Topkapi Palace is bu far the most extensive structure in Turkish secular architecture. Its surface area is approximately 700000 m², being almost equivalent in size to half of the Kingdom of Monaco. Throughout the centuries it has represented wonderful architectural combination of different tastes and is a complex structure including courts, pavilions, mosques is a real city within the city in Istanbul, with its walls featuring shooting breaches, bastions and gates, which make the entire palace complex resemble an old fortress.
The name “Topkapi” is a compound word and means “Cannon Gate”. It is located on a land mass which just like a nose into the Sea of Marmara on one side and the Golden Horn on the other. The palace is surrounded by a 2km long Byzantine wall on the seaward side, and by a 1400m long wall on the landward side that was erected by the Turks; the later separates the palace area from outer city.
The palace stands in the area known as “Sarayburnu” (Seraglio Point), and is a dominating landmark seen from the European as well as the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara. Probably because of its strategic position, and its convenience as a site on which to build, Sultan Mehmet II chose this area as his place of residence.
The first palace, of which there is not a trace to be seen today, was built by the Ottoman Turks after the conquest of Istanbul (1453) in the present city region of “Beyazıt”, where the Istanbul University complex is situated today. The “new palace”, the present Topkapi Palace, was erected in 1467, and the sultan of that time, Mehmet II, immediately moved into it. The reason for this change in residence was probably the sultan’s need to be based at a geographically convenient location. To begin with, the new palace was only used for offical receptions and state affairs. The harem ladies lived in the old palace at that time. At the end of the 16th century however the Harem section was added to the new palace remained the official residence of the sultans, when Sultan Abdülmecit I moved to new palace of “Dolmabahçe”, built on the Bosphorus.
VISITING THE TOPKAPI PALACE MUSEUM
During the heyday of the Ottoman Empire approximately 4000 people lived in the Topkapi Palace confines. The total complex of this palace, now functioning as a museum, is composed of the palace itself, four huge courts and a harem section.
In this book, I will not only describe the presebt structure of Topkapi Palace in its new function as a museum, but the entire area within the palace walls.
We will visit the palace in the following order:
- The First Court
- The Second Court
- The Third Court
- The Fourth Court
- The Harem
- Around Topkapi Palace
- Through the outer gardens of the palace
“Bab-i Hümayun” (Imperial Gate)
This gate is situated behind Saint Sophia And stands near the beautiful fountain of Sultan Ahmet III. The palace area begins with this huge gate. According to the inscription above the gate, it was erected in 1478 during the reign of Sultan Mehmet II, and was reconstructed later during the reigns of Sultan Mahmut II and Sultan Abdulaziz. According to documents dating from 15th century, above this gate there used to be a pavilion with a tower, but this has not been in existence for the past century. Previosly, on both sides of the gate, there stood the gate keepers’ quarters. The gate was opened with the “sabah ezanı” (the first call to prayer in the morning), and closed with the “yatsız ezanı” (the last call to prayer at night). Nobody, with the exception of viziers and foreign ministers, could go gon horseback through this gate.
The First Court
The lies between the firs gate, “Bab-ı Hümayun” and the second gate, “Bab-üs Selam”. Today it is being used as parking lot for tour buses.
The most important structure within this court is the Church of St. Irene, which is considered to be one of the oldest Christian sanctuaries in the world. Today, it is a museum where fine art expositions and concerts are organised from time to time. Near the church is the “Darphane”, a building used as a mint in earlier times. Although no longer in evidence this area was once used as a depot where wood was stored in barrels, and coal for the use of kitchens and heating was kept.
“Bab-üs Selam” ( Gate of Salutation)
This huge middle gate of the palace stands at the end of the First Court. At each side are large octagonal towers with pointed roofs and cellike rooms. According to the inscription on this iron gate, it dates from the reign of Sultan Mehmet II (1452). Both towers, which have a number of similarities with the castles of the Middle Ages in Eastern Europe, were added by Sultan SuleymannI in the 16th century, and later this gate underwent many reconstructions.
The grand vizier, important officials and foreign ministers, were permitted to ride their horses as far as this gate, after which they were requ,red to walk. The upper part and both sides of the gate are amply decorated with religious inscriptions and monograms of the sultans (Tuğra).
The Second Court
In this section the most important events of the Ottoman Empire were celebrated, such as the accession of sultans to the throne. Also celebrated here were religious festivals, where, twice a year sweets were distributed; every three mounths the janissaries received their salaries here.
In this court during excavations, water drains, colossal capitals, and sarcophagi made of porphyry, remaining from the Byzantine era, were found. A very fascinating discovery is that of a Byzantine cistern and its brick vault, still in sight, which dates from the reign of Emperor Justinian (4th century).
From the gate of “Bab-üs Selam”, six paths lead to different sections of the court. From left to right they are the following:
1- The path leading to the stables of the sultans (display of court coaches).
2- The path leading to the Harem (to the Carriage Gate)
3- The path leading to “Kubbealtı” (Meeting place of the Privy Council).
4- The path leading to the gate of “Bab-üs Slaadet “way to the Third Court)Kapısı”
5- and 6- The paths leading to the palace kitchens (porcelain and glassware displays).
Following the firsh path, we see at the end of the court the so-called “Meyyit Kapısı”(Gate of the Dead), through which the corpses of those who had died were caried out. If one continues to walk along the path the palace stables can be seen.
“Has Ahırlar” (Stables of the Sultans)
Dating from the reign of Sultan Mehmet II (15th century) this section is in two parts.
- The actual stables
In this long wing were stabled approximately 30 horses selected for the sultans and their fovourite pages.
2) The rooms of the “Imrahor” (Grand Stable Master)
These two rooms have attractive ceiling paintings of high quality dating from the 18th century. Valuable harnesses belonging to the sultans and theirs families are on display here.
“Kubbealtı” (Meeting Hall of the Privy Council)
Once a week on Tuesdays, after the morning prayer, the Divan council gathered here. During such occasions the court was full of high ranking officials wearing gorgeous garments.
The Divan was composed of connecting rooms:
- The council hall.
- 2) A public records office
- 3) The office of the grand viziers
The council hall was designated for the meetings of the Privy Council. On the wall opposite the entrance we see a window furnished with a grill, behing which the sultan sat during debates and listened secretly. On three sides of the hall there are low sofas for the members of the Divan. During the sessions of the Privy Council, the area could be controlled through the enormous tower which rises above the Divan.
The public records office is next to the council hall. This office was where the archives that is all the documents of the sessions, were kept and preserved.
Both rooms are square in shape, and the lower walls are decorated with magnificent Iznik (ancient Nicea) tiles.
A gate leads from the second hall to the office the grand viziers.
The Court Kitchens of the palace (now housing the Chinese, Japanese, Turkish and European Porcelain and Crystal Colections.
In the Topkapi Palace there are three kitchens:
- The Grand Court Kitchens: (here meals were cooked for approximately 4000 people).
- The “Helvahane” (various desserts were prepared here).
- The “Kuşhane” (meals were cooked here for the sultans and their families).
The fifth and the sicth paths lead to the Grand Court Kitchens of the palace, which were rebuilt by the court architect Sinan in 1574 after a fire. They were housed in a long building consisting of ten rooms with domes and chimneys. For a period of over three hundred years, about 800 cooks worked here daily and this number went up to 1000 during feasts. The yearly meat supply to 1000 during feasts. The yearly meat supply of these oversized kitchens included 30000 calves, and enormous amounts of fruit and vegetables.
Today, these kitchens house a rich collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain, said to be the third richest collection of porcelain in the world after those at Peking and Dresden, with 10,700 rare and valuable pieces.
The third court “Enderun” of Topkapi Palace
The literal translation of Enderun is “inside”. The sultans used this area for their everyday lives away from the harem. The apartments of the “Zülüflü Aghas” of Enderun were taken from their families at childhood, educated in special schools for palace service and takn to Enderun, where they performed special services for the sultan. The “aghas” were also trained in the fine arts, music, painting and caligraphy. By working hard under the sultan’s asistants, they could continue with their studies. They could be promoted to “Has Odalı Agha” and to high ranking office, even to a vizier’s position. 40 “Has Odalı Agha” got the most prestige in the Enderun. Their job was to serve the sultan from the morning till evening, duties included the guarding of sacred relics and keeping the sections clean.
The aghas of Enderun had four serving classes:
1- has Oda Aghas: Guarded the sacred relics of the Prophet Mohammed.
2- Hazine Aghas: Guarded the Treasury.
3- Seferli Aghas: Were responsible for the bathing of the sultan.
4- Kilerli Aghas: Carried out the table service and took care of the sultans.