Topkapı Palace

Lonely Planet review

This opulent palace complex is the subject of more colourful stories than most of the world's royal residences put together. It was home to Selim the Sot, who drowned after drinking too much champagne; İbrahim the Mad, who lost his reason after being imprisoned for 22 years by his brother MuratIV; and the malevolent Roxelana, a former concubine who became the powerful consort of Süleyman the Magnificent. And they're just three among a long progression of mad, sad and downright bad Ottomans who lived here between 1453 and 1839.

Mehmet the Conqueror started work on the palace shortly after the Conquest in 1453 and lived here until his death in 1481. Subsequent sultans lived in this rarefied environment until the 19th century, when they moved to ostentatious European-style palaces such as Dolmabahçe, Çırağan and Yıldız that they built on the shores of the Bosphorus. Mahmut II was the last sultan to live in Topkapı.

A visit to Topkapı requires at least three hours, but preferably longer. If you are short on time, see the Harem, the Treasury and the rooms around the İftariye Baldachin. Buy your ticket to the palace at the main ticket office just outside the gate to the second court; tickets to the Harem are available at the ticket box outside the Harem itself. Guides to the palace congregate next to the main ticket office.

Before you enter the Imperial Gate (Bâb-ı Hümâyûn) of Topkapı, take a look at the ornate structure in the cobbled square near the gate. This is the Fountain of Sultan Ahmet III, built in 1728 by the sultan who loved and promoted tulips so much that his reign was dubbed the 'Tulip Era'.

First Court

Topkapı grew and changed with the centuries, but the palace's basic four-courtyard plan remained the same. The Ottomans followed the Byzantine practice of secluding the monarch from the people: the first courtwas open to all; the second only to people on imperial business; and the third and fourth only to the imperial family, VIPs and palace staff.

As you pass through the great Imperial Gate behind Aya Sofya, you enter the First Court, known as the Court of the Janissaries. On your left is the Byzantine Aya İrini (Hagia Eirene, Church of the Divine Peace), commissioned in the 540s by Justinian to replace an earlier church that had occupied this site. The building here is almost exactly as old as Aya Sofya.

Second Court

The Middle Gate (Ortakapı or Bâb-üs Selâm) leads to the palace's Second Court, which was used for the business of running the empire.Only the sultan and the valide sultan (mother of the reigning sultan) were allowed through the Middle Gate on horseback. Everyone else, including the Grand Vizier, had to dismount. The gate was constructed by Süleyman the Magnificent in 1524.

To the right after you enter are models of the palace. Beyond them, in a nearby building, you'll find a collection of imperial carriages.

The Second Court has a beautiful, park-like setting. Topkapı is not based on a typical European palace plan (one large building with outlying gardens) but, instead, is a series of pavilions, kitchens, barracks, audience chambers, kiosks and sleeping quarters built around a central enclosure.

The great Palace Kitchens are to your right (east) and on the left (west) side is the ornate Imperial Council Chamber, also called the Dîvân-ı Hümayûn. The Imperial Divan (council) met in the Imperial Council Chamber to discuss matters of state while the sultan eavesdropped through a grille high on the wall at the base of the Tower of Justice (Adalet Kulesi) in the Harem.

The entrance to the palace's most famous sight, the Harem, is beneath the Tower of Justice.

Harem

If you decide to tour the Harem – and we highly recommend that you do so – you'll need to purchase a dedicated ticket from the Harem ticket office.

As popular belief would have it, the Harem was a place where the sultan could engage in debauchery at will (and Murat III did, afterall, have 112 children). In reality, these were the imperial family quarters, and every detail of Harem life was governed by tradition, obligation and ceremony. The word 'harem' literally means 'private'.

The women of Topkapı's Harem had to be foreigners, as Islam forbade enslaving Muslims. Girls were bought as slaves (often having been sold by their parents at a good price) or were received as gifts from nobles and potentates.

On entering the Harem, the girls would be schooled in Islam and Turkish culture and language, as well as the arts of make-up, dress, comportment, music, reading and writing, embroidery and dancing. They then entered a meritocracy, first as ladies-in-waiting to the sultan's concubines and children, then to the sultan's mother and finally – if they showed sufficient aptitude and were beautiful enough – to the sultan himself.

Ruling the Harem was the valide sultan . She often owned large landed estates in her own name and controlled them through black eunuch servants. Able to give orders directly to the Grand Vizier, her influence on the sultan, on the selection of his wives and concubines and on matters of state, was often profound.

The sultan was allowed by Islamic law to have four legitimate wives, who received the title of kadın (wife). He could also have as many concubines as he could support – some had up to 300, although they were not all in the Harem at the same time. If a sultan's wife bore him a son she was called haseki sultan; if she bore him a daughter she was called haseki kadın.The Ottoman dynasty did not observe the right of the first-born son to the throne, so in principle the throne was available to any imperial son. Each lady of the Harem struggled to have her son proclaimed heir to the throne, which would assure her own role as the new valide sultan .

Although the Harem is built into a hillside and has six levels, only a dozen or so of the most splendid rooms can be visited, all of which are on one level. Interpretive panels in Turkish and English have been placed along the self-guided tour route.

Highlights of the tour include the narrow Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs, the Courtyard of the Concubines & the Sultan's Consorts, the Apartments of the Valide Sultan, the grand Imperial Hall, the ornate Privy Chambers of Murat III and Ahmet I, the Fruit Room and the Twin Kiosk/Apartments of the Crown Prince.

Third Court

If you enter the Third Court after visiting the Harem you should head for the main gate into the court and enter again to truly appreciate the grandeur of the approach to the heart of the palace. This main gate, known as the Gate of Felicity or Gate of the White Eunuchs, was the entrance into the sultan's private domain.

Just inside the Gate of Felicity is the Audience Chamber, constructed in the 16th century but refurbished in the 18th century. Important officials and foreign ambassadors were brought to this kiosk to conduct the high business of state. Seated on divans whose cushions were embroidered withover 15,000 seed pearls, the sultan inspected the ambassadors' gifts and offerings as they were passed through the small doorway on the left.

Right behind the Audience Chamber is the pretty, multi-domed Library of Ahmet III, built in 1719.

To the right of the Audience Chamber (ie on the opposite side of the Harem exit) are the rooms of the Dormitory of the Expeditionary Force, which now house rich collections of imperial robes, kaftans and uniforms worked in silver and gold thread. Next to the Dormitory ofthe Expeditionary Force is the Treasury.

Opposite the Treasury, on the other side of the Third Court, is another set of wonders: the holy relics in the Suite of the Felicitous Cloak, nowadays called the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms. These rooms constitute a holy of holies within the palace. Only the chosen few could enter the Third Court, but entry into the Suite of the Felicitous Cloak was for the chosen of the chosen, and then only on ceremonial occasions.

In the entry room to the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms, notice the carved door from the Kaaba in Mecca and the gilded rain gutters from the same place. To the left, a room contains the Prophet Mohammed's footprint in clay, the rod of the Prophet Moses and the sword of the prophet David.

Also in the Third Court are the Quarters of Pages in Charge of the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms, where the palace school for pages and janissaries was located. These days the building hosts temporary exhibitions.

Treasury

With its incredible collection of precious objects, and its simply breathtaking views from a balcony terrace, the Treasury is a highlight of a visit to the palace. The building itself was constructed by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1460 and has always been used to store works of art and treasure. In the first room, look for the jewel-encrusted sword of Süleyman the Magnificent and the Throne of Ahmet I, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and designed by Mehmet Ağa, architect of the Blue Mosque. In the second room, the tiny Indian figures, mainly made from seed pearls, are well worth seeking out.

After passing through the third room and having a gawk at the enormous gold and diamond candlesticks, you will come to a fourth room and the Treasury's most famous exhibit – the Topkapı Dagger. The object of the criminal quest in the 1964 movie Topkapı, it features three enormous emeralds on the hilt and a watch set into the pommel. Also here is the Spoonmaker's Diamond (KaşıkçıElması), a teardrop-shaped 86-carat rock surrounded by several dozen smaller stones. First worn by Sultan Mehmet IV (r 1648–87) at his accession to the throne in 1648, it is the world's fifth-largest diamond. It is called the Spoonmaker's Diamond because it was originally found in a rubbish dump in Eğrıkapı and purchased by a street pedlar for three spoons.

Fourth Court

Pleasure pavilions occupy the northeastern part of the palace, sometimes called the Tulip Garden or Fourth Court. A late addition to Topkapı, the Mecidiye Köşkü was built by Sultan Abdül Mecit (r 1839–61). Beneath it is the Konyalı restaurant.

Up the stairs at the end of the Tulip Garden are three of the most enchanting buildings in the palace, joined by a marble terrace with a beautiful pool. Murat IV (r 1623–40) built the Revan Kiosk from 1635 to 1636 after reclaiming the city of Yerevan (now in Armenia) from Persia. In 1639 he constructed the Baghdad Kiosk, one of the last examples of classical palace architecture, to commemorate his victory over that city. Notice the superbİznik tiles, the mother-of-pearl and tortoise-shell inlay, and the stained-glass windows.

Jutting out from the terrace is the golden roof of the İftariye Baldachin, the most popular happy-snap spot in the palace grounds. İbrahim the Mad built this small structure in 1640 as a picturesque place to break the daily Ramazan fast.

At the west end of the terrace is the Circumcision Room (Sünnet Odası), used for the ritual that admits Muslim boys to manhood. Builtby İbrahim in 1640, the outer walls of the chamber are graced by particularly beautiful tile panels.