Among the world's museums, few can rival Topkapı in its collection of captivating and colorful stories. From libidinous sultans to ambitious courtiers, beautiful concubines, and scheming eunuchs, this palace witnessed the grandeur and intrigues of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Step into its opulent pavilions, jewel-filled Treasury, and sprawling Harem, and you'll be transported to a bygone era that shaped history.
Built by Mehmet the Conqueror shortly after the 1453 Conquest, Topkapı Palace served as the residence for subsequent sultans until the 19th century. As the empire's center, it was eventually replaced by European-style palaces along the Bosphorus, but its legacy remains intact.
Before crossing the Imperial Gate (Bab-ı Hümayun) into the First Court, take a moment to admire the rococo-style Fountain of Sultan Ahmet III in the cobbled square outside, a tribute to the sultan's love for tulips.
The First Court, also known as the Court of the Janissaries or the Parade Court, welcomes you with the Byzantine church of Hagia Eirene (Aya İrini) on the left.
Passing through the Middle Gate (Ortakapı or Bab-üs Selâm) leads to the Second Court, the administrative heart of the empire. Unlike European palaces, Topkapı features pavilions, kitchens, audience chambers, and sleeping quarters surrounding a central enclosure, creating a park-like setting.
On the east side of the Second Court lies the magnificent Palace Kitchens, including a dedicated confectionery kitchen (Helvahane) with a collection of prized Chinese celadon porcelain, believed to change color when in contact with poisoned food.
To the west is the ornate Imperial Council Chamber (Dîvân-ı Hümâyûn), where state matters were discussed, and the Outer Treasury displaying an impressive collection of Ottoman and European arms and armor.
The Harem, accessed beneath the Tower of Justice on the western side of the Second Court, was not the hedonistic realm popularly depicted. Instead, it served as the imperial family's quarters, governed by tradition, obligation, and ceremony. The word 'harem' translates to 'forbidden' or 'private.'
The sultans accommodated up to 300 concubines in the Harem, although the number often varied. These women were educated in Islam, Turkish culture, and various arts, and they ascended through the ranks from ladies-in-waiting to the sultan's concubines, to the valide sultan, and potentially, to the sultan himself.
The ruling figure in the Harem was the valide sultan, who held considerable influence over the sultan, his wives, concubines, and matters of state. The Harem's construction began during Murat III's reign, while previous sultans' harems resided at the Eski Sarayı (Old Palace), now gone.
The Harem boasts six floors, but only one is accessible to visitors. The journey takes you through the Carriage Gate to the Dormitory of the Palace Guards, a meticulously restored structure adorned with magnificent 16th- and 17th-century İznik tiles. Next is the Dome with Cupboards, housing the Harem treasury, and the Hall with the Fountain, featuring fine Kütahya tiles. The path leads to the Mosque of the Black Eunuchs, displaying 17th-century tiles with depictions of Mecca.
Traversing further, you'll encounter the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs, behind which lie the Black Eunuchs' Dormitories. Their presence replaced that of white eunuchs, as they were sent as gifts from the Ottoman governor of Egypt.
The Main Gate, accompanied by a guard room adorned with gilded mirrors, marks the entry to the Courtyard of the Concubines and Sultan's Consorts, surrounded by baths, dormitories, and private apartments.
The Apartments of the Valide Sultan hold great significance as the center of power in the Harem. Admire the Salon of the Valide Sultan's lovely 19th-century murals and a pretty double hamam from 1585.
Continuing through these enchanting halls, you'll come across the Vestibule covered in 17th-century Kütahya and İznik tiles, where princes, valide sultan, and senior concubines awaited an audience with the sultan in the majestic Imperial Hall.
Other noteworthy rooms include the Privy Chamber of Murat III, boasting original decorations by Sinan, and the Privy Chamber of Ahmet III with wooden panels adorned with painted lacquered images of flowers and fruits.
Moving on, you'll find the Twin Kiosk/Apartments of the Crown Prince, adorned with beautiful İznik tile panels and stained glass.
The Courtyard of the Favourites reveals the small dark rooms known as kafes (cage), where brothers or sons of the sultan were kept under confinement. Adjoining is the Harem Mosque with a baroque mihrab.
The passage known as the Golden Road takes you to the palace's Third Court, which houses the Audience Chamber, Library of Ahmet III, Dormitory of the Expeditionary Force, and the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms, filled with relics of the Prophet.
The Imperial Treasury on the eastern edge of the Third Court contains an astonishing collection of gold, silver, gem-encrusted objects. Look out for the Sword of Süleyman the Magnificent, the Throne of Ahmed I, the famous Topkapı Dagger, and the Kasıkçı (Spoonmaker’s) Diamond.
Finally, the Fourth Court holds pleasure pavilions such as the Mecidiye Kiosk, the Head Physician’s Pavilion, and the Kiosk of Mustafa Pasha, surrounded by the Tulip Garden.
As you explore Topkapı, immerse yourself in the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire and the rich tapestry of history woven within its walls. A visit to this extraordinary palace promises an unforgettable glimpse into the lives of its illustrious inhabitants.