Visiting Topkapi Palace needs to be planned as if you were going to war – that is, if you’re intent on conquering either the Harem or the Treasury sans competition from a million other tourists. Since my idea of conquering is via camera and getting photos without random people in them, it was easy for us to choose the Harem over the Treasury since the latter forbids photography. Two things were necessary to enable my success – picking a day where there were as few cruise ships in port as possible as well as getting a Museum Pass. A little bit of research solved the first problem and we bought our passes on our first day in the city. Having the pass is the more crucial of the two as it allows you to skip the ticket counter which is only open once Topkapi itself is open. By skipping this line, we got to stand in the MUCH shorter line at the Palace entrance. And because we had a plan, we were able to head directly for the Harem once the gates opened and we managed to be the first people inside and I got my people-less photos!
Topkapi Palace was the main residence for the Ottoman Sultans from about 1465 to 1856, almost 400 years. Topkapi isn’t really a palace as Westerners would picture – it is more of a complex that consists of four main courtyards and many buildings containing hundreds of rooms. Topkapi was practically a city in its own right – the council of ministers met here, and it also contained the treasury, the mint, and state archives. At its peak, Topkapi was home to as many as 4,000 people. In 1924, it was officially made into a museum. Only a few rooms are accessible to us peasants but it is enough to get an idea of the opulent lifestyle Topkapi residents lived (at least, if you weren’t a servant, anyway). When you get tired of ogling the robes, weapons, porcelain, jewels, manuscripts, murals, tiles, armor, and other treasures, there are also plenty trees, gardens, and fountains to admire.
The views over the Golden Horn are fantastic and are worth the trip to this café. After you’ve gotten your fill of panoramas from the viewing platform, wander over to the teahouse for a drink of tea, coffee, water, soda, Ayran…just not anything alcoholic. It’s a cute place with a number of tables set out under the leafy trees, many of which have more pretty views of the Golden Horn. It is a wonderful location to rest and escape the direct Turkish summer sun. The setting, combined with the historical uniforms of the waiters, feels like you’d see the ghosts of turn-of-the-century French and Turkish intelligentsia and artists holding lively discussions about this and that.
When entering Topkapi, we passed through the Imperial Gate into the First Courtyard and made a beeline for the Imperial Harem. It’s pretty deceptive – when you first start going through it, it was rather underwhelming. In retrospect, it was just like when I first saw the Eiffel Tower – I’d heard about it so much for so long, there was no way it could live up to expectations. The Harem, which means “forbidden”, in my mind was about mystery, intrigue, eunuchs, and idle girls and women surrounded by lavishness…but reality is no match for the imagination. It didn’t help that you see only a tiny fraction of the existing rooms (and there are plenty of rooms since the Harem housed the Sultan’s, the concubines and wives of the Sultan, the Imperial Family, servants, and eunuchs) and the fact that some of the rooms that were normally open, weren’t. All in all, though, I enjoyed the Harem as the further we got into it, the more beautiful the rooms were. There weren’t many signs or details but there was enough to give you a basic idea of life in the Imperial Harem.
We started in the Passage of Concubines which leads into the Courtyard of the Sultan’s Chief Consorts and Concubines. There are counters running the length of the passageway and this is where eunuchs placed the food brought from the kitchens. We walked straight through the courtyard because none of the surrounding rooms were open – but apparently there are baths, laundry, dorms, and apartments in there. Sigh. My pain was slightly assuaged when we entered the Apartments of the Queen Mother, the woman who pretty much ruled the Imperial Harem. This room is rather beautiful yet incongruous with Western-style wall frescoes. Only two rooms of the Apartments are open to the public. We finally got to see a bed once we got to the Privy Chamber of Murat III and it dates from the 18th century. The room also has a two-tiered fountain (apparently the flow of water was meant to prevent eavesdropping), a rather cool fireplace, mother of pearl, and lots of marble. It also had tons of 17th century Iznik tiles, something that is practically everywhere in the Harem. One thing to remember when wandering through the Harem is to look up – the ceilings are always a sight to behold. For example in the Apartments of the Crown Prince (who lived here in seclusion), the ceiling is conical, not flat – apparently, this was to evoke the traditional tents of the early Ottomans. Continuing the theme, there is no standing furniture – only low sofas and carpet. Another thing to remember is to check out the windows – they all have grills of different shapes so that the Sultan and others could enjoy some privacy from those outside. And apparently, there are secret passageways! Sadly enough, I didn’t find any…
Once you’re out of the Imperial Harem passing through the Golden Road (used by the Sultan), there isn’t any direction on what to see next – the whole complex is your oyster. Here are some of the other things/buildings we saw on our visit to Topkapi:
Treasury – Three rooms of sheer madness. It is crowded with both people and more wealth than 99.99% of us will ever have. And of course, we’re not allowed to photograph it. So what did we see in there? Well, it was ceremonial outfits of all sorts, thrones, weapons from different places and various centuries, random things dripping with gold and jewels, massive diamonds, giant rubies and other gems, and the Topkapi Dagger with its three enormous emeralds.
Treasury Balcony – Filled with couples trying to get that romantic shot of themselves framed by the arches with the Bosphorous in the background. If you want such a photo, as soon as you see a space, dive for it.
Terrace Kiosk – The original man-cave. This is where the Sultan and his peeps watched sporting events.
İftar Kiosk – Apparently, the Sultans would break their fast under this golden bower at the end of Ramadan. Today, it is a spot of cheesy romance. Again, if you want your photo here, be prepared to wait or to dive in to seize your turn.
Library of Ahmet III – It stands in the Third Courtyard with a beautiful fountain. Today it contains no books or manuscripts but one can easily imagine it as a place of learning. I want it to be my library…
Sacred Relics Room – Absolutely fascinating place for anyone who loves history or religion. There is a great collection of sacred relics such as personal belongings of Mohammed and the swords of major personalities of the Old Testament/Torah/Quran.
- Pace yourself – the complex is rather large and there are few places to rest. Take your time and if you do find an empty bench, seize it for a few minutes.
- Bring water! Sightseeing is thirsty work.
- Be aware that there will be lots of people – forewarned is to be forearmed, especially for someone like me who hates crowds.
- Make a list of what you want to see here or bring a map. Or accept the fact that you won’t find everything! The minimal amount of signage is a little disappointing.
- Make sure you spend a few minutes listening to the Imam reading/chanting from the Quran. It’s rather beautiful.
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