It’s so difficult to choose which of Istanbul’s historical avatars appeals to us the most. There are stories of riches and rags. But Topkapi Palace definitely pushes Constantinople to the top. The seat of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet naturally had to enjoy the best location with views of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, all at once. I’d heard so much about the beautiful blue Iznik tiles (which I intended on buying in the Grand Bazaar) that decorated the ornate Topkapi Palace, but was in no way prepared for the sheer scale I was to witness.
Topkapi Palace sits at the Eastern tip of Sultanahmet (Istanbul’s old city) and is right behind the tram stop Gülhane. It was just a couple of stops north from where we were staying at the Ayasofya Hotel. (Of course, using this entrance means a long long walk uphill once you enter the gates, and we were so thankful to the golf cart operator who willingly obliged, allowing us to pass other heavy breathing tourists as they slowly trudged up). Here’s hoping you find him and get lucky too.
It was a rainy day in Istanbul, and we were glad to not be out on the streets and soaked. We were glad we hadn’t decided to stroll the Blue Mosque or Chora Church that day. Unfortunately, it seemed like everyone else had had the same idea. Either that, or there was a cruise ship in port, as we gathered from the elbowing crowds around us. However, Topkapi Palace is massive, and once we were inside, it was easy for everyone to just sort of spread out and enjoy some breathing space while exploring.
The Sultan’s Harem is an extra ticket, but I’d read that it was definitely not to be missed, and I’m so glad we heeded that advice. The first set of living quarters as we entered was where the Sultan’s wives, concubines, mistresses or whatever you may call them stayed. I was intrigued to have several myths laid to rest, as I discovered that this wasn’t some sort of hedonistic outhouse for the Sultan’s conquests, but in fact a very disciplined system. At the entrance were the homes of the black eunuchs – a concept we are well familiar with in India. Castrated slaves, who could therefore be entrusted with the security of these women. A display in one of their rooms, showed us how beautifully they used to be outfitted. The School of the Princes followed, where the younger offspring were trained. Then was the home of the real ruler. The Mother Sultan. It was she who decided which of the women was worthy of bearing her grandchild. It was apparent that the kingdom’s reins were actually in her hands, from the ornate mother of pearl embedded cupboards and opulent gold leaf chimneys that decorated her home. Beyond the Wives’ quarters were the Sultan’s private apartments, a massive bed, an ornate ceiling, stained glass all around and, wait for it… a fountain inside his bedroom! (Gasp) His bath was even more luxurious, a massive tub, gleaming marble, excellent views from the window, it could put any seven star hotel to shame. The Harem was definitely my favourite part of the palace.
The Imperial Treasury
How I wish we’d been allowed to take photos inside the Imperial Treasury. Oh, the jewels and riches we saw inside room after room. Gigantic emeralds, massive diamonds, headdresses, jade thrones, ebony pens, golden swords and — GOLDEN GUTTERS. That’s right. And the treasures we saw in there were only a tiny percentage after most of it had been lost in battles or pilfered away through the centuries. If there was any wealth in the world in those times, these folks were rolling in it.
I could go on and on about every single thing about the Topkapi Palace, but then there wouldn’t be anything left, right? Unfortunately the Kitchens were closed for renovation, but I heard the displays in there are absolutely stunning (and not to mention rich). We took a break at the only (and overpriced) cafe where we ate the most missable of our delicious meals in Istanbul. But we enjoying the view, overlooking the Maramara Sea, and then continued walking around, taking in the tulip gardens (the Sultan had a room built just so he could sit and watch his tulips grow!), the Divan (where royal matters were discussed), a circumcision room (the room was far too pretty for what went on in there), several courtyards, reception halls, the hall of holy relics, the Sultan’s funeral platform, several Pavilions, and amazing views of the city from virtually anywhere we stood. The Topkapi Palace was fabulous peek into the lives of Ottoman Royalty, and we left, our eyes and minds dizzy from the intricacy of stories (from the audioguide) and patterns on the walls and ceilings.
Have you visited any palaces in Turkey? How does this strange, neither European nor Asian design aesthetic appeal to you?