In 1762 the English aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador stationed in İstanbul, described what is today the biggest tourist draw in the city as a “palace of prodigious extent ... the buildings are all of white stone, leaded on top, with gilded turrets and spires, which look very magnificent.” Today Topkapı Palace is the most visited site in Turkey, and most of the near 4 million visitors who pass through its turnstiles annually would probably agree with Lady Montagu about the magnificence of the palace complex. Few, though, will spare a thought for the adventurous aristocrat who, forbidden to enter, could only admire its splendors from afar.
Topkapı in 1762 was, of course, a working palace rather than a tourist attraction; the governmental seat of the Ottoman sultanate and the then-residence of one of the less well known Ottoman rulers, Sultan Mustafa III -- though the palace that Lady Montagu so admired was already around for 300 years old when she saw it. On its completion in 1465 the immense complex was grandiose enough to satisfy the Ottoman Turkish ruler who had it built, Sultan Mehmet II -- often better known by the sobriquet that he was given following his annexation of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror.
Nerve center of an empire
Situated on the easternmost of the seven hills of the peninsula on which the old walled city was built, with sweeping views across the Bosporus to Asia, over the Golden Horn to Lady Montagu's former residence in Pera (today's Beyoğlu) and down to the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara, Topkapı Palace boasts a location truly worthy of its former role as the nerve center of the Ottoman Empire. The importance of Topkapı Palace declined over time, first with the center of government switching to the chambers of the grand vizier, the Sublime Porte (Bab-ı-Ali). Then, in the mid-19th century, the residence of the sultan moved across the Golden Horn to a new, European-style palace on the shores of the Bosporus, Dolmabahçe. Finally, following the formation of the Turkish Republic and the abolition of the sultanate, in 1924 the palace that had been home to a succession of rulers who had grandly styled themselves as khans, sultans, emperors and caliphs, was turned into a museum.
It is unthinkable to spend any time in İstanbul without a pilgrimage to Topkapı Palace, and therein lies the problem for today's visitor, the crowds. On some days the palace complex appears swamped, its four courtyards and myriad rooms ogled by elderly hordes disgorged from the cavernous bowels of cruise ships docked across the Golden Horn in Karaköy, and poured over by crocodiles of Turkish school kids growing increasingly ragged, noisy and boisterous as the educational visit drags on and their patience wears thin. Throw in the huge number of regular visitors from the many hundreds of hotels clustered together in the tourist heartlands of the adjacent Sultanahmet district, and it's easy to see why you have to be patient and flexible about the order in which you visit the palace's many attractions if you want to make the most of Topkapı.
The best place to begin your explorations is the Bab-ı-Hümayün, a monumental gateway piercing the imposing crenellated stone walls surrounding the palace just beyond the northeast corner of the magnificent Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia). Step through, and you're in the first courtyard of the palace complex, dominated today by rows of venerable plane trees but once home to the crack troops of the Ottoman Empire, the janissaries. It was also where the palace's famously fine bread was baked, and rooms flanking the northwest of the courtyard housed the mint and a treasury. Worth a quick look to the left of the gate is the brick-built, sixth century Aya İrene (Hagia Eirene), once one of the most important churches in Constantinople but used in the Ottoman period as an arsenal and, briefly, a museum.
Diagonally opposite the church on the far side of the courtyard are the ticket offices (admission TL 25; Wednesday-Monday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. until mid-April, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. from mid-April-end September) where you must purchase a ticket before entering the remainder of the complex. Before heading through the gateway linking the first courtyard to the second, the Bab-ı-Selam or the “Gate of Salutations” (Ortakapı or middle gate in Turkish), pause to examine the so-called “Executioner's fountain” built into the wall of the courtyard just past the ticket office. Here miscreants were beheaded and the executioner would wash the blood from his sword in the waters of the fountain. The heads of the unfortunate victims were then displayed on stone blocks still visible in front of the fountain. The gateway is a functional example of military engineering, though the fairytale-style conical towers flanking it give it a touch of oriental flamboyance. Not so fairytale are the security checks the other side of the gate, where you're required to put your bag though a scanner.
A model introduction
Just inside and right of the gateway are a couple of scale models set in glass cases. The first shows the entire complex as it would have looked in its heyday, showing its superb location near the tip of the historic peninsula, the entire complex surrounded by a wall which ran from the Sea of Marmara around to where the northern shores of the Golden Horn meet the Bosporus near Sarayburnu (Palace Point). The second model is larger in scale and confines itself to the four courtyards and the buildings associated with them. What these models make crystal clear is that Topkapı was not a palace in the Western sense, but rather a collection of separate buildings ranged around a series of courtyards, a layout probably deriving from the tented encampments of the Turkic tribes from which the Ottoman dynasty arose.
Kitchens and council chambers
Turning away from the models the second courtyard, an expansive green space punctuated with cypress trees and surrounded by rows of colonnaded buildings unfolds before you. The rooms flanking the southeast of the courtyard were the palace kitchens and would have catered for up to 10,000 people on ceremonial occasions, such as the quarterly payday of the janissaries. They are now under restoration and closed to visitors, but it's worth admiring their curiously shaped but stylish chimneys, designed by the empire's greatest architect, Sinan.
On the opposite side of the courtyard is what I have overheard more than one Turkish guide describe to his temporary charges as the “White House of the Ottoman Empire,” the Divan. In this domed room, elegantly decorated in 16th-century style (including some of the very best quality İznik tiles), the most important minister of the Ottoman Empire, the grand vizier, along with nine other ministers, met four times a week to discuss matters of state. The sultan was able to observe what his ministers were up to from a window, covered by a metal grill, set into a room backing onto the Divan. The gold-painted grill is still there, as is a brazier that would have kept the viziers warm in the winter months.
Through the Gate of Felicity
In a room just east of the Divan is the newly opened Clock Museum with over 380 fine mechanical clocks, made in countries including Germany, France and Britain, on display. Next to it and also fairly recently opened to the public is the armory, a wonderfully displayed collection of weapons both functional and ceremonial, from bows and axes to swords to maces. Diagonally opposite is the gateway leading into the third courtyard, the Bab-üs-Saadet or the “Gate of Felicity.” In front of this ceremonial gateway, now surmounted by a Rococo-style porch, the reigning sultan would sit on his throne on important occasions. A small rounded stone, pierced by a hole and set into the paving stones in front of the gate, was the socle hole for the banner of Prophet Muhammad which was unfurled before a military expedition was launched.
The third courtyard was in many ways the fulcrum of not only the palace but also of the entire empire. For just through the Gate of Felicity is a small but grand building, virtually always thronged with visitors today, the Audience Hall (Arzu Odası). Here, the viziers would come after sessions in the Divan to have their decisions yayed or nayed by the sultan, and also where he would greet foreign dignitaries. Arguably even more importantly, it was in a suite of rooms in this courtyard that the Palace School, or Enderun, was housed. Here children and youths, recruited as slaves from the sultan's Christian subjects, were trained to become the Ottoman Empire's ministers, officials, bureaucrats, janissary officers and even architects. (The great Sinan was schooled here.)
Diamonds, daggers and ornamental gardens
Just behind the Audience Hall is the austerely beautiful library of Ahmet III, but most people's focus in the third courtyard are on the rooms given over to the various palace collections. Often the longest queues in the summer months, when a large number of Arab visitors are in town, form outside the room of the Relics of the Prophet, which house, amongst other things, the cloak, banner and sword of the Prophet. Queues are often just as long to see the Treasury, which is home to a (literally) rich display of jewels, gold and silver objects. Most famous of these are the Spoonmaker's Diamond, the fifth largest in the world, and the emerald-studded Topkapı dagger.
Shuffling slowly past these precious objects in an orderly line is not to everyone's taste. Instead of spending time here, try continuing into the fourth courtyard, which was largely given over to leisure and where a number of beautiful pavilions, decorated with İznik tiles and intricate woodwork enlivened by mother of pearl and tortoise shell inlay, stand amongst ornamental gardens. For expansive views across the Golden Horn and up the European side of the Bosporus, head to the northeast side of the courtyard and the terrace adjoining the Baghdad Kiosk; for a panorama of the Asian side of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara make your way to the terrace of the Mecidiye Kiosk, now the Konyalı cafe-restaurant.
The palace was also, of course, home to the Harem, a substantial suite of rooms today entered from the second courtyard and for which a separate admission fee of TL 15 is levied -- but more on that center of intrigue another time. Even without the Harem visit, Topkapı Palace deserves at least half a day of your time, though with a museum card (Müzekart) and sufficient time in the city it's worth considering two or three shorter trips to the palace spread over a number of days; otherwise it can be a mind-boggling experience.