Having explored Byzantine Constantinople I could now concentrate on the Ottoman Istanbul. And what is a better place for the introduction to the Ottoman Empire than the Topkapi Palace – the power seat of the sultans from which they ruled their vast empire. With its sprawling complex of buildings and thousands of residents Topkapi Palace was considered a city-within-a-city and as such it deserves its own blog post.
The most opulent part of the palace is undoubtedly the Harem. It is a labyrinth world of lavishly decorated marble hallways, arched doorways and more than 300 rooms. Only a part of it is open to the public, but that visible part is enough to convey the exquisite beauty of this pleasure den of the sultans.
Most of the surfaces are decorated with stunning Kütahya and İznik tiles that are arranged in such bold combinations of colors and patterns that the impact they create is quite stunning. It must have taken a truly refined taste to put them together and to create such a harmonious overall appearance.
The rooms are furnished, somewhat sparsely, with richly upholstered ottoman sofas and traditional ottoman fireplaces.
Members of the Sultan’s family and his favorite concubines had the most lavish and spacious lodgings often with an adjacent courtyard. The rest of the concubines lived together in large dormitories.
Sultan’s mother – Valide Sultan, ruled the life in harem and often in the entire empire through a weak and pliable Sultan. It was the highest position attainable for a concubine, which meant that the girls in the harem schemed and competed for the ‘honour’ of spending nights in Sultan’s bed in hopes of producing an heir and rising through the ranks.
The true gem of the harem is the Imperial Hall. It is the largest and the most luxurious room in the palace. It served as the reception hall for the Sultan as well as for the entertainment of the Harem. The Sultan’s throne is distinctly Ottoman in style, resembling a lavish couch more than a traditional European chair-style throne.
Next to the throne is the “band room” where the musicians would play their instruments from the low ottoman couches providing a musical accompaniment to the seductive dance of the concubines.
Every piece of furniture, paint and tile in the room ooze exuberant luxury celebrating indulgence and decadence of the Sultan’s lifestyle.
Next to the Imperial Hall are the Apartments of the Crown Princes. This is where the sultan’s brothers and half-brothers who represented a threat to the throne were imprisoned for their entire lives. Considered by many to be the most beautiful rooms in the harem, they were actually called a “Golden Cage”. The princes enjoyed a life of obscene luxury, received the finest education and had hundreds of concubines to keep them company, but they could never leave the harem and were under constant surveillance by the palace guards.
This imprisonment however, is a considerable step up in the fates of possible successors to the throne. Earlier sultans practiced fratricide, killing all of their brothers as soon as they ascended the throne. Mehmed III infamously murdered 19 of his brothers, some of whom were still infants.
The windows of the Princes’ apartments look out onto the Courtyard of the Favorites. The favorites in the harem were the Sultans four official wives and ‘flavor of the month’ concubines.
The layout of the Palace is organized into four courtyards with gated passages between them. The exit from the Harem takes you to the Third Courtyard, so I explored the palace in backwards order, starting with the Fourth Courtyard and making my way through to the First and out through the Imperial Gate. The Fourth Courtyard is the most secluded, inner-most domain of the sultans and their families. It consists of a number of ornate pavilions, gardens and terraces many of which are as opulent as the rooms of the Harem.
The Fourth Courtyard marks the northernmost point of the Palace and enjoys sweeping views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, especially from the delicate Iftar Pavilion. Two of the larger pavilions here: Revan Kiosk and Baghdad Pavilion were built to commemorate Ottoman conquests of Erevan and Baghdad respectively. The Circumcision Room, as the name suggests, was used for the ritual where Muslim boys become men.
Joining the Fourth and the Third Courtyards is the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle. It is a part of the Privy Chambers of the Sultans where the holy relics of Islam are kept in heavily guarded rooms.
According to the information provided in the pavilion, the ancient relics were brought to Istanbul when the Ottomans conquered Egypt in the 16th century and the caliphate passed from the Abbasids to the Ottomans. The relics range from the early Islamic period to the Old Testament. And while the authenticity of some items seem quite believable (Muhammad’s sword and bows; a cup from which he supposedly drank), others, such as the staff of Moses or Abraham’s cooking pot) are harder to accept.
The Second Courtyard is dominated by the Palace kitchens and the Divan Chamber – the seat of the Imperial Council.
The First Courtyard is the most spacious and public of the palace’s courtyards. And the only place in the palace with a surviving Byzantine structure – Haghia Eirine – 6th century Christian church.
Also in the First Courtyard is the Archaeological museum of Istanbul that has an incredible collection of glazed friezes from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.
Apart from the Babylon the museum houses relics from a number of other interesting sites including Troy and the mysterious Baalbek in Lebanon.
And after a long day of walking the cafe in the courtyard of the Archaeological museum is a perfect place for lunch among the ancient artifacts and the ever-present Istanbul’s cats.