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Topkapi Palace Istanbul

Topkapi Palace Istanbul
Topkapi Palace, built between 1459 and 1465, was both the symbolic and political centre of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries until the removal of the imperial retinue to Dolmabahce, by Sultan Abdulmecid I in 1853.  It was originally known as Sarayi Cedid (New Palace) and was the seat of the new government installed by the Ottoman regime.

Layout of Topkapi Palace

The palace consists of a collection of buildings arranged around a series of courtyards, as is the Islamic tradition, and can be seen in similar places like the Alhambra in Granada, Spain and Moghul palaces in India.  
The first courtyard, being the service area, was open to everyone, the second courtyard and its buildings were dedicated to the Divan, or Council of State, and to those who had dealings with it.  

The Orta Kapı, the real entrance to the palace, was between the first and second courtyards and traditionally the pavilions of the judges stood here so that justice would be dispensed at the gate of the palace.  
The third courtyard was mainly used as the palace school, devoted to training civil servants and the fourth courtyard used for more pleasurable pastimes.  Here in the beautiful gardens a number of pavilions were built to commemorate past victories by Emperors and where their 3-4000 entourages would enjoy the retreat.

Location

Topkapi Palace is behind Aya Sofya ( Hagia Sophia ) to the right up Babihumayun Road in Sultanahmet Fatih .

Entrance and Tickets

There is no entrance fee for the first courtyard and tickets can be purchased to enter the others along with Palace, the Imperial Treasury and also tickets for guided tours of the Harem are available.

Visiting Sections of Topkapi Palace

AYA IRENE - FIRST COURTYARD

“The Church of the Divine Peace” Aya Irene, is usually closed to visitors. Special requests can be made for large parties at the Directorate of Aya Sofya ( Hagia Sophia ).  Occasionally it is open for concerts and exhibitions, and during the summer hosts the Istanbul music festival.  Originally the church was one of the oldest in Istanbul and was rebuilt at the same time as Aya Sofya after being burnt down during the Nika riots of 532.  The Sythronon (seating for clergy in the apse of the church) situated around the semicircular apse is the only one to have survived the Byzantine era in Istanbul. There are six tiers of seats with an ambulatory (covered passage around a cloister) along the back of the fourth tier.  Entrance to the first courtyard is through the imperial gate opposite the fountain of Ahmet III from Babıhümayun.  Behind the wall to the right of the courtyard are the Palace Bakeries, with the Imperial Mint and Outer Treasury and are all currently closed.

ORTAKAPI – SECOND COURTYARD & THE DIVAN

To enter the second courtyard you go through the middle gate “Gate of Salutations” (Bab-üs Selam) also known as Orta kapı, and straight ahead is the third courtyard with the Privy Stables of Mehmet II on your immediate left.  Beyond them are the buildings of the Divan, Inner Treasury and the entrance to the Harem with the kitchen area is on the right side of the courtyard.  Originally the gardens and paths would have been full of trees, plants, rose bushes, with peacocks and gazelles along with many fountains.  Great quantities of water were supplied from the Byzantine cistern of Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan Sarayi as Muslims believed running water to contain mystical properties.  In this courtyard during state ceremonies and under the Bab-üs Saadet, “Gate of Felicity”, the Sultan would sit on his throne.  On entering the Divan and to the left of the courtyard is the metal grille in the Council Chamber (first room on the left) called “the Eye of the Sultan” and from here the Sultans’ would privately view what was happening in the Divan.  This is where all the important councillors held their sessions and inside was a couch that spanned three of the walls and where the name for a couch became known as divan.  The building dates from 1453, the time of Mehmet the Conqueror.  The Council Chamber was restored in 1945. From many places in the city you can see the Divan Tower which was rebuilt in 1825.  It is only open twice a day for strict accompanied tours and there is no access to the balconies.  The views of the Bosphorus through the windows are outstanding.  Tours can be arranged at the ticket booth.  Next to this is the Inner Treasury also built in Mehmet the Conqueror ’s time and houses the “Arms and Armour Collection” which contains many barbaric looking exhibits.  Across the courtyard are the palace kitchens and cooks’ quarters.  Fifteen hundred people staffed the ten kitchens which all served different purposes and two rooms at the far end that have been completely restored, only made sweets and halva.  Other rooms contain some of the finest porcelain to be found in the world along with many fascinating utensils.  The exhibits are often changed from the huge Topkapi collection. 

THE THIRD COURTYARD

As you walk through Bab-üs Saadet “Gate of Felicity” the Throne Roomis in front of you and this is where the Sultan would await the results of the council sessions taking place in the Divan in order to give his approval or disapproval. The Ahmet III Library is the grey marble building in the centre of the courtyard and is not normally open to the public.  The room on the right of the gate and Throne Room is the Hall of the Expeditionary Force (Seferli Koğuşu) also called Hall of the Campaign Pages.  Here you will find a collection of embroidery and a small selection of imperial costumes.

THE IMPERIAL TREASURY

The Imperial Treasury, once the pavilion of Mehmet II, takes up a third of the courtyard.  In these rooms are some exquisite silver artefacts and memorials of the Sultans, with an abundance of gem stones and precious metals.
The most popular is Room Two as it contains the Topkapı Dagger which is decorated with three enormous emeralds, one of which conceals a watch. The Third Room holds the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, the fifth largest diamond in the world and was worn by Mehmet IV in his turban during his coronation in 1648. The Fourth Room houses the bejewelled throne and the hand and occipital bone of John the Baptist.  Across the courtyard of the Treasury is the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle where you find the Rooms of the Relics of the Prophet, these holy relics originate from Egypt and were bought here by Selim the Grim after his conquest in 1517.  Not until 1962 were the public able to view these; they contain a letter from the Prophet Mohammed, his footprint, hair and a tooth, also his mantle, standard and the swords of the first four caliphs.  What used to be the Hall of the Treasury holds a selection of Topkapi’s collection of paintings and miniatures.

THE FOURTH COURTYARD

You enter the fourth courtyard through a passage that runs between the Hall of the Treasury and the display of clocks and watches in the Silahdar Treasury.  There are several gardens here, each containing a pavilion, the best of which gives you a view of the city from Galata to Fatih, and are located around a wide marble terrace over from Ahmet III’s tulip garden.  The only pavilion open to the public is the Baghadad Köşkü ( Baghadad Mansion ) noted for its exterior and interior blue, turquoise and white tiles, tortoiseshell and mother of pearl inlaid shutters and cupboard doors, along with the pool and marble fountain on the terrace.  The Circumcision Köşkü (Circumcision Mansion )is also here but entry is not permitted and the Mecidiye Köşkü ( Mecidiye Mansion ), the final building to be erected at Topkapı, gives the best views of all the pavilions and is now open as Konyali Café offering expensive fare on its garden terrace and wonderful views of the Bosphorus.

THE CAGE

The Cage was first used by Ahmet I as an alternative to killing brothers or sisters once you had acceded to the throne, as was the practice at that time to avoid wars of succession.  After the death of a father, the younger princes would be imprisoned in the Cage along with a Harem of concubines and deaf mutes while the eldest brother took the throne. They would remain there until they were called to take power themselves. The concubines only left the Cage if they became pregnant, which was usually prevented by the removal of their ovaries or by the use of pessaries and if they did become pregnant they were drowned immediately.  The decline of the Ottoman Empire has been accredited to the introduction of the Cage as many of the Sultans who spent long amounts of time inside emerged maniacal, corrupt and merciless.  As an example, Osman II only used live human targets when practicing archery including his own staff.  The worst case was Deli Ibrahim (Ibrahim the Mad) who spent 22 years inside the Cage and had to be forcibly removed from there as he believed he was about to be assassinated (as was the case with Osman II and Mustafa I ).  He went on to execute his grand vizier (greatest minister of the Sultan) because his mother complained of lack of wood for the fire and then on hearing rumours about his harem, he drowned 280 concubines in the Bosphorus .

THE HAREM

The Harem (meaning “forbidden” in Arabic) occupied one section of the private apartments of the Sultan and housed the Valide Sultan (sultan's mother), his concubines, wives, children, other family members, servants and “odalisques” the female slaves. It was also the quarters of the Chief Black Eunuch.  There were over 400 rooms in a series of buildings, structures, connecting hallways and courtyards and each group of occupants, descending in order of rank, had its own living space clustered around a courtyard.  Connected to the outside world by the entrance of the Carriage Gate, this and the Aviary Gate (the exit gate) were guarded by black eunuchs who were responsible for running the Harem and were only allowed to enter during daylight hours.  The Barracks of the Halberdiers of the Long Tresses, just left of the Carriage Gate, served as imperial guardsmen and were employed at certain hours to carry in supplies to the Harem but they would have to be blinkered at all times.  The first area you reach is the Court of the Black Eunuchs which was rebuilt after a fire started by a malicious servant on 24 July 1665, damaging most of the Harem and Divan.  The Altın Yol(Golden Road) ran from the Black Eunuchs to the fourth courtyard and in 1808 on fleeing assassins the last of the great Valide Sultans, Aimée Dubbucq de Rivery, and her son Mahmut, escaped thanks to their Georgian odalisque, Cevri Khalfa, who threw red hot coals in the faces of their pursuers.  Mahmut went on to become Mahmut II the Reformer.  The apartments of the Valide Sultan, also rebuilt in 1665,  have a beautiful domed dining room and a passageway leading to the apartments of the women she controlled.  North of here are the more attractive rooms used by the Sultan, the grandest the Hünkar Sofrası (Imperial Hall), where he would entertain his visitors.  The Bedchamber of Murat III, also in this section, is the masterwork of architect Sinan is covered in 16th century Iznik tiles , has a marble fountain and bronze fireplace surrounded by a panel of tiles representing plum blossom.  Under the bedchamber is a large indoor swimming pool, where gold was supposedly thrown by Murat to women who pleased him and it has taps for hot and cold running water.  Next door is the Library of Ahmet I, with windows overlooking the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn and just beyond here the dining room of Ahmet III, with wood panelling painted in flowers and bowls of fruit, which was typical of this extravagant Sultan.  The two rooms southwest of the bedchamber once thought to be the original Cage though this is no longer believed as the various rooms on the floor above is actually where it was situated.  There are dormitories of the ‘favourite women’ located up stone stairs on a lovely terrace overlooking the fourth courtyard and the boating pool of Murat III.  Exiting the Harem is usually through the Aviary Gate (Kuşhane Kapısı) where the infamous Valide Sultan, Mahpeyker Sultan, also known as Köşem “the leader” was assassinated. She was the ruler of the Ottoman Empire during the reigns of her two sons Murat IV and Ibrahim the Mad and as she was not banished after Ibrahim’s death, ruled during the reign of her grandson Mehmet IV.  She was a toothless 80 year old woman when murdered, being stripped naked and strangled by the Chief Black Eunuch on orders of a jealous rival, the new Valide, Turhan Hatice.  There are daily tours of the Harem (except Tuesdays) from 10:00-14:00 every 30 minutes leaving from the Harem entrance in the Second Courtyard.  Due to its popularity it is recommended you arrive early as tickets sell out quickly and the queues become very long.  Tours last for approximately 1 hour 40 minutes.  

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