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A Visit to Topkapi, Part 1


My images of Turkey, before we visited, were a melange of towers and gates—perhaps the one above—mysterious alleys, turbaned sultans, espionage, intrigue and many-minareted mosques. Of course, much of this comes from a bit too much Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Joseph Kanon and even Alfred Hitchcock. And, of course, the Orient Express, full of spies and mysterious beauties.


But somehow, none of it focused on Topkapi, the storied residence and center of administration of the Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years. I guess I missed the serious Topkapi movie (ironically filmed by a Greek director) and only remember the Pink Panther version, and the animated parody accompanying the comic song "Istanbul, not Constantinople."

But there is a lot more to Topkapi; its description as a palace only brings up images of a luxurious royal residence; in fact it's a huge complex of buildings that for over 400 years served not only as the residence of Ottoman Sultans but as the nerve center of Ottoman rule over a large empire that stretched from the Balkan states of Eastern Europe to nearly all the lands of the Middle East.

The aerial view above gives a good idea of the complexity of the space...but it reallly only shows the central core. The lands around it are large, and once were larger, and spill all the way down to the shore of the Sea of Marmara. In fact, the walls you see in the picture really surround only the inner three of the four courtyards. Construction started shortly after the 1453 conquest by the Ottomans of the remains of the Byzantine empire. They recycled Hagia Sophia as a mosque, but scorned the badly-decayed imperial palace. Instead, 200 years later, that became the building site for the Blue Mosque.


The gray area you see in the map below is just the fringe of the First Courtyard; it actually encompasses a large area big enough for a former Byzantine church (Hagia Irene) that survived by serving as a warehouse rather than a mosque; the two buildings of the Archeological Museum, barracks, workshops, warehouses and more. Even with that character, access was still limited to those who belonged; in fact each succeeding area of Topkapi was limited to an ever-more exclusive group, with the last parts limited to the Sultan, his family and their servants. Below, Hagia Irene, with Hagia Sophia behind.


Access to the First Courtyard is through the Imperial Gate, whose opening lined up directly with Hagia Sophia, the great Byzantine Cathedral that was the imperial mosque until the Blue Mosque was built in the 1600s. It's still one of the ways in, but on our visit we (and most others) went in through a side gate that leads past the Archeological Museum and past a rather unusual feline guardpost/hostel. You'll see that this Sunday (April 5) in Gumbo's Picture of the Day.


Once through the Imperial Gate, you're in the First Courtyard, where you'll pay for your tickets. One note: Istanbul is one of the cities where buying a museum pass actually works. Four of the main attractions on it (Hagia Sophia, Topkapi, the Harem and the Archeological Museum) are all clustered together, and their combined prices exceed the price of the pass...and it's good for three days and also includes the Chora Church and a few others.

DSC03458Once you've got your tickets and audioguide (this is a good one!), you pass through the aptly-named Gate of Salutation. That's the Disney-reminiscent one in the top picture. It's inner portion is in the picture just above. It leads to the Second Courtyard. As you walk through, on foot, you might note that only 36 people—the 36 Ottoman Sultans—were ever allowed to pass through on horseback. Everyone else walked.



The area inside, between the Gate of Salutation and the next gate, is a large park-like area, surrounded by a colonnade that unites the several buildings around it. This area was open to officials and courtiers of all sorts who had business at Topkapi or connections. Being there kept them off the street and out of trouble (think Louis XIV keeping his nobles close at hand in Versailles). Gazelles and peacocks also roamed the courtyard.

DSC03464Along the right-hand side were the Imperial kitchens, first built with the first parts of the Palace in the 1460s. As the complex grew, so did the kitchens. After a series of extensions and of rebuilding after a 1574 fire, they eventually used 800 cooks and staff to serve meals to as many as 5000 soldiers, officials and staff, and of course the Sultan and his family. That accounts for the size and the double row of 40 chimneys.


The kitchens were highly specialized by product (bakery, meat, candy, etc.) and by whom they fed (the Sultan's food did not come from the same kitchen as the common staff). The quantities of pots, pans, ovens, utensils and so forth, not to mention plates and tableware, were immense, and a great deal of it is on display in the kitchens, with quite good narration on the audioguide as well as good labels. Below, some of the kitchen area is devoted to displays of utensils and vessels.



Part of the colonnade surrounding the Second Courtyard. We'll walk along it a bit and come to the Tower of Justice. The tower takes a bit of explanation—doesn't look very Byzantine or Ottoman, does it? The Sultan of 1825 who replaced the possibly-damaged previous tower on the existing building base, chose a westernized model. The tower served a dual purpose; the Sultan and favorites used it as a lookout or viewpoint, but it was also intended to serve as a reminder that the Sultan and his justice could see and be seen from everywhere. Probably a comforting thought to many, and a nerve-wracking one to others.


The building on which the tower sits serves duty now as the visitor entrance to the harem, of which more in the next part of this blog.


Also in the Second Courtyard, to my surprise, is the Imperial Council chamber, which I would have assumed would be deep in the heart of the innermost courtyard. But no; the Ottoman Sultans were that private that they not only kept this most important body, composed of the Grand Vizier, other viziers, and generals at arms' length; they did not appear at its meetings or directly direct its affairs.


Instead, in a room entered through a passage from the Tower of Justice (Topkapi has more hidden and secret passages than a Clue game) the Sultan, or his mother when the Sultan was a youth, sat behind the gold-grilled window high in the wall, opened a curtain and listened. When the Sultan was satisfied, or at least had heard enough, he would close the curtain—and the meeting was over. Later, he would receive formal verbal reports. If he liked the reports, fine. If not...disgrace and death by strangulation were not unknown.




The other highlight of the Second Courtyard is the Gate of Felicity, directly across from the Gate of Salutation. It leads to the even more private Third Courtyard and the Audience Chamber. But the Audience Chamber wasn't for just any audiences. All public audiences, and the formal reception of foreign ambassadors and high officials took place just in front of the Gate of Felicity, with elaborate rituals in front of a throne brought out for the purpose. It's also where the Sultan dispensed justice as the highest court of all.



Through the elaborate gate, we entered the Third Courtyard—and found that privacy was so important to the Sultans that they placed the next building, the Audience Chamber, right across the exit of the gate, to prevent anyone from even looking where they shouldn't.


The Audience Chamber is a colonnaded building, with the main floor several steps up from the ground level of the Third Courtyard. It contains several smaller rooms, and an ornate audience chamber where the most favored foreign ambassadors and the most important officials were received to make their reports. Also in attendance were deaf-mute eunuchs who served as a means of execution for those whose reports seriously displeased the Sultan. Talk about shooting the messenger!


Also in the Third Courtyard is the Imperial Treasury, once a storehouse of jewels, arms and art, and now an area to display part of the treasure. Only a small part; there's a collection of 10,000 priceless Ottoman miniatures, with only about 100 on display.



Also on display is the famous jeweled Topkapi Dagger, object of the thieves in the 1964 movie. It's actually a bizarre piece with a strange story. It was made in 1747 for a Sultan who intended it as a present for the then ruler of Persia; before it could be delivered the recipient was assassinated and the Sultan kept it. Covered in jewels and enamel with three huge emeralds, it also has a watch built into the end of the hilt!



Our visit took place on a gray, gloomy day, with rain constantly threatening and occasionally carrying out the threat. By the time we left the Treasury, we felt almost in another world, and almost as if a wrathful Sultan might appear and challenge us.


Or maybe that was just our bodies reminding us that as interesting as the past is, we needed a present-century break and a meal. Fortunately, on one of the terraces below the courtyard there's a cafe and restaurant available. The food and prices were not bad at all—and frankly if they had been, it wouldn't have mattered. We were warm, out of the rain, and had a view over the Sea of Marmara and the mouth of the Bosphorus that reminded us just how good a location Topkapi has for strategic as well as scenic purposes.






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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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