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Published: October 14th 2012
Topkapi from the air
It is hard to see details, but this gives you a feeling for the size and location of Topkapi
Friday, Sept 21 in Istanbul
Istanbul has perhaps the most famous and beautiful site of any city in the world. It has had three names. In ancient times it was the Greek city of Byzantium. Then after Constantine made it the capital of the Eastern Roman empire it became Constantinople. After it was conquered by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, it became Istanbul.
Mehmet The Conquerer visited the old Byzantine palace in the first days after he took Constantinople. It had been built by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II in the 5th century AD, and the place was an utter wreck. As he viewed it, Mehmed remembered the words of a Persian poet,
"The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab."
These Byzantine ruins can still be seen, but we did not have time to see them.
Since he could not use the old Byzantine palace, he immediately built a relatively small palace in the middle of the Old City, in Beyazit Square. He ruled from there for 16 years, undertaking many projects to restore the population and vitality and beauty of the
All the furniture, curtains, paintings, tapestries, etc. from Topkapi were moved here in 1856. You can see them there on guided tours.
city. Yes, he made urban renewal really work. So soon he needed a much larger palace in a better place, and he chose the site of the ancient acropolis of Byzantium. By Mehmet's time it was just a bunch of ruined Greek temples on the highest spot in town, with an amazing view of the Bosporus and the Sea or Marmara. It was perfect for the new palace. He cleared all the old Greek stuff away and there he built Topkapi, which became the official seat of the Ottoman Sultans from 1478 until 1865.
When the Sultan Mehmet moved to Topkapi in 1478, there was as yet no harem, so most of the women were left behind in Beyazit Square. After the Harem was built in Topkapi, the Beyazit Square palace became a kind of a retirement home for the harem; the residence of the wives and mothers of previous sultans, mothers of ex-princes who lost the chance to become a sultan, and over-the-hill concubines who had lost the sultan's favor. This is why it became known as "The Old Seraglio" (Eski Saray).
Unfortunately, in 1866 the Old Seraglio was demolished by Sultan Mahmut II, who built the
Tolga and the Holy Umbrella
Tolga holding Holy Umbrella at the ablution fountain, outside the first gate of Topkapi
Ottoman Ministry of War and its magnificent gateway on the site. The gateway is still there, but the War Ministry has become the University of Istanbul.
In 1865 Topkapi was nearly 400 years old, and the reigning Sultan, Abdul Mejid I, decided he simply could not stand the old dump any longer. So he moved all the contents of Topkapi (rugs, furniture, curtains, paintings, tapestries, eunuchs, concubines, etc.; everything but the treasury) down to a new European style palace on the Bosporus, called Dolmabaçi Palace. There he had, finally, hot and cold running water. And there all the furnishings of Topkapi remain to this day. You can see some of them (well, not the concubines) in carefully guided and guarded tours. The waterfront view of the palace is rather overwhelming, as you can see in the photo. I really regret that we did not have time for Dolmabaçi.
So this is why Topkapi is just an empty, magnificent shell of a palace. There is nothing to steal, or ruin, so they let you have free run of the place. But its park-like layout and architecture, and the jewel collection, still make it the most popular tourist spot in
Topkapi, second gate
The execution ground was jus tleft of this gate. Selim the Grim executed seven of his Grand Viziers here.
Outside the first gate of Topkapi is an ablution fountain. I attach (somewhere, I can't control where) a picture of our guide Tolga holding the "holy umbrella" there, to gather our group together for instructions before entering Topkapi.
"Palace" is not quite the right word for Topkapi; in Europe a palace is a large magnificent residence of a ruler, but Topkapi is much more than that. Mehmet the Conquerer laid out the overall design, but every sultan added to it, and it finally contained hundreds of buildings, arranged so that you have to pass through four nested walls with elaborate formal gates (see photos) to get to the Sultan.
In Ottoman times, the public was admitted only into the outer courtyard, which was once an immense rose garden. Now it is a park with a long walk leading to the gate of the second courtyard. To the left of this gate is a small grassy lawn, once bordered by columns. This was the Sultan's execution ground, with the fresh heads of the unlucky displayed on top of the columns. (Fair warning to any other discontented subjects.) Nearby was a small fountain where the executioner washed his
Topkapi fourth gate
The innermost gate of Topkapi. Very few were admitted here, and even fewer came out alive.
hands and his sword when he finished.
Second courtyard: it was once filled with peafowl and gazelles. Later, it became a training ground for young military officers. Also the kitchens, closed for renovation. Huge disappointment for me; this was the main thing I wanted to see, being a big fan of Turkish cooking. I have a book of historic recipes from these kitchens, some going back 500 years. Even closed, you can see their immensity; they provided up to 6000 meals a day for the workers and officials of the palace.
Third courtyard: ceremonies, like for reviewing the troops, or giving the Sultan's flag to a departing army.
Fourth courtyard: Holy of holies. Many buildings; most of what you want to see is here. The harem, with the Sultan's quarters, council rooms; a library, the treasury. It also contains the holiest pilgimage site in Turkey, the relics of The Prophet : his cloak, his sword, etc. I did not go in, but I found a photo that I attach. Of course, photography is utterly forbidden.
The imperial jewels on display are about a tenth of the total collection, but that is plenty. They are in four
The most famous jewel in the treasury, having been featured in the movie "Topkapi"
dimly lit rooms of gold and sparklies; diamond, rubies, pearls, and emeralds of amazing size; the accumulation of six centuries in one dynastic line (1325-1920). I don't know why they do not have brighter lights; bright light cannot possibly damage gold, or jewels, and the jewels would sparkle a lot more. The concept that "Less is more" was unknown to the imperial jewelers. Apparently, they lived and worked by "More is never quite enough".
We had only a pitifully brief time in Topkapi, and saw only the highest of the high points. I attach some shots of the most famous jewels and thrones. You have to scroll down way past the end of this text to see the last ones.
If you go to Turkey on your own, take a day, or at least half a day, for Topkapi, and even then you will only scratch the surface. Take your own lunch. There is a Topkapi restaurant down by the water, but everybody says it is vastly overpriced. Or Google up "Restaurants near Topkapi palace, Istanbul" and you will see plenty of good, nearby restaurants..
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