The Topkapi Palace, built between 1460-78, is a walled complex covering 700,000 square meters, comprised of three courtyards, several gardens and all the buildings you would expect to see in a royal administrative city. It was the residence of the Ottoman sultans until the middle of the 19th century, and also served as the administrative and educational center for the state. It became a museum in 1924, two years after the Ottoman monarchy came to an end.
I arrive about 2 hours before closing and enter the Topkapi Palace through the Gate of Salutation, whose iconic towers were built during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent.
The sultan alone could ride on horseback through this gate, and the palace women were allowed to remain in their carriages, but all others had to pass through on foot (as I do today), passing under a calligraphed inscription that proclaims the tenant of Islam: “There is no god but God; and Muhammed is the prophet of God.”
This gate opens out onto the Second Courtyard which is also called the Council Square, where coronations, receptions and other affairs of state were held. The Tower of Justice (used as a council chamber for the Grand Viziers and military judges since the 19th century) and the Imperial Chancery (dating from the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, early 16th century) are also located here.
I hurry past the Treasury, which is now a Weapons Museum, in search of the Palace Kitchen, which houses Turkish glassware and Asian porcelain collections. Disappointed to find it closed, I head towards the Carriage Gate, the gateway to the Harem Apartments, the private residence of the sultan and his family.
Built in the 16th century and expanded over the next three centuries, the Apartments are notable as a showcase of architectural history. They contain more than 300 rooms, nine bathhouses, two mosques, a hospital, dormitory and laundry. The Harem also served as a recruitment center for young children who were trained for state service.
After passing through the Carriage Gate, I walk into the Domed Cabinets, where documents referencing Mecca and Medina were kept. Next is the Fountain Hall, rebuilt in 1665 after a fire, and dizzying in its wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling tile work. Then through the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs, who guarded the wives and concubines. After half an hour, I stop taking photos. The palace is immense, room after room after hallway, linking to courtyards to even more rooms…
I pass through the Main Gate, which leads to the sultan’s private apartments, the Gallery of the Concubines, and the Courtyard of the Sultana Mother.
The majority of girls brought to the Topkapi as concubines were actually employed as servants. Those who were pretty and intelligent would be educated in reading, writing, music, religion, palace etiquette and the arts of the courtesan. From this pool, those who became favorites or whom bore the sultan a child, would become his wives. There was a complex ranking structure within the Harem, defining specific roles, duties and apartments for every girl, from the lowest servant to the Favorites, Wives, and the Sultana Mother. The Koran required that women slaves be well looked after. They received a per diem commensurate with their position as well as gifts at weddings, birthdays and festivals. Women also had the right to leave the harem after having lived there for nine years, and would receive a trousseau and assistance in finding a husband. Even after their departure from the harem, they remained under palace protection until their death.
The Courtyard of the Favorites dates back to the 15th century and housed the wives, in close proximity to the Sultana Mother. Each Favorite had a private room on the second floor, with a fireplace and enameled closets. Those rooms overlooking the Golden Horn also had separate toilets and hamamis. The lower level dormitories housed the concubine servants.
The Sultana Mother’s apartments were also heavily tiled, and included a fireplace and a fountain in every room. In addition to living quarters, the Sultana’s living area also included a prayer room, bathhouse and toilet, making it an independently functioning structure from the rest of the harem apartments. The gallery below shows three of my favorite fireplaces from the Harem Apartments.
I cannot remember which of the apartments had this beautiful dome, painted with vines. I was so inspired by the dome that I replicated the design as a hat a few weeks later…
I did not expect to see so much stained glass here… these are my favorite pieces from the Sultana Apartments.
The Privy Room of Sultan Murad III was designed and built by Mimar Sinan in 1579 and was the sultan’s official and private apartment. It is covered with Iznik tile and the room is encircled with a white-on-blue calligraphed band reciting the Verse of the Throne from the Kor’an. It is quite spectacular even in this dim light.
I duck into what would be the first of several gift shops, and then run through galleries of jewelry, metalworks and weaponry. I catch the briefest glimpse of the Topkapi Dagger, crafted for Mahmud I in 1751, originally made for the Nadir Shaw of Persia but returned at the outbreak of unrest in that country. Three 30mm emeralds in the handle, hinged at the hilt, reveals a timepiece of English manufacture.
The textile collection is much smaller than I expected, but most of the pieces are laid out flat which gives the perfect view of their construction. It’s an incredible shame that photos are not allowed. There’s a 17th century Sultan’s coat made from Italian cut velvet; I watched a video at the Lanterna in Genoa that showed how that textile was produced. Italian silks and velvets were highly prized by the Ottoman sultans and princes. There are several caftans, and loose robes called entari, which were worn over shalwar trousers, with a wide waist which was gathered in with a sash which passed through drawstrings on the waistband. In addition to Italian velvets and silks, a metallic brocade called serâser (a cloth of silver/gold alloys produced in Istanbul during the 16th century) and kemha, (a compound weave blending polychrome silks with metallic threads) were also worn.
Click here for my additional scans from the Topkapi catalog.
I spend the remaining daylight wandering around the Palace grounds, noticing pavilions with ornate corbelling that appeared to be detailed in gold leaf. It’s an architectural feature I was introduced to in Florence but which has been elevated to an architectural embellishment here.
I exit the Topkapi grounds through the Imperial Gate, capped with beautiful gold Arabic script against a blue background. The roundel on the archway is the signature of Sultan Abdulaziz (1861-76). Above it, “Help from God and a speedy victory” which was also the battle cry of the Jannisaries.
If I ever came back to Istanbul, I would want to spend at least two days here.
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Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day
and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.
In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.