Istanbul 2019, part 3

Topkapi was the imperial palace from the middle of the 15th century (the construction started soon after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453) up until the 19th century when the sultans moved to more contemporary palaces built on the shores of the Bosphorus.

In my previous text I have already mentioned the First Courtyard of the Topkapi Palace which is also called the Courtyard of the Janissaries. Today, there is practically a greenery zone and this area is entered free of charge. In order to enter the Second Courtyard, i.e., the Topkapi Palace, it is necessary to pass through the Middle Gate.

The Middle Gate

When we reached the Second Courtyard, Sneža and I first visited the kitchens, since they were on our way after the security check-up and the reading of the museum passes. Still, these kitchens “hidden” from the courtyard by a high wall were not just a common area we have at our homes. Oh, no. These here take up some seriously large space and at their peak 800 people used to work here, since around 4000 people lived at the palace and they needed to be fed, especially since some of them ate – royally! Today, an impressive porcelain and pottery exhibit is displayed in them.

As we visited the Second Courtyard in a circular fashion, thus we passed by the Gate of Felicity that is used as an access to the Third Courtyard, but we moved on to that courtyard a little later and following a slightly different path.

Gate of Felicity

While the Palace really functioned as such, the Second Courtyard was regularly visited by the Grand Vizier and other members of the Imperial Council, since there is an Imperial Council Hall where four times a week meetings were held and the most important decisions were taken concerning different aspects linked to the functioning of the Ottoman Empire – from the issues of further conquests to who needed to have his head chopped off. It is interesting that no sultan joined these meetings in person, but they followed the proceedings through a grid screen from a room above. If they did not like a decision, they would close the window (which the viziers knew), the meeting would be then wrapped up quickly and the viziers would go to the Audience Chamber where they would agree about the matter at hand with the sultan himself.

Imperial Council Hall, the entrance

Imperial Council Hall, a detail

Imperial Council Hall, the interior (up and to the left there is the window through which the sultan would listen in)

Right next to the Imperial Council Hall there is the so-called Outer Treasury that contains exhibits of different weaponry. I was not interested in that at all, but later, on our way back from the visiting of the rest of the palace, Sneža and I did stop by, since at the time of our visit the main Imperial Treasury was closed for renovations and some of the most important exhibits were transferred precisely here. Two of those most significant exhibits are the Topkapi Dagger decorated with three incredibly large emeralds and the Spoonmaker’s diamond that has 86 carats and is one of the largest in the world.

The next place we visited was the Harem, but before entering there, we stopped at a café, bought some coffee and then sat on a bench. I found two girls sitting on the opposite bench particularly interesting.

Hiding from the Sun

Following this coffee break, we entered the Harem. The Harem was the place where the sultan, his mother, his wives and numerous concubines, as well as children up to a certain age used to live. In order for all of them to function, they also needed servants and these were black eunuchs. Other than those I have just mentioned, nobody else was allowed to enter these premises.

The Harem consists of around 400 rooms (they started off with a significantly smaller number, but with time additions were made in order for all of them to fit in) and this is all linked together with numerous hallways and inner courtyards.

Soon after one enters, it is possible to go to the section inhabited by the black eunuchs. The most interesting thing there are ceramic tiles from the 17th century. Different exceptional ceramic tiles may, of course, be seen in other parts as well, not only in the Harem, but also throughout the entire Palace.

Part of the Harem inhabited by black eunuchs in the past

Detail of the 17th-century ceramic tiles

Well, now... There is, therefore, a large number of rooms in the Harem. They are not all accessible to the visitors, but when you go there you pass through some of the most important sections. This includes the Imperial Hall, as well as the Baths of the Sultan and the Queen Mother. The Ottomans paid exceptional significance to the cleanliness of the physical body and baths are a very important part of their overall culture. On the other hand, this is also the place where certain aspects of the life in the Harem may be grasped, such as the gilded “cage” which fences off the part of the bath where the sultan used to bathe thus practically protecting him at the time when he was at his most vulnerable.

Part of the bath intended for the sultan

One of the numerous taps within the Harem’s baths

A detail from the Harem’s baths

As for the Imperial Hall, it was used for getting together the imperial household when there were formal events – weddings, ceremonies related to births, religious festivities, as well as to congratulate a new sultan after his enthronement.

Imperial Hall

Above the Imperial Hall there is the biggest dome within the Palace, while in the photo above you can see the gallery where the sultan’s mother (she was, by the rule, particularly important and influential), as well as other women used to sit, and there is also the baldaquin under which there used to be the sultan’s throne.

Imperial Hall, baldaquin for the sultan’s throne

How cleanliness of the physical body was important to the Ottomans may be seen quite well in the photo above, where right next to the baldaquin there is a water tap.

The next important room is the privy room of Murad III and that is the oldest preserved room within the Harem in which, over time, numerous alterations and improvements have been conducted. What is important about this room, as well as about the entire rest of the sightseeing of Istanbul, is that here Sneža and I practically encountered for the first time the work of Mimar Sinan, i.e., architect Sinan. This is the most famous architect of the Ottoman Empire who was active in the 16th century during the reigns of sultans Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim II and Murad III.

Privy room of Murad III

Among other things, the finest ceramic tiles from Iznik, that reached their peak at the time, were used here.

Privy room of Murad III: small niches and a fountain

Then we went out into one of the inner courtyards called the Courtyard of the Favourites, meaning sultan’s favourite concubines. From here, there is a splendid view of the Golden Horn, a narrow bay, and a part of Istanbul called Galata.

Courtyard of the Favourites: Galata Tower may be seen in the distance, while on the left-hand side there are the Apartments of the Crown Prince

Courtyard of the Favourites: the exterior walls of the Apartments of the Crown Prince covered with ceramic tiles

Of course, there is much more to be seen at the Harem, but sooner or later you finish with its sightseeing and then you move on into the Third Courtyard. It contains several structures that are very important for the functioning of the Palace.

When I mentioned the Audience Chamber a little earlier, I was thinking precisely of one such building that is located in the Third Courtyard.

Audience Chamber

The building has the shape of an Ottoman kiosk with columns and large eaves. This is the place where the sultan’s main throne was and where the sultan did his work with his high officials, but this was also the place where he saw foreign envoys and ambassadors, receiving numerous gifs for which there was a special window made in order for them to be placed there and shown to the sultan.

Audience Chamber

In the Third Courtyard there is also the Library of Ahmet III and the Imperial Treasury that was closed for renovation at the time we were there, but, as I’ve said, the most valuable objects had been moved to the Outer Treasury. However, it would certainly be nice to visit the Imperial Treasury properly, since it is one of the more important segments of the Palace-museum.

In this courtyard there is also a special Chamber for the safekeeping of the Sacred Relics. It exhibits some of the most sacred relics of the Muslim world. The visitors are let in in smaller groups in order to ensure that everybody can have a good look at the exhibited relics, although they certainly have a much deeper meaning for the believers in comparison to the visitors brought there just by their curiosity.

Third Courtyard

Our visit took us further to the Fourth Courtyard where we first went to a terrace near a restaurant from where there is a wonderful view at the Bosphorus.

Bosphorus strait

In the Fourth Courtyard, too, there is a number of buildings and this was also the place where the sultan and his numerous family could pass their free time. In the past the courtyard was considered to be a single space with the Third Courtyard, but today they are seen as separate, for after all they also used to have different functions.

Baghdad Kiosk

In the Fourth Courtyard there are two levels and after a walk around the lower one we went up to the level where there are a few important buildings. One of them is the Baghdad Kiosk which I photographed a little more than the others, simply because it just happened, as well as because its appearance provides a rough image of the other buildings.

Baghdad Kiosk from the path leading to the upper level

The Baghdad Kiosk was built after 1638 by sultan Murad IV in order to mark his conquest of this city. The building itself is important since it constitutes the last example of the classic palace architecture.

Baghdad Kiosk: the interior – the walls and the dome

Baghdad Kiosk: the interior – impressively decorated walls, niches and windows

Baghdad Kiosk; by the time we had visited the interior, the Sun came out

In front of the Baghdad Kiosk there is the Marble Terrace and I must admit that it seems to be the main cause for the visitors to hang around here. The reason for this lies in the fact that there is a stunning view from here towards the narrow and long Golden Horn bay.

Golden Horn

In addition to this view, the terrace also holds the Iftar Kiosk or Pavilion called like this because this was usually the place where the sultan used to break his fast during the month of Ramadan after the Sun would set. From the pavilion there is also a beautiful view at the Golden Horn. Nowadays, the place serves a much more profane purpose – it is favourite among visitors for having their photo taken. The two of us also had our photo taken here, but for me the main challenge was how to get a single second when there were no people in my photo.

Iftar Kiosk at the Marble Terrace

Since there are a few other interesting buildings around the Marble Terrace, we visited them as well and then we slowly headed to the exit.

Pool and buildings around the Marble Terrace

In order to exit the Topkapi Palace, one simply needs to return in the direction from which he came. This meant going again through the Third Courtyard and then the Second one. As I’ve mentioned, it was on our way back when we were in the Second Courtyard again that we stopped by the Outer Treasury in order to see the dagger and the diamond.

Imperial Council Hall with the Tower of Justice rising above it, left, and the Outer Treasury, right

Soon we returned to the First Courtyard where through the trees we saw the contours of the Church of Hagia Eirene again.

First Courtyard; on the right-hand side, a little farther away, there is the Church of Hagia Eirene

When you pass through the Imperial Gate, which is the main entrance into the Topkapi Palace, you immediately run into the Fountain of Sultan Ahmet III built in 1728.

Fountain of Sultan Ahmet III

On the right-hand side from the exit through the Imperial Gate, there is a smallish Carpet Museum. Many years ago, I used to have a work colleague who loved oriental rugs and carpets (and many other things) and so I learned a lot from her when we chatted during our breaks. That’s why I was keen on visiting this place, while Sneža just followed me. I don’t think she regretted it at all.

Hand-woven carpet from the 16th century; its size is impressive 6.6 m x 3 m

After this we went to the Basilica Cistern, but the line was too long (and our museum passes did not work here) and we did not feel like waiting at that point in time since we were tired and a little hungry. That’s why we went to a restaurant that was rather touristy, but it did not bother us in the least, since we sat on thick cushions on the floor and had wonderful “Turkish pancakes” filled with melted cheese and spinach. We also had Turkish coffee. It is practically the same as the one drank in Serbia or, rather, we make our coffee the same way Turks do, only I think that they roast their coffee beans longer and the coffee had slightly more acidic taste than the one we usually make.

“Turkish pancakes” and Turkish coffee

Verica Ristic

Born and lives in Serbia. Free-lance interpreter/translator for English, but also speaks other languages (this helps a LOT when travelling). Grateful to the Universe for everything.

Belgrade, Serbia

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