Topkapi, the imperial palace of the first Ottoman sultans of Istanbul! An example indeed quite different from the European palaces of the same period, but which testifies to a typically Turkish culture.
Visiting Topkapi is a must for anyone discovering Istanbul.
Presentation of the structure of the Topkapi Palace
Remember, it was in 1453 that Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror seized Constantinople, the Byzantine capital. The city then became the center of the Ottoman Empire. A first palace – called the old palace – is built on the site of the current Beyazit University (2 tramway stations away, after the Grand Bazaar).
But quickly, between 1460 and 1478, Mehmet built his new palace on a more grandiose location: the tip of the peninsula, in the immediate vicinity of Hagia Sophia, now converted into a mosque, and on the site of the ancient acropolis of Byzantium.
The entire palace, including the gardens, covers 70 hectares. Enough to stretch your legs! So bring comfortable shoes.
The plan of the Topkapi Palace, is organized by Mehmet as a succession of walls, gates and courtyards, nested like Russian dolls. The more doors one passes through, the closer one gets to the Sultan. Inside these spaces thus defined, small pavilions or kiosks, added by the successive sultans, are scattered here and there.
Topkapi Palace remained the seat of the Ottoman Empire for 4 centuries, until it was abandoned by Sultan Abdülmecid I in favor of Dolmabahçe Palace in 1850. It is very interesting to visit these two Ottoman palaces to see the cultural and technological evolution of the empire. The layout of Topkapi reflects the nomadic tradition of the Turks, a people originally from Central Asia, moving with the conquests. The furniture is therefore rare but multifunctional. Exactly the opposite of the Dolmabahçe Palace, of Western influence and typically rococo style, very bling bling!
The Imperial Gate and the first court of the Topkapi Palace
We start the visit at the Imperial Gate, behind Sainte-Sophie and near the very beautiful fountain of Sultan Ahmed III. There is another access by the Gülhane garden, above the archaeological museum, but which is less impressive. I advise you to go through the Imperial Gate, even if the security control may require a little more waiting.
The Imperial Gate – Bab-i Hümayun – opens onto the Parade Court, which is also called the Janissary Court. This is a large garden with trees, which, as in the Ottoman era, is freely accessible to visitors. Various ceremonies and military parades were held here. Occasionally one can still see the parade of the Mehter, the Ottoman military band.
The church of Saint Irene - Hagia Irene
The Church of St. Irene is by far the oldest monument inside the Topkapi Palace. It is said to be the first Byzantine church in the city, erected in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine. Its name in Greek, Irene, means Divine Peace.
The entrance to St. Irene’s is not free but is included with the Topkapi ticket or the MuseumPass. (however, not with the Müzekart!)
The visit of Saint Irene is not very impressive. However, its particularity is to be one of the very few churches that have never been converted into a mosque. During the Ottoman era it was used as an arsenal or military museum, and since the 1980s its acoustics have allowed it to host classical music concerts. It is open to tourists only since 2014!
Observe at the bottom of the narthex, the black cross on a golden background, made of mosaics. It is representative of the iconoclastic period which in the 8th century prohibited the worship of icons, and therefore any representation of Christ, the Virgin Mary or the saints.
The technical feat in this mosaic is to create the illusion of a straight cross while the support is concave!
The hangman's fountain
At the end of the Parades courtyard, near the ticket office of the Topkapi Palace, there is a small fountain that looks quite insignificant. It is the fountain where the Sultan’s official executioner used to rinse his sword after beheadings!
This little fountain is an opportunity to take an interest in the executioners of Topkapi. In the Ottoman period, death sentences were not rare. During the reign of Selim I, known as the Terrible, which lasted only 8 years, there would have been more than 30 000 executions in Topkapi! Decapitation is not the only option available to the condemned, and is certainly not the most painful. Impalement, strangulation, suffocation, or drowning at the bottom of the Bosphorus are among the sentences that can be pronounced, depending on the social rank and gender of the accused.
For fun, in some cases the condemned can commute his death sentence to a life banishment. For this, he must succeed in beating his executioner in a race!
The Salvation Gate and the second courtyard of the Topkapi Palace
The Gate of Salvation or Middle Gate – Bab-i Selam – opens onto the Court of the Imperial Council – the Divan.
This gate is distinguished by its 2 turrets, built under Suleiman the Magnificent. They were used as waiting rooms for ambassadors who asked to be received.
Only the Sultan could pass through the Gate of Salvation on horseback. As mere mortals, we must put our feet down as a sign of respect.
From here, you need a ticket (or your MuseumPass or MüzeKart), because you arrive in the paying part of the Topkapi museum.
Once in the Imperial Council Court, the most interesting parts are the kitchens, the divan and of course the entrance to the Topkapi Harem!
The kitchens of the Topkapi Palace
The whole right side of the Imperial Council Court is the huge kitchens of the Topkapi Palace! Its 20 chimneys rising above as many domes are well recognizable. They are the work of the great architect Sinan, under Soliman the Magnificent.
At that time, you have to imagine that more than 1500 employees were working in the kitchens, to feed up to 15 000 people per day! It is understandable that the kitchens have adopted a real military organization.
Indeed, it is necessary to feed not only the sultan and his harem, but also all the civil servants and visitors who cross the Topkapi Palace every day. Not to mention the banquets given on the occasion of major events or religious festivals.
Today, part of the vast collection of kitchen utensils and imperial tableware is on display. It is organized in chronological order, so start on the right.
Don’t look for a large dining room, since the Ottomans could eat anywhere. It is the table that comes to the guests.
The Harem of Topkapi Palace
Do not miss the entrance to the Topkapi Harem! It is the private quarters of the Sultan and his “wives”. A place that fascinates as much as it revolts, and that has fed so many fantasies among Western travelers …
Be aware that the exit from the harem takes you directly to the 3rd courtyard. So, if you haven’t already seen everything in the 2nd courtyard, you can still do so on the way back.
The Divan Room and the Justice Tower of the Topkapi Palace
Next to the entrance of the harem is the divan. In other words, the room of the imperial council, the heart of power. The big boss here is the Grand Vizier, who gathers his Viziers to deal with the affairs of state. The Sultan is not present at these Councils. At least not directly. For, look closely at the small golden grille above the benches. Behind it is a room where the Sultan can follow the debates without being seen. Beware of anyone who dares to speak ill of the Sultan!
Also take a look at the tower that overlooks the couch. This is the Tower of Justice (where the Sultan hides behind his gate!). It rises as high as the minarets of Sainte-Sophie. Unfortunately, you can’t visit it. It’s a pity, because from its top, we would have a nice panoramic view on the palace, and especially on the dense roofs of the harem!
The Library of Sultan Ahmed III
Just behind the Courtroom, this kiosk was built by Ahmet III, a great lover of books. Recently restored, we are happy to be able to rediscover this library.
For the record, the reign of Ahmet III and his Grand Vizier, marks the famous Tulip Period (1718-1730), and you only have to look up to the ceiling to understand why this name …
At the back of the library is an equally elegant fountain.