From across the Golden Horn you will see Hagia Sophia’s and the Blue Mosque’s domes and minarets, but you will see no massive structure to represent the central palace of the Ottoman Empire. You will only see the dark green of trees broken here and there by towers and stone walls plus occasional glints of gold. The Topkapi Palace is a place of telling detail and small wonders. Where the religious majesty of its neighbors is overwhelming, the Topkapi Palace requires close inspection. It represents four centuries of inspired leadership and the gradual creep into sumptuous luxury and indolence. The palace is composed of various buildings and walls built during different periods. There were times when as many as 4000 people lived within its walls. It housed the Sultan’s chambers, the treasury, a mint, mosques, kitchens, housing for other important court favorites and the famous harem. Today it is a museum administered by the Turkish government and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the Palace and other historic Istanbul historic buildings.
The Palace is made up of 5 Courtyards, the outer of which is now primarily a park. Few of its original structures remain. We exited our bus in this area and walked through the Gate of Salutation, a rather medieval looking structure, and into the 2nd (outer) courtyard which was used for official gatherings and diplomatic ceremonies. On one side of the area are the massive kitchens that house an interesting collection of kitchenware and ceramics. On the other side are the entrance to the Harem, the tower of justice (the highest structure in the palace) and the ornate Imperial Council where the Vizier and other officials would meet and where state records were kept.
At the far end of the 2nd Courtyard is the Gate of Felicity which leads to the 3rd (inner) Courtyard which houses the greatest treasures of the Palace. Just inside this gate is the Audience Hall, an ornately decorated square building that displays some of the most exuberant Islamic ornamentation in the Palace. The Imperial Treasury still lives up to its name, housing some of Turkey’s greatest historic treasures and relics. In the 4 rooms of the Treasury you will see what is said to be the hand of John the Baptist. In another is the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, a pear-shaped 86 caret gem surrounded by 49 smaller diamonds. There are gilt coaches, music boxes and many other items that attest to the wealth of the Sultan’s court over the centuries. Two other items should be mentioned: the Topkapi Dagger, a gift for the Persian Shah that was never delivered since he was assassinated and a golden shrine that once housed the cloak of Mohammed. This museum is fairly small, but the treasures it contains are breath-taking. (There are actually 2 Imperial Treasuries…the other is adjacent to the Imperial Council and houses military items.) At the far end of the 3rd Courtyard is the dormitory of the pages which now houses a collection of miniatures and portraits considered by some the greatest treasure in the Palace. Some Muslims consider portraiture immoral, so theses portraits of early sultans are rare.
Adjacent to the Pages Dormitory is the entrance to the 4th Courtyard (also part of the inner courtyard). We took some pictures at the Iftar Pavilion, a golden domed open structure offering a great view of the Golden Horn. The Circumcision Room contained some of my favorite decorations and tilework. It was nice not knowing the purpose of the room at the time, which might have spoiled its charm. On the far side of the 4th Courtyard is another outer area known as the 5th place or courtyard which once covered then space between the palace and the Bosphorus. It is now a part of the park that surrounds the Palace.
The Harem requires separate admission and is virtually another palace unto itself. Those who went on the tour that included said it was well worth the time they spent there.
Topkapi is an amazing immersion into Islamic design. Because it was considered improper to worship earthly things, representational design was considered irreligious by many. During Ottoman rule, those who painted from life were risking a great deal, so the energy and creativity of many artists went into decorative arts. From these restrictions came an incredible flowering (intentional pun) of man-made ornamentation, which continues to influence our arts to this day. The Topkapi is a great place to begin to understand this influence.
If you are interested in the Palace I would recommend two different books: First and foremost is My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. This book deals with the struggle of artists who wanted to create representational art. The primary characters are the artists who served the needs and wishes of the Sultan. It is set in late 16th century. Be forewarned, the book has an unusual modernist style. Nonetheless it is fascinating and exciting.
If you want something a little lighter, I can recommend The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin. This is the first in a series of detective novels set in 19th century Istanbul. The main character is a eunuch living outside the Palace who has the trust of the Sultan whose power is declining. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a Janissary was a foreign born child who was trained by the Ottomans to provide protection for the Sultan. They were renowned for their loyalty and aggressiveness. I have not read the rest of the series, but this book is fun and informative.