This vast palace on Sarayburnu ("Seraglio Point"), above the confluence of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, was the residence of sultans and their harems, in addition to being the seat of Ottoman rule from the 1460s until the mid-19th century. Few other royal residences match this hilltop compound when it comes to mystery, intrigue, and the lavish intricacies of court life.
Sultan Mehmet II built the original Topkapı Palace, known simply as the New Palace, between 1459 and 1465, shortly after his conquest of Constantinople. Over the centuries, sultan after sultan added ever more elaborate architectural frills and fantasies, until the palace had acquired four courtyards and quarters for some 5,000 full-time residents, including slaves, concubines, and eunuchs. Many of its inhabitants lived their entire adult lives behind its walls, and the palace was often the scene of intrigues, bloodshed, and drama as members of the sultan's entourage plotted and schemed to advance their favorites,
sometimes even deposing and assassinating the sultan himself. Topkapı was finally abandoned in 1856, when Sultan Abdülmecid I moved his court to Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosphorus.
The main entrance, or Imperial Gate, leads to the Court of the Janissaries, also known as the First Courtyard, which is (and has always been) freely accessible to the general public. Today, the courtyard where these members of the sultan's guard once assembled is a tranquil green park full of tourist groups, and there is little to evoke the splendors and tragedies of the palace's extraordinary history. Off to one side is the large and modestly beautiful Aya Irini (Church of St. Irene, Hagia Eirene in Greek), an unadorned redbrick building that dates from the same time as Justinian, though it is believed to stand on the site of the first church of Byzantium. The church is usually closed, but is sometimes opened for special exhibitions and concerts.
You will begin to experience the grandeur of the palace when you pass through the Bab-üs Selam (Gate of Salutation). Süleyman the Magnificent built the gate in 1524 and was the only person allowed to pass through it on horseback; others had to dismount and enter on foot. Prisoners were kept in the towers on either side of the gate before they were executed next to the nearby fountain—a handy arrangement that made it easy for executioners to wash the blood off their hands after carrying out their orders.
The Second Courtyard, once the administrative hub of the Ottoman empire, is planted with rose gardens and ornamental trees, and filled with a series of ornate köşks, pavilions once used for the business of state as well as for more mundane matters, like feeding the hordes of servants. To one side are the palace's kitchens, where more than 1,000 cooks once toiled at the rows of immense ovens to feed the palace residents, whose numbers sometimes swelled to 10,000 on special occasions. The cavernous space is being restored and when it reopens it will display one of the world's best collections of porcelain, much of it amassed over years of Ottoman rule when powers from China, Persia, and Europe bestowed gifts on the sultans. Straight ahead is the Divan-ı Hümayun (Assembly Room of the Council of State), once presided over by the grand vizier. When the mood struck him, the sultan would sit behind a latticed window, hidden by a curtain, so no one would know when he was listening, although occasionally he would pull the curtain aside to comment.
The Harem, a maze of 400 halls, terraces, rooms, wings, and apartments grouped around the sultan's private quarters, evokes all the exoticism of Orientalist fantasies of the Ottoman Empire. Yet seeing the 40 or so Harem rooms that have been restored and open to the public brings to mind not just luxury but also the regimentation, and even barbarity, of life in this enclosed enclave. A separate ticket must be purchased to visit the Harem.
The first Harem compound you see housed about 200 lesser concubines and the palace eunuchs, in tiny cubicles, like those in a monastery. As you move into the Harem, the rooms become larger and more opulent. The chief wives of the sultan (Islamic law permitted up to four, though the sultan could consort with as many concubines as he wished) lived in private apartments around a shared courtyard. Farther in are the lavish apartments, courtyard, and marble bath of the valide sultan (queen mother), the absolute ruler of the Harem. Finally, there are the sultan's private rooms—a riot of brocades, murals, colored marble, wildly ornate furniture, gold leaf, and fine carving. The fountains that splash throughout the Harem were not only decorative: they also made it hard to eavesdrop on royal conversations.
Beyond the Harem is the Third Courtyard, shaded by regal old trees and dotted by some of the most ornate of the palace's pavilions. (From the Harem, you enter to the side of the courtyard, but to see this beautiful space to best advantage, make your way to its main gate, the Bab-üs Saadet, or Gate of Felicity, exit, and reenter—and consider yourself privileged to do so, because for centuries only the sultan and grand vizier were allowed to pass through this gate.) Foreign ambassadors once groveled in the Arz Odası (Audience Chamber), but access to the courtyard was highly restricted, in part because it housed the Treasury, four rooms filled with imperial thrones and lavish gifts bestowed upon generations of sultans, and spoils garnered from centuries of war and invasions. The glittering prizes here are the jewels. The most famous pieces are the 86-carat Spoonmaker's Diamond and the emerald-studded Topkapı Dagger. Two uncut emeralds, each weighing about eight pounds(!), once hung from the ceiling, but are now displayed behind glass. Other pavilions show off a curious assortment of treasures, among them relics of the prophet Muhammad (including hair from his beard), considered especially holy by Muslims, and sultans' garments, from the lavish wardrobes of the first to the last ruler. Some of these robes are bloodstained and torn from assassins' daggers; other garments are stiff with gold and silver thread, tooled leather, and gold, silver, and jewels.
The Fourth Courtyard, more of an open terrace, was the private realm of the sultan, and the small, elegant pavilions, mosques, fountains, and reflecting pools are scattered amid gardens that overlook the Golden Horn and Bosphorus. The octagonal Revan Köşkü, built by Murat IV in 1636 to commemorate a military victory in eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus, is often referred to in Ottoman histories as the Turban Room (Sarık Odası) because it is where the sultan used to keep his turbans. In the İftariye (Golden Cage), also known as the Sofa Köşkü, the closest relatives of the reigning sultan lived in strict confinement under what amounted to house arrest—superseding an older practice of murdering all possible rivals to the throne. Just off the open terrace with the wishing well is the lavishly tiled Sünnet Odası (Circumcision Room), where little princes would be taken for ritual circumcision during their ninth or tenth year.