If there were ever a home with juicy untold secrets, it is the 15th Century BC Topkapi palace museum in the Fatih district of Istanbul city. Here, the Ottoman sultans courted concubine slaves, harem fights for power took place, castrated eunuchs served their master, and sibling rivalry over the throne cut some family members’ lives short. Topkapi’s importance existed for nearly four hundred years until the Ottoman dynasty left for Dolmabahce Palace. Regardless, the Topkapi palace museum in Istanbul reflects much more than bricks and mortar and ornate rooms. The famous Istanbul landmark portrays generations of the Ottoman royal family whose influence changed world history and millions of lives.
About Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul
Ottoman Sultans lived in Topkapi Palace from the 15th to early 20th Century. Bear in mind; they were, at one point, a powerful family who ruled nearly half the world. They ruled their lands from Topkapi; hence thousands of people lived there, making more of a mini-city within Constantinople rather than a residence. This status makes the Topkapi palace museum an important UNESCO world heritage site in Istanbul.
The First Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II
Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, also called Mehmed II, shaped the history of Topkapi Palace. Mehmed II was the Ottoman Sultan who captured Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) in 1453, marking the end of the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of rule by the Ottoman royal family. After the conquest of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed II chose the city as his new capital. He built Topkapi Palace as his primary residence and administrative centre. The palace was built on the grounds of the ancient Byzantine Acropolis, overlooking the Golden Horn and the Marmara Sea.
Topkapi Palace During the 18th Century
Several renovations were made to Topkapi Palace during the 18th Century. Sultan Ahmed III (r. 1703-1730) commissioned the construction of new buildings, pavilions, and courtyards. These structures were influenced by Baroque and Rococo architectural styles. Sultan Ahmed III had his own private pavilion constructed within Topkapi Palace. However, the 18th Century also marked the start of a gradual decline in the Ottoman’s political power. While Topkapi Palace remained the primary residence of sultans, governance was increasingly influenced by other power centres and institutions. The writing was on the wall, but no one saw it.
During the 19th Century
The 19th Century brought significant changes as the Ottoman royal family faced numerous challenges and transformations. Sultan Selim III died at Topkapi Palace on July 28, 1808, during the Janissary Revolt, led by a faction within the Ottoman military called the Janissaries. Although the Sultan sought refuge in the palace’s harem, rebels discovered him. After his deposition, they imprisoned Sultan Selim III in the palace and strangled him to death.
The 19th Century witnessed the influence of Western styles and ideas on Ottoman architecture and design. European architecture, like neoclassical and eclectic styles, was incorporated into the palace’s structures and interiors. The decline of the Ottoman royal family continued, and political power gradually shifted away from Topkapi Palace. Sultans and the imperial court became more ceremonial figures.
8 Interesting Facts about Topkapi Palace
- Ottoman sultan Ibrahim, also called crazy Ibrahim because some suspected he was mad, accused 280 of his concubines of plotting to kill him. So, Ibrahim had them removed from the palace harem, tied up in sacks and thrown into the Marmara Sea.
- Topkapi Palace’s crown prince apartment building was, at one stage, the “kafes.” Sultans feared brotherly rivalry to get the throne would ensue in their death. So they killed their Sultan brothers first or held them captive in the kafes. Ibrahim Sultan, mentioned above, spent most of his life in the kafes; hence historians wonder if this is why he went mad.
- Selim, the second, was born and died at Topkapi Palace. Unfortunately, Selim only lived to be 50 because he tended to hit the bottle.
- 15-year-old Roxelana arrived at Topkapi palace as a slave. Such was her charisma; she married Suleiman the Magnificent and eventually became the most powerful woman in Ottoman history.
- Sultans brang male slaves to Topkapi palace to act as harem servants. However, to ensure they did not end up in sordid affairs with concubines, they used to castrate them.
- The 16th Century Sultan Murad the Third obviously spent more time in the Topkapi palace harem since he fathered over 100 children. Likewise, Murad started his reign by having five brothers murdered in case they stole his throne. Nice family!
- Many harem slaves were encouraged by their parents to join. They learned languages and creative activities like dancing, reading, and writing. They also learned etiquette in case they ever met the Sultan. Thus, for many slaves, Topkapi in Istanbul was favourable to freedom.
- Murad, the fourth, died at age 27 from cirrhosis and was sadistic. He made slave women jump in garden ponds while he fired pellets at them. Murad also forced his doctor to take an overdose. When another petrified doctor told him his newborn child was a girl, he impaled his head on a spike.
The Imperial Gate and First Courtyard
When you visit Topkapi Palace, the tour will start at the imperial gate, also called the royal gate. The Imperial Gate is on the outer wall facing Sultanahmet Square. Visitors approached the Imperial Gate through the First Courtyard or the Court of the Janissaries. The First Courtyard, surrounded by high walls, accommodated large crowds and boasted grandeur and authority.
People gathered here to witness important occasions and processions. Within the First Courtyard were barracks and lodgings for the Janissaries, the elite Ottoman infantry units. The Janissaries defended the empire, and their presence in the First Courtyard reinforced the Ottoman military’s might and authority. Ceremonies, military parades, and other public events were held in the First Courtyard.
Second Courtyard of Topkapi Palace
The Second Courtyard, Divan Square, is the heart of Topkapi Palace and was the principal administrative and ceremonial space. Only palace officials, government ministers, and authorized personnel could enter the second courtyard, which featured numerous buildings with different purposes. The heavily guarded Treasury stored financial resources, including gold, silver, jewels, and valuable artefacts. Situated on the courtyard’s eastern side, the imperial council chamber was where important political and administrative decisions were made.
The second courtyard also encompasses the palace kitchens where the palace’s vast culinary operations were carried out. The palace kitchens cooked meals for the sultans, their families, and thousands of palace staff. The Second Courtyard also housed several administrative offices that managed palace affairs and coordinated with different branches of government. Lastly, if you pay extra, you can also tour the harem section in the second courtyard.
Third Courtyard for the Ruling Elite
The third courtyard, called the “Enderun Courtyard” or “Inner Palace Courtyard”, was where the Sultan spent a lot of time when not in the harem. The Gate of Felicity was the middle gate through which the sultans passed to inner courtyards and chambers. The gate was the point of ceremonial processions and the boundary between the outer world and the Sultan’s private realm.
The impressive middle gate features elaborate carvings, intricate patterns, and calligraphic inscriptions. The Gate of Felicity was guarded by the Janissaries, an elite corps of soldiers. They maintained order and controlled access to palace grounds, only allowing authorized individuals to pass through. The middle gate represented Sultan’s authority. Here they made their public appearances, received dignitaries, and delivered proclamations. Visitors can still see the Gate of Felicity in the third court.
The third court layout also features beautiful gardens, pavilions, fountains, and architectural structures. The Audience chamber was used for official audiences and ceremonies. The Sultan received high-ranking officials, ambassadors, and other important figures in the audience chamber. Built by Sultan Ahmet III, the 18th-century library in the third court houses many manuscripts and rare books. This is also where the sacred relics room is.
Fourth Courtyard For the Sultans Only
The fourth courtyard was purely for the Sultan’s use. The Baghdad Kiosk, the Baghdad Pavilion, is a prominent structure within the fourth courtyard and terraced gardens. The 17th-century Baghdad pavilion built by Sultan Murad IV is named after Baghdad city, symbolizing the empire’s reach and influence. The Circumcision Room in the fourth courtyard was for the circumcision ceremonies of young Ottoman princes.
The Privy Chamber of Topkapi Palace
The Privy Chamber was where the Ottoman rulers and royal family lived. The Privy Chamber in the innermost palace complex was separated from everywhere else by additional walls and gates, further emphasizing exclusivity and privacy. Within the Privy Chamber, there were several rooms and sections. These included the Sultan’s private quarters, which consisted of sleeping chambers, sitting rooms, and personal study.
Adjacent to Sultan’s quarters were the royal family chambers for the Valide Sultan (Sultan’s mother) and the concubines. The Privy Chamber represented the inner sanctum. The rooms are adorned with exquisite decorations, including intricate tiles, carvings, and luxurious furnishings, providing glimpses into the lavish Ottoman lifestyle.
Behind the Doors of The Imperial Treasury
The Imperial Treasury at Topkapi Palace screamed of immense wealth and luxury. It contained many items, including gold and silverware, jewels, precious gemstones, manuscripts, ceremonial weapons, and artefacts from Ottoman history. The Imperial Treasury was highly guarded and accessible only to the sultans, their close advisors, and authorized personnel.
Within the Imperial Treasury sits a 35 cm, 18th-century dagger with 50 diamonds and three deep green emerald stones. Unfortunately, as a gift for the late Iranian conqueror Nadih Shah, the famous Topkapi dagger never arrived because someone assassinated the courier. Hence, the blade returned to Topkapi Palace. It was made famous in 1964 when the Topkapi Dagger film was released, with thieves attempting to steal it.
Also, an 18-carat, 17-kilogram diamond is displayed in the palace collection. Set in silver, stories about how the diamond came to Topkapi Palace exist, and archive records are unclear. Some say an angler found the stone on the Bosphorus shores and went to a jeweller. The jeweller ripped him off by giving him three spoons in return hence the name and sold the diamond to the 17th-century Sultan, Mehmet, the hunter.
Islamic Holy Relics and the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms
The sacred safekeeping rooms with Islamic holy relics are within the privy residence chambers and the third courtyard hall of Topkapi. Ottoman sultans collected holy relics from the 16th to 19th centuries. Important Arabic pieces include the staff of Moses, scrolls by John the Baptist, and the prophet Muhammad’s footprint, hair, sword, and bow. To preserve them, no one can touch them.
The Imperial Harem of Topkapi Palace
Add the 16th-century harem to your palace tour despite the extra cost. Connected by the courtyard and fountain garden, this educational experience disputes typical stereotypes. The Sultan’s consorts were schooled and educated to match the standards of royal women. Commands and orders came from the Valide Sultan, Sultan’s queen mother, and competition to give the sultan service and, eventually, a son was fierce. The queen mother exerted considerable influence over the imperial court.
The queen mother had her own court, attended by officials, servants, and attendants. The Sultan highly valued the opinions and advice of the queen mother, and she contributed to matters of state, particularly about the imperial family. To enter the Topkapi harem, go through the Cart Gate. The tour takes you past the Eunuch courtyard and its document archives, the harem baths, and the Queen Mother’s apartments. Sections continue until the tour ends, finishing in the third courtyard.
Role of the Royal Pages
Topkapi Palace was home to a sizeable staff regime. Among these positions were the royal pages, who played essential roles. Royal pages were typically recruited from different regions and chosen for intelligence, physical abilities, and loyalty. The primary responsibilities of royal pages included attending to the Sultan and his family, assisting with daily tasks, and running errands within Topkapi Palace. Royal Pages also participated in the old palace school for education and training in languages, court etiquette, and martial arts.
Hagia Irene Church
Hagia Irene, also called Ayasofya-i Kebir, is within the outer courtyard near the famous Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Irene church dates from the 4th Century, although the current structure represents the 6th-century reconstruction by Emperor Justinian I. Hagia Irene was an Eastern Orthodox church for over a thousand years. In addition to its religious functions, Hagia Irene has also served as a concert venue in more recent times.
Moving From Topkapi Palace to Dolmabahce Palace
Dolmabahce Palace was constructed in the mid-19th Century during modernization reforms in the Ottoman Empire, and the Ottoman sultans moved here for several reasons. Topkapi Palace had become associated with an older style of governance. The change of residence for the Ottoman Empire represented a more centralized and modern government.
The Dolmabahce Palace’s design and interior decoration were heavily influenced by European styles, particularly the French Neoclassical and Baroque aesthetics. Sultans showcased their connection to European culture by residing here and establishing themselves as influential international figures. Unfortunately, they were not granted an extended stay. After World War I and the Turkish War of Independence, the Ottoman Empire was disbanded. But that is a whole other story to tell. (More about Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul.)
Visit Topkapi Palace in Istanbul
The large Topkapi Palace Museum sits in European Istanbul, next to the famous Bosphorus straits and Golden Horn entrance. The UNESCO world heritage site also overlooks the Marmara Sea. It is within the main Sultanahmet area of the Fatih district, also called Sarayburnu.
Sitting nearby other significant landmarks like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Basilica cistern, with limited time, you can see all these important sites within one day, but two days are better. To visit Topkapi Palace, head there between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. in summer and 5.30 p.m. in winter. Make sure to leave yourself enough time to explore the full grandeur of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.