Topkapi Palace in Istanbul Turkey
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
Topkapi Palace in Istanbul deserves at least four hours of your time to explore the many cherished wonders it holds. The Palace is a complex of buildings spread over 700 thousand square metres (146 acres), rather than one large building. There are so many things to marvel at once here, that it deserves a long visit. I have visited palaces in other European countries, and they cannot compare with Topkapi for its simple and comfortable beauty. It was the home of Ottoman Sultans from the 15th to the 19th centuries. These Sultans ruled the world during that time. This was the literally the centre of the world for four hundred years!
These leaders both lived and worked in the palace. Today, as a museum, the public can marvel at the relics, buildings and the views. But it is the stories of everyday life here that fascinates visitors at this large living museum.
Topkapi means New Palace, which allowed it to be identified from the Old Palace in Beyazit Square. For history buffs, construction started way back in 1459 by the Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, after Constantinople (the old name of Istanbul) was overtaken six years earlier. Fires and earthquakes over the years meant construction, expansion and repairs continued for four centuries.
There are four main courtyards that visitors can pass through, each one large and grand.
Picture the Sultans and Grand Viziers strolling the grounds here and conducting important meetings within the Imperial Council building. Try to picture the female family members living in the harem on the grounds. In the 1850s though, Sultan Abdulmejid I moved his family to a new palace, the Dolmabahce. After this Topkapi was used as a store facility for the treasury and holy relics as well as accommodation for officers. From 1924 Topkapi has been a Palace Museum and visitors can see clothing, weapons, clocks, manuscripts, armour and religious relics from centuries long gone.
There are amazing views that overlook the Golden Horn, which is where the Bosphorus Strait greets the Marmara Sea. Built high on a hill, this is one of the highest points nearest the sea in Istanbul. This is one of the few places you can see both the European and Asian continents so close to each other.
The buildings themselves are fascinating and built in the Ottoman and the more decorative Baroque architectural styes.
Many of the buildings are no higher than two stories. The Sultans often observed silence in the inner courtyards and secluded themselves and their families, to enjoy privacy and discretion. Secret passageways were included in the design as well as interconnecting passages. Perhaps, this is why there is such a feeling of peace as you wander around here.
Divided into four main courtyards, smaller courtyards and the harem, each courtyard was surrounded by high walls and gates that controlled who entered and who didn’t. The first courtyard is where most visitors would see the Sultan and his court, the harem would have been off limits to almost everyone.
Even before entering the first courtyard, an impressive fountain can be seen before the gate. This is the Fountain of Ahmed III, built in 1729. It is a beautiful example of the Ottoman baroque style. The fountain has a square plan with rounded edges. “The encomium of fourteen quatrains by the poet Seyyid Huseyin Vehbi bin Ahmed who was also the Qadi of Kayseri and Halep, was written on the fountain and taps of each side by ta’lik script.” – from an information board near the fountain. Taps on all four sides still provide water, and the whole fountain is beautiful.
The Haig Sophia is located just outside the palace walls. Built in the 6th century, it has over 30 million gold tiles inside. The queue to get in can often take hours to pass through. Every visitor has stated emphatically that the wait was worthwhile. The Haig is stunning both inside and out.
From the main street we pass through the Royal Gate – known as the Imperial Gate, the entrance to the first courtyard. This impressive high-domed passage and its massive gate are covered with gilded Ottoman calligraphy, that includes verses from the Qur’an and the sultans tughras (a calligraphic monogram). Each sultan has his own unique tughra.
Through the gate and into the first courtyard would ride sultans, returning from victorious wars, where the public could submit petitions on public days and was also a waiting area for special events.
This is the largest courtyard in the palace. A lot of the buildings have been demolished over the years, but the Hagia Irene (Saint Irene) Byzantine church still stands. Originally built in 532, these days it is used as a museum and a concert hall, it is open to the public every day except Tuesdays.
A path leads towards the Gate of Salutation, the middle gate, and the second courtyard.
Manicured lawns and gently swaying trees enhance the sense of calm that can be felt here.
Only the sultan was allowed to enter the second gate on horseback, everyone else had to dismount. The gate is decorated with religious inscriptions and tughras of the sultans.
The Sultan would hold audiences in this courtyard, seated on a gold-plated throne.
The hospital, bakery, stables and kitchens were all located in the second courtyard. It would have been a very busy place, as the kitchens alone had over 800 staff and fed over 4000 people daily.
The business of running the empire was conducted by the Grand Vizier and council members in the Imperial Council Chamber. The sultan could watch the council through a mesh covered window in the wall, without being seen himself.
It is with awe that I marveled at the interior of the two chambers. Restoration work between 1792 and 1819 show the rococo (late baroque) style of decorations on the outside and inside. The designs are artistic with scrolling curves, sculptured mouldings and gilding. As well as the symmetrical and patterned Ottoman Kutahya tiles.
Next door in the former Imperial Treasury is an amazing armoury collection (no photographs are permitted by the general public). Over 400 weapons throughout the ages, from the 7th to the 20th century are on display here, including swords, axes and helmets. It is also a chance to see clothing worn by the Ottoman soldiers. It is definitely worth the visit inside, even if just to be amazed at the changes in technology over the centuries.
Also, on permanent display at the palace is the Topkapi Palace Clock Section. Like the armoury, (again no photographs are allowed by the public). Housed in the Divit room, the display is made up on an incredible 380 pieces covering the 400 years of the Ottoman empire. Clocks from Germany, England, Russia, Austria, Switzerland, France and Turkey are on display. From small pocket watches to tall grand examples of marvelous mechanical and design skill.
Through the Gate of Felicity and I found myself in the third courtyard, also called the Inner Palace. This courtyard was the private and residential area. The Sultan had absolute power over who entered into this inner sanctum.
The library of Ahmed III, the treasury and the harem were all located here. Page boys lived here as well and would be schooled in arts, music, painting etc. They would become the palace officials when they were older.
The Audience Chamber was a building (also known as a kiosk) set aside by itself and richly and ornately decorated. This was also known as the Chamber of Petitions. Here was the main throne room and the largest bed I have ever seen. Fit for a sultan! Looking up and the ceiling is the most decorated surface in the room. The gold throne is to the left of the bed.
The main door is surmounted by an embossed besmele, the common Muslim benediction, meaning "In the Name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful", dating from 1723.
Fountains still gush water both inside and outside the chamber building. Ambassadors would place gifts to the sultan in front of the large window, to gain favour and express gratitude.
The Conqueror's Pavilion, built in 1460 was used as the treasury at various times. Today the various rooms here house coats of main, swords, shields, thrones, the Topkapi Dagger, household items, paintings and religious artifacts. Again, no photographs were allowed, but it was worth viewing the displays.
The privy chamber is home to the Chamber of the Sacred Relics, some of the most sacred relics of the Muslim world. The line to see the religious artifacts took around 25 minutes of waiting in the queue. Many Muslims make a pilgrimage here just to see the relics on display. Once inside, it was quite a quick procession to glimpse the well labelled items. It took around 10 minutes to see everything, and there was no chance to linger as people were pushing you forward all the time. Visitors can see the cloak of Muhammad, a hair of his beard and even one of his teeth.
My favourite area of the palace has to be the library of Ahmed III, located right behind the Audience Chamber. Formed in the shape of a cross with a domed central hall, it is light and airy. Built around the 18th century, books would have been a scare commodity and needed to be carefully looked after. Stored into wall mounted cupboards, there were more than 3,500 manuscripts kept here. Today a New Library contains more than 20,000 manuscripts, just to the west of the Old Library.
The decorations are lavish, and the outside of the building is covered in marble. Iznik tiles decorate the walls and the decorations date from the early 1700s tulip period.
Whilst there are many fountains in and around the palace, my favourite was just outside the library, with the wonderful name – Fountain of wishes.
Due to time constraints, one area I did not see into was the Imperial Harem. When we hear the word harem we sometimes bring to mind a large room full of concubines. In fact, the Harem contained over 400 rooms, and was home to the family of the sultan, including his mother, concubines and wives, as well as children and other relatives, plus servants. It would have been a busy place. Very few people had access to the Harem back in the day. The eunuchs would look after the family members as well as guarding them.
By now, you can get a picture of how large this entire complex is, and most of the buildings are off limits to the general public.
The Fourth courtyard can be entered today by visitors, but in the Sultan’s time it was a private area of kiosks and gardens that only the sultan and his family could enter.
As mentioned, it is the peace and calm of the palace that surprises people the most.
Another surprising thing about the palace are the trees in the grounds. A fungus has completely hollowed out some of the trunks, but the trees still stand. There are instances where two trees have grown together, and both survived. It is remarkable the resilience of nature. In the second courtyard you can see a fig tree growing in the middle of another tree.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Topkapi Palace and wish I had more time to explore its wonders. Visiting here gave me a great desire to learn more about the Ottoman empire and its occupants. I can picture them better now that I have visited this site, and that is what travel does so well... it gives you the burning desire to learn more and better appreciate the places you visit.