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 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.
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”.
The Cage or Kafes was the suite of rooms of the Harem where possible successors to the throne were kept incarcerated. The practice was adopted by Ahmet I as an alternative to the fratricide that had been institutionalized in the Ottoman Empire since the rule of Beyazit II. After the death of their father, the younger princes would be kept under house arrest along with deaf mutes and a harem of concubines, while their eldest brother acceded to the throne. They remained here until such time as they were called upon to take power themselves. The concubines never left the Cage unless they became pregnant, in which case they were immediately drowned. The decline of the Ottoman Empire has been attributed in part to the institution of the Cage, as sultans who spent any length of time there emerged crazed, avaricious and debauched. The most infamous victim was “İbrahim the Mad”.
The women of the harem were so shrouded in mystery that they became a source of great fascination for the world in general. Many were imported from Georgia and Caucasia for their looks, or were prisoners of war, captured in Hungary, Poland or Venice. Upon entering the harem, they would become the charges of the haznedar usta, who would teach them how to behave towards the sultan and the other palace inhabitants. The conditions in which most of these women lived were dangerously unhygienic, and many died of disease, or from the cold of an İstanbul winter. Those women who were chosen to enter the bedchamber of the sultan, however, were promoted to the rank of imperial odalisque, given slaves to serve them, and pleasant accommodation. If they bore a child, they would be promoted again, to become a favourite or wife, and given their own apartments. If the sultan subsequently lost affection for one of these women, he could give her in marriage to one of his courtiers.
The most renowned of the harem women was Haseki Hürrem, or Roxelana as she was known in the West, wife of Süleyman the Magnificent. Prior to their marriage, it was unusual for a sultan to marry at all, let alone to choose a wife from among his concubines. This was the beginning of a new age of harem intrigue, in which women began to take more control over affairs of state, often referred to as the “Rule of the Harem”.