Home to harems, history-making sultans, and the type of over-the-top ornamentation that surrounds royalty, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul is a top tourist draw for Turkish tourists even today. For lovers of religious Islamic mosaic art, it’s a must-see.
As a museum, it documents the incredible history of the Ottoman Empire sultans who lived in the compound from 1478–1853, The sprawling buildings cover more than 7,000,00 square feet, requiring visitors to break down their explorations of the vast space by the various courtyards that divided up the functions of the royal society.
Lots of Courtyards – and Sultans – Over Four Centuries
Known at the time of construction as “The Palace of Felicity” to the Ottomans, the layout was unique in many of its aspects. Daily royal life was strictly prescribed by customs, religious practices, and ceremonies, and it required isolation from the rest of the world.
This was achieved by a series of inner courtyards, secret passages, grilled windows that allowed both privacy and eavesdropping, and plenty of guarded entrances to areas like the harem. Each sultan added on to the original structures, putting in additional living quarters, gateways, and other personal modifications. Whether the ensuing paranoia and madness that future sultans were subject to were the cause of the result of the ever-increasing seclusion is subject to debate. After 4 centuries and 25 sultans, the Palace became a museum in 1924.
Start With the First Courtyard
Visiting Topkapi Palace today, tourists enter through the original Imperial Gate, originally for only the royal use. Recovered in the 19th-century with marble. Gilded Ottoman calligraphy can be seen at the top, with verses from the Qur’an and tughras (royal seals) of the sultans.
Entering the First Courtyard, visitors see a large open area that once functioned as a park. Today, it is the location of the Imperial Mint building, as well as Hagia Irene Greek Eastern Orthodox church One of the few churches in Istanbul that has not been converted into a mosque, as it was used as an arsenal for storing weapons until the 19th century.
The Second Courtyard Tells More of the Palace Story
Moving on to the Second Courtyard, the privacy began to descend on the residents of the Palace. This section was home to much of the support staff and administrative functions of the vast court. A series of pavilions, kitchens, barracks, audience chambers, kiosks and sleeping quarters handled the many demands of a royal residence. The stables were also located in this area.
Today, the kitchens have been restored, and one can view a collection of the court’s beloved Chinese celadon porcelain. It was valued not only for its beauty but because it was reputed to change colors if it held poisoned food. As with many features of the palace, paranoia drove many choices.
The Imperial Council did its work here in the Second Courtyard, with their meetings sometimes monitored by the sultan from behind a golden grill above. Per a description from a scholar in 1527: “From this window, his Noble Excellency sometimes watched the events of the divan, checking the truth of affairs.”
Three domed chambers, with elaborate pillars and heavy rococo style touches, housed the various clerks and council members. Over it all, the Tower of Justice loomed large, several stories tall and easily seen from anyone approaching the city from the Bosporus Sea.
As part of the Museum, the former Imperial Treasury houses an armory collection. As one of the richest assemblages of Islamic arms in the world, it shows pieces ranging from the 7th to the 20th centuries. The palace’s collection of arms and armor consists of objects manufactured by the Ottomans themselves, or gathered from foreign conquests, or given as presents.
Beneath the Tower of Justice lies the entrance to the Harem. It’s a separate part of the Museum experience, and requires its own ticket.
Although the word “harem” now evokes a definite sense of debauchery, it was actually a highly structured society unto itself, with strict rules-based around tradition, obligation, and much ceremony. It was the living quarters for not only the concubines, but also the imperial family.
Up to 300 concubines lived at various times in the Harem – which translates as “forbidden or private”. Entering as girls, they were taught the fine womanly arts of music, comportment, embroidery, and dancing – but also reading, writing, and Islamic and Turkish culture. The competition was fierce to rise in the ranks, and the best rose from being ladies-in-waiting to the lower-ranked concubines and children up to the sultan’s chosen favorites. The real ruler of the Harem was the valide sultan. Able to own landed in her own name and give orders directly to the grand vizier, she was extremely influential. She also got the best apartments, next to the Sultan’s mother.
The rest of the concubines resided in one of the various 300 or so rooms housed on 6 floors. If you can imagine what life would be like with over 300 women scrapping it out in the equivalent of a good-sized modern apartment building, you can appreciate why this subject is still a popular one for modern Turkish TV soap operas.
As far as the Sultan’s influence, the choice of a concubine was quite formal. He would tell a eunuch which woman he had chosen for the night. She would then bathe and prepare herself, ready for the sultan to come to her chamber. The date and time were recorded in case she fell pregnant -desirable as a way to a higher status.
Also in this section are the living quarters for the only men allowed in the Harem – a small army of eunuchs who guarded and served the ladies of the court. Castrated, with no sexual urges, they spent their lives in the faithful employ of the court.
Private Life – Sultan Style
Passages here lead also to various “Privies” – or private rooms used by the Sultans to enjoy themselves privately, consort with members of their Harem, or conduct meetings. These are particularly sumptuous, and much of the art is well-preserved.
Here, the “Fruit Room” of Ahmed III has painted panels of floral designs and bowls of fruit and with an intricate tiles fireplace
In this privy, a fountain disguised all private conversations. Good idea.
Welcome to the Most Royal Third Courtyard
Now in the Third Courtyard section of Topkapi Palace, visitors can appreciate yet more of the practical layout of these royal quarters. Off the courtyard lie the various sultan’s Privies, the living quarters of the Ağas, page boys in the service of the sultan who were being groomed for careers in the court, and the royal library.
It’s the heart of the compound. This was the Sultan’s private domain, and not just anyone was allowed access.
Royal receiving rooms were located here. The Audience Chamber, dating from the 15th century, has a stunning ceiling, painted in ultramarine blue and studded with golden stars. The chamber was lined with blue, white and turquoise tiles, still dazzling visitors with their incredible mosaic wall art.
Here also is the Throne Room. We’ll let someone who visited the court in 1533 provide a first-hand description: “The Emperor was seated on a slightly elevated throne completely covered with gold cloth, replete and strewn with numerous precious stones, and there were on all sides many cushions of inestimable value; the walls of the chamber were covered with mosaic mural works spangled with azure and gold; the exterior of the fireplace of this chamber of solid silver and covered with gold, and at one side of the chamber from a fountain water gushed forth from a wall.”
It was meant to impress and intimidate visitors, and it was strategically located so that the Sultan could inspect the offerings that ambassadors and other heads of state brought with them to the court. He was able to get a birds-eye view of the various gifts as they passed by on their way to the display area.
As a museum, there are some notable collections in the Third Courtyard Area. The Dormitory of the Expeditionary Force now houses a collection of imperial garments, including robes, kaftans, uniforms, and talismanic shirts. The latter were made to protect the wearer from all sorts of ill fortune, and were understandably popular items in the realm of a distrustful Sultan.
The Sacred Safekeeping Rooms were very special to the court, and house relics of the Prophet Prophet Mohammed brought to Istanbul by Yavuz Sultan Selim I, after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. The complex consists of a group of domed rooms, and the walls of the double-domed entry room are decorated with 16th century Iznik tiles.
The holy relics were once only on display to royal visitors for a short time during Ramadan, but appropriately dressed visitors may now visit them during their time at the museum. There are personal holy effects of the Prophet, including a letter in a gold case, soil from his grave, several hairs from his beard, his footprint and some of his extracted teeth.
Also here is the mantle of the Prophet, two of his swords, and the Holy Standard that was carried into battle by Ottoman armies.
The Imperial Treasury holds items that were meant to convey every bit of the wealth and stature of the Sultan and his empire.
Treasures like this six-sided pendant of emerald belonging to Sultan Ahmet I. The body sits on a six pearl foot, with each of its six sides framed in gold. The cover is domed in a gold lattice, encrusted with diamonds and sapphires.
Or, this little turban embellishment from the 17th century plume-decorated with two five-centimeter emeralds in length, formed on a heavy gold pin. Its top is decorated with two more emeralds and a garnet stone, framed by diamond-encrusted gold leaves, and loops of pearl chains.
Another item that draws a crowd is the Topkapi Dagger, with three enormous emeralds on the hilt and a watch set into the pommel.
How about the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, a teardrop-shaped 86-carat chunk of gem surrounded by dozens of smaller stones from 1648?
Relax in the Fourth Courtyard
After becoming lightheaded at the treasures, visitors shouldn’t miss the Fourth Courtyard. It contains the Circumcision Room, with all its lovely mosaic wall art and tiles that date back to the 16th century, and various “kiosks” – which were designed as restful retreats.
The Yerevan Kiosk was a religious retreat for 40 days of solitude.
Expansive views of the sea, more fine examples of decorative Islamic religious icon mosaic, and a visit to the onsite restaurant provide a perfect end to your in-depth plunge into the lives of the sultans.
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