Guide to Topkapi
When Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror took Istanbul in 1453, he first ordered the
construction of a new palace for this new Ottoman capital, on a site in the
district of Beyazit where Istanbul University stands today. But before long, he
changed his mind and had a number of buildings constructed on the headland to
the southeast. This was to become the palace later known as Topkapi.
Apart from brief intervals, Topkapi Palace was home to all the Ottoman sultans
until the reign of Abdulmecid I (1839-1860), a period of nearly four centuries.
Over the years the palace complex underwent constant evolution. Some buildings
disappeared, destroyed by fire, earthquakes or demolished to make way for new
buildings. The palace was therefore not a single massive building in the western
tradition, constructed at one go, but an organic structure which was never
static, and reflected the styles and tastes of many periods in many independent
units with individual functions.
The last new building to be added to Topkapi
was commissioned by Sultan Abdulmecid who abandoned Topkapi for a new palace on
the Bosphorus. Neglected thereafter, Topkapi Palace fell into disrepair. After
the establishment of the Republic in 1923 it was extensively renovated and
transformed into a museum, and ever since has been one of Istanbul's most
popular sights. Since Topkapi is so large, only some sections are open to the
Before entering the outer portal of the palace,
let us pause to look at the fountain of Sultan Ahmet III just outside. This
lovely baroque building dates from the 18th century and is the most striking
example of such "meydan" fountains. On each of the four sides of the fountains
is a tap, and at each of the four corners a "sebil" for the distribution of
drinking water to passersby. The road leading off to the right here takes you to
Ishak Pasa Mosqe which has lost much of its character in repairs carried out
over the years.
This portal flanked by towers known as the
Bab-i H’mayun was built in the time of the conqueror. As at the Orta Kapi or
Central Gate, the severed heads of traitors were occasionally displayed here.
The portal was guarded by a special regiment of guards. Around the first
courtyard within this gate were numerous service buildings, including a
hospital, bakery, mint, armoury and accommodation for palace servants. This
courtyard was open to the public.
To the right as you enter the portal are the
remains of the Byzantine Samson Hospital, which was razed during the Nika
Rebellion. This hospital was famous in its day, providing treatment for rich and
Next to these is Haghia Eirene, one of the
oldest churches in Constantinople and the church of the patriarchate prior to
Haghia Sophia. It was enlarged in the early 4th century, and at that period
played a major -and sometimes bloody- role in the controversies between Arian
and Orthodox Christians. The church, too, was burned down in the Nika Rebellion
and rebuilt by Justinian.
Haghia Eirene is the only Byzantine church in
Istanbul with its atrium intact. The plan is a good example of the transition
from a basilica to a Greek cross. Thick walls support the main dome and the
small dome to the east, while columns divide the nave from the aisles. The plain
cross in the apse must date from the iconoclastic period and the remains of the
mosaics in the narthex probably date from the time of Justinian.
Since Haghia Eirene was enclosed by the palace
walls soon after the conquest, it was never used as a mosque. Instead the
janissaries of the palace used it as an armoury. The accumulation of antique
weapons which resulted led to the building being used as the first Turkish
military museum in the 19th century. When the military museum moved to new
premises in Harbiye, Haghia Eirene was restored and for some years now has been
used as a concert hall, a function for which its excellent acoustics and
evocative atmosphere are ideally suited.
A narrow lane leading down the hill from the
church takes you to G’lhane Park which was once part of the palace gardens.
Halfway down the hills is the Tiled Pavilion and the Archaeological Museum,
possessing one of the most outstanding collections in the world. Next door is
the Museum of Near Eastern History where fascinating pre-Islamic Arab works and
finds from Assyria, Babylon and Egypt are exhibited.
The Tiled Pavilion is the earliest building of
Topkapi Palace, built by Mehmet II (the Conqueror). The striking tiles which
adorn the entire building still display strong traces of Seljuk Turkish art in
both the designs and the predominance of blue and turquoise. It is for this
reason that the building has been transformed into a ceramics museum, where the
finest examples of Turkish ceramics from the 12th century to the present day are
on display. At the entrance to G’lhane Park is the Alay K÷sk’ (meaning
Ceremonial Pavilion) dating from the reign of Mahmud II (1808-1839) who watched
various parades and processions from this vantage point.
If we enter G’lhane Park and walk straight
ahead, we came to the Gothic Column, which was one of the principal Byzantine
monuments, and thought to have been erected in commemoration of a victory
against the Goths at the end of the third century. Nearby are the ruins of an
unidentified Byzantine building.
There are known to be several Byzantine
cisterns in the palace courtyards and next to the Archaeological Museum, and
excavations here might also reveal the remains of the old acropolis. Before
entering Topkapi Palace proper, there is one more building of note. This is
Sepetciler Kosk’ (meaning pavilion of the Basket Weavers) (who wove baskets for
produce from the imperial gardens) which is the last survivor of a number of
palace pavilions in this area. This building at the water's edge now houses the
International Press Centre.
An extra charge is made for visiting the Harem
at Topkapi Palace, and groups of limited numbers are only allowed in at specific
intervals, so it is best to get your ticket for the Harem as soon as you arrive.
These restrictions are necessary to prevent any damage being done to the
contents of this section. The Harem is a vast labyrinth of rooms and corridors,
and only part is open to the public. The visitor's entrance is via the Divan
Odasi in the second courtyard. The Divan Odasi or Chamber of State, served as a
transition between the Harem and the public apartments of the palace. The
Council of State convened four days a week under the Grand Vizier, over whose
seat was a window with an iron grill. Whenever he wished the sultan could
observe the meetings without being seen. The Inner Treasury Chamber adjoining
the Divan houses a collection of weapons.
Now we enter the Harem itself, where we can see
rooms occupied by the black eunuchs, concubines, the sultan's mother and the
sultan himself. The most fascinating aspect of the Harem was the cloak of
secrecy over life here. Virtually none of its inhabitants had the freedom to go
out at will, and equally almost no one from the outside world was ever admitted.
Sexuality is the principal theme on which the architecture is based, the sultan
and his concubines and consort. Between these two poles of a single man and many
women, were the sexless eunuchs who were guardians of the concubines, but
themselves virtual prisoners. Of course the young princes lived in part of the
Harem, and after puberty they too were provided with concubines. But their
public existence was confined to the shadowy one of "potential sultans". Despite
the change in the laws of succession introduced by Ahmed I, according to which
the eldest member of the dynasty rather than the eldest son of the reigning
sultan succeeded to the throne, the princes lived in constant fear of
The central gate known as Orta Kapi or
Babusselam is the main entrance to the museum. Executions used to be carried out
on the inner side of this gate and the heads exhibited on blocks of stones to
the right of the door.
Along the opposite side of this courtyard are
the kitchen buildings, which provided food for literally thousands of people
every day. The lines of small domes and chimneys surmounting them make the
kitchens a familiar part of the palace's silhouette. The central gate known as
Orta Kapi or Babusselam is the main entrance to the museum. Executions used to
be carried out on the inner side of this gate and the heads exhibited on blocks
of stones to the right of the door.
Today as well as some of the original kitchen
equipment, the palace's enormous collection of porcelain and glass is housed
here. The Chinese porcelains are what is said to be the largest collection in
the world. Following the courtyard wall to the left brings you to the stables
which housed only the sultan's own horses. Various exhibitions are held here.
The gate into the third courtyard known as
Babussade or Gate of Felicity brings us into the private inner areas of the
palace. Only the sultan was permitted to pass through the gate on horseback, and
even on foot only a favoured handful of statesmen and trusted intimates could
enter here. Only once in Ottoman history, during the rebellion which dethroned
Osman II, did rebels dare to enter this gate. And on one occasion Alemdar
Mustafa Pasa broke this door down in order to save the life of Mahmut II.
Ceremonies such as those held on a new sultan's
accession were held in front of this gate, and it was here when the janissaries
were simmering into rebellion that councils were held to discuss their demands.
It was also in front of this gate that the sultan presented the army commander
with the holy standard when he set out on campain.
Within the gates is the Audience Chamber, where
the Grand Vezier and members of the Divan came to present their resolutions to
the sultan for ratification. It was also here that foreign ambassadors were
received. Right behind the Audience Chamber is the elegant library built by
Ahmed III in the early 18th century.
The buildings in the southeast corner of this
courtyard housed the Imperial Enderun, an institution where young boys taken as
tribute from Christian families in the empire were trained for administrative
posts in various state departments. Some of these rooms now house offices and
others the costumes section. Beyond these is the famed Treasury where jewelled
thrones, baskets of emeralds, inlaid daggers and other valuable objects are
One of the buildings opposite the third gate
houses an exhibition of the finest miniatures in the museum's collection of over
ten thousand. The Has Oda, where the most able of the young Enderun novices were
educated, now contains a superb collection of calligraphy.
Passing through to the fourth courtyard beside
the wing containing the miniatures brings us to a series of exquisite pavilions
built by various sultans. The Bagdat and Revan Pavilions built for Murat IV are
outstanding both in terms of their architecture and interior decoration. The
Sofa Pavilion in the center was built in the tulip gardens laid out during the
reign of Ahmet III. The pavilion of Sultan Abdulmecit on the right is now used
as a restaurant.
Between the Bagdat and Revan pavilions is a
marble terrace with a pool in the centre and an arbour with a gilded baldachin
roof commanding a view over the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. The Apartment of
the Holy Mantle opposite is the section where the holy relics brought back from
Mecca by Selim I on his return from the Egyptian campaign are kept. Beside the
western terrace is the Circumsision Chamber built by Sultan Ibrahim.
Topkapi Palace nowhere aspires to imposing
height. Everywhere the axes are horizontal, and the style consciously humble,
avoiding ostentatious monumental facades. While mosques, as the house of God,
were deliberately built on a large scale wherever possible, the sultans did not
seek similar grandeur for their own homes. That is why, if it were not for the
intricate decoration of surfaces and monumental gates, Topkapi Palace could
disappoint the visitor in search of the same definition of splendour as
exhibited by European palaces.
Click the following link to see the 360 panoramic pictures from theTopkapi