of the Topkapı Palace, 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 that radiate 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 Sarnıcı. 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”.