For 400 years, Topkapı Palace was the center of an empire that straddled three continents. Its historical, architectural, literary, and artistic value cannot be exaggerated. Among all the myths and stories that surround this place, one thing is certain: one has not seen Istanbul until one has seen Topkapı.
By Joshua Bruce Allen
Surrounded on three sides by the Marmara Sea, the Bosporus, and the Golden Horn, Topkapı Palace is located on a hill atop Istanbul’s Old City. It’s spread over four courtyards and 400,000 square meters of gardens, buildings, gates, and fountains. Sultan Mehmet II moved his palace to this location three years after conquering the city in 1453, but over the next four centuries successive sultans renovated and added many buildings.
Start from the sea
The best way to experience the full grandeur of the Ottoman palace is not by approaching by land, but by sea from the Asian side, allowing for panoramic views of the defensive sea walls, verdant palace gardens, the huddle of lead and gold-topped domes, and the sultan’s Tower of Justice.
Once on land, approach Topkapı through Atmeydanı, the Roman hippodrome, and along the side of the Hagia Sophia. Unlike European palaces—large single buildings set in a garden or walled area—Topkapı Palace is based around four courtyards, each containing gardens, offices, and imperial quarters.
The first courtyard
You reach the palace by walking alongside the Hagia Sophia, past the ornate fountain of Ahmet III towards the Imperial Gate, which is the entrance to the first courtyard. Upon entry into the first courtyard, visitors see stone niches that used to display the severed heads of criminals. This gate was open to the public, who passed through to give their petitions to government offices in the courtyard.
Located to the left of the gate is the Hagia Irene, thought to be the city’s oldest church. Built by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, it was converted into an armory for janissary guards by the Ottomans.
In the Ottoman era, this courtyard was full of gold leaf, precious stone, bookbinding, and leather artisans. To the left of the courtyard is an Imperial Mint that dates back to the eighteenth century and produced the empire’s gold and silver coins. To the right, just after the ticket office, is a white marble fountain that executioners used to wash their blades after doing their duty.
The castle-like entrance ahead is the Gate of Salutation, which only the sultan was allowed to ride through on horseback. Everyone aside from government officials needed special permission to enter.
The second courtyard
The focus point of this courtyard is the Tower of Justice, placed above the ministers’ council, or the Imperial Divan, where top military and civilian officials convened to make decisions for the empire. Interestingly, it was the grand vizier who chaired these meetings, not the sultan, who instead listened to the meetings from behind a gold screen at the back of the chamber. If the sultan disagreed with a decision, he would close the curtain or tap on the screen.
Next to the Imperial Divan is the treasury building, where diligent scribes recorded the treasures and expenses of the empire. Today, the treasury houses a museum of Ottoman weapons and armor.
The gate at the far end of the courtyard is the Gate of Felicity, under which the sultan would sit in on ceremonial occasions, such as the dispensing of janissaries’ wages. A small stone in front of the gate was used to display the Sancak-ı Şerif, or the battle standard of the Prophet Muhammad, before the sultan went to war against the enemy.
Opposite the Imperial Divan you will find the kitchens, which prepared meals for around 5,000 palace staff every day. On religious holidays or imperial celebrations, that number could reach 15,000. The palace kitchens also produced soap and herbal medicines for the sultan and his family.
The entrance to the harem is a small door next to the Imperial Divan. This was called the Carriage Gate, because the women of the sultan’s family would return from the summer palaces by carriage and then enter through this door. Consisting of only a few buildings in the fifteenth century, successive sultans developed the harem to include around 300 rooms, nine hammams, and two mosques in later years. This was the realm of the sultan, his family, their servants, and the black eunuch guards.
Perhaps the most famous resident of the harem was Hürrem, born as Roxelana in Poland and brought as a slave by Tatar raiders. Hürrem’s fame comes from Sultan Süleyman’s decision to make her the first Haseki Sultan, or chief consort. She also bore the sultan more than one son, which had previously not been allowed. This greatly increased her power in the imperial family and gave her influence in the governing of the empire. There is evidence of Hürrem exchanging letters with foreign heads of state and advising Sultan Süleyman on international affairs.
After the entrance doorway, the harem opens into the Hall with the Fountain. The fountain was placed in another room after the hall burned down in the seventeenth century, but the name has remained. A side door leads from here to the Tower of Justice above the Imperial Divan. The exquisite tiles you see on the walls were made in Kütahya, a major center of Ottoman ceramics.
Next is the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs, where the harem guards stayed in their dormitories. This courtyard ends in an ornate gate where the guards kept watch. After this point, the harem belonged only to the sultan, his consorts, and his sons. Located in this area is the Valide Sultan Chamber, occupied by the mother of the sultan. Like Hürrem, the women who produced sons gained great prestige and sway in the palace. The Valide Sultan conducted her intrigues from this chamber, ensuring that her enemies were exiled or executed.
The most magnificent room of the harem is the Imperial Hall. This room shows a tapestry of different styles; from the sixteenth century dome, to the blue and white tiles from the seventeenth century, to the rococo ornaments from the eighteenth century. The upper balcony was reserved for harem ladies and female musicians, while men sat on the lower floor beside the sultan’s throne.
The next rooms, known as the Twin Kiosks, gave Turkish the expression “to live in a golden cage.” It was here that the sultan’s sons were confined until they either reached the throne or were executed. This system avoided the wars of succession that threatened to cause chaos in the empire. However, the long imprisonment also drove some of the princes mad, which became a problem when they rose to the throne.
The third and fourth courtyards
The harem exits into a courtyard with a fountain surrounded by fabulously decorated kiosks. On the side of the courtyard facing the Golden Horn is a small pavilion where the sultan took his iftar meal during Ramadan, breaking his daily fast. Also in the courtyard are the multicolored Baghdad and Yerevan kiosks, built to commemorate military victories in those cities.
Through the rose gardens, visitors can enter the third courtyard. At the other end of this courtyard, next to the Gate of Felicity, is the sultan’s Petition Room. It was here that he welcomed ministers and foreign ambassadors for private meetings. The buildings around the courtyard now hold collections of sacred relics from across the empire, precious jewels, and displays of the sultans’ clothing.
Open Mon-Sun, 9am-6:45pm; last entrance at 6pm.
Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Sultanahmet; T: (0212) 512 04 80.