If you expect Topkapı Palace to be one of those great imposing edifices you see in Britain, France and other Western European countries, you’ll be disappointed. Its very difference makes it more fascinating
ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News
Topkapı Palace is nothing you would ever expect it to be, given the many centuries that its Ottoman occupants ruled and administered a far-flung empire. Its main gate, called the Bab-I Humayun or Imperial Gate, is actually almost too narrow to squeeze a tourist bus through, as the various chips along the edges of the entrance demonstrate. It's been a long time since taxis and private cars were forbidden this approach, and now perhaps there will be some thought given to another way for the buses (and sometimes trucks) to enter. Perhaps through the military installation to the right after you've entered the grounds of the palace?
On the left is St. Irini, a Byzantine church that after the Ottoman conquest served as a storehouse for old cannons and which today is a concert hall. The many structures located there were destroyed in a fire in the 19th century. But until you get to the middle gate or the Gate of Salutations, you aren't really in the palace itself. Today that means passing by a number of low-lying buildings on the right where you buy tickets to enter the palace (a ticket to see the newly reopened Treasury and one to see the Harem are separate), change money and find expensive but elegant gift items. And then you confront some security measures at the huge middle gate, guards and turnstiles.
Once through you find yourself in a large courtyard with grassy sections and a large path that leads straight forward to the next courtyard. The road that slopes down to the left goes to the carriage and stable area. Another radial path leads to the Divan, where once the sultan's council and grand vezir met to deal with matters of state and also to the entrance to the harem. On the right are the low-lying buildings that served as kitchens but today house a stunning collection of Chinese porcelain that is believed to be the most important and possibly the largest outside of China. The palace staff uses some of the other rooms in this building as offices.
But perhaps you want to head straight ahead to see what the third gate, or the Gate of Felicity, holds behind it because here were the private apartments of the sultans. By now you must be asking yourself where's the palace, but you are in the Ottoman palace, a series of quite small buildings that each had a separate function. There are no huge edifices with sweeping marble staircases a la Western here. Directly opposite the Gate of Felicity is the room in which the sultan received petitions. Another served as a library. The rooms around the courtyard were part of the so-called Palace School in which specially chosen young boys were educated to become leaders of the Ottoman Empire. Culled from non-Muslim families throughout the empire, they were converted to Islam and put through one of the best educations that could be given at the time. Upon finishing the school, they either remained to serve in the palace or went into the military or became servants in the Privy Chamber where their chances of advancement were excellent since they waited on the sultan himself. Today the rooms in the third court are showcases for garments, paintings, and precious works of art such as the famous Topkapı dagger and in a more pious vein, the sacred mantle of Prophet Mohammed.
People say that ghosts haunt the palace although nobody has ever admitted to seeing one. Perhaps the only ghosts were Peter Ustinov and Melina Mercouri in the film “Topkapı,” in which they were after stealing a magnificent jeweled dagger from one of the side rooms on the right as you enter this third courtyard. There are more persistent stories of ghosts in the harem section, but since you'll never be conducted through that area at night, you needn't worry.
No officials stayed at the palace overnight unless the sultan invited the grand vezir to stay. Nor was there a harem established there during the reign of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, who had the palace built although today one would hardly think he could recognize much of it because so many buildings were burned, torn down or replaced. Fatih Mehmet's harem, and one could even say his “home” was in what was known as the Old Palace, where Istanbul University and the Süleymaniye Mosque complex are today. Topkapı was for administrative purposes only. But there comes a time for change and it seems that Hürrem Sultan, or Roxelana as she was known in Western sources, persuaded Sultan Süleyman to allow her to move to Topkapı where it would be much more convenient for them to be together.
The fourth courtyard again contains a number of small buildings, a beautiful porch that overlooks the Golden Horn and another fantastic viewpoint on the south side from which one can see up the Bosporus and down the Sea of Marmara. The tiles on the buildings are some of the finest that the Ottoman Empire had to offer, and one often sees them reproduced in art books. This courtyard is small, cramped even. One wonders if the sultan would ever have wanted to be alone and if so, how could he have been with all the attendants and guards surrounding him. Anyway, you will find a terrific restaurant here that serves everything from snacks to hot meals, and you can enjoy the beautiful view while you relax.
The sultan had his own apartments next to the harem and even a luxuriously furnished audience chamber where he could be entertained if he so desired. On the side opposite this chamber are smaller bedchambers and smaller rooms, some for dining, and they give us the impression of a need for a more intimate space. Perhaps the sultans didn't need space for themselves as we talk about today because from their earliest years they would have been isolated from the outside world in what was termed a kafes, or cage, to ensure they didn't cause trouble for the reigning sultan.
The harem itself seems like a dark rabbit warren of little spaces for inmates -- the more significant you were, the larger your room. The biggest rooms were reserved for the valide sultan, who was the mother of the reigning sultan. After Hürrem Sultan, no sultan ever married a woman from his harem, but they were counted in importance by which one had first borne him a son. Girl babies didn't count except as possibly being useful to give in marriage to a faithful follower. Sisters also weren't a bad bargain since these women were allowed free access to the palace harem and proximity to the sultan with all its possible rewards.
But under the impact of Western influences and apparently wishing to appear “modern,” the sultans decided it was time to build more appropriate palaces, so we see the Çırağan Palace and Dolmabahçe Palace. Yıldız Palace, the last one to be built, is rather more in line with the way Topkapı was constructed -- a series of independent smaller buildings in a park-like setting.
So with the coming of the Turkish Republic, Topkapı Palace became a museum for all of us to muse over and wonder what it would have been like to have lived in this minimalist palace.