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Colors of Istanbul: Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace is one of the most visited sites in Istanbul. I know I’ve been using the word “grandeur” a lot but I can’t help it. I often wonder why there was such a need for past rulers to outdo one another in terms of riches. Although these places are pleasing to one’s eye, I often cringe when thinking about their origin and history. Mankind’s past is marred with unfortunate memories of war, slavery and struggles. Yes, palaces are mostly beautiful but how many people struggled just so these few, privileged individuals can indulge?

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IMG_4361  A fine example of Ottoman architecture, Topkapi palace once served as a royal residence and an important fixture in the Ottoman Empire. At present, the palace houses important holy relics of the Muslim world such as Muhammed’s cloak and sword. The palace also exhibits many relics that came from the empire’s trade with other countries.

I did not have any photos of most of the courtyard as it was raining hence I spent most of the time indoors. The First Courtyard are the largest of the three courtyards. It is surrounded by high walls and served as a park leading towards the palace. The Second Courtyard or Divan square used to be the place where courtiers meet and was one home to many peacocks. This courtyard is surrounded by the former palace hospital, bakery, quarters, stables, the harem and the kitchens. The Gate of Felicity found at the end marks the entrance to the Third Courtyard. The Third Courtyard is one of the innermost parts of the palace and also the area where the sultan spent his days outside the harem. It is a beautiful garden surrounded by important buildings of the palace such as the treasury and Harem. In addition, this courtyard is also where the quarters of the pages are located.

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The Imperial Harem occupied one of the sections of the private apartments of the sultan. The harem was home to  the Valide Sultan( “Queen mother”, second most powerful to the sultan), the concubines and wives of the sultan and the rest of his family, including children; and their servants.  With respect to their court position, each resident group in the harem its own quarters clustered around a courtyard. These apartments were occupied respectively by the harem eunuchs, the Chief Harem Eunuch, the concubines, the queen mother, the sultan’s consorts, the princes and the favorites. There was no trespassing beyond the gates of the harem, except for the sultan, the queen mother, the harem’s residents as well as the eunuchs guarding the harem.

In terms of design and interior, this is unquestionably the loveliest part of the palace. However, I have always felt uncomfortable with the existence of eunuchs and concubines. For me, these positions are derogatory, holding little respect to the person who held such title. I know that they are well-provided by their respective courts but do one really have to castrate someone just to ensure loyalty? Plus, why is there a need for multiple wives and mistresses?

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The Courtyard of the Eunuchs is surrounded by the quarters of the Harem eunuchs which are arranged around an inner courtyard in three floors. The rooms on the upper stories were for novices and those below overlooking the courtyard were occupied by the eunuchs who held administrative position. The Chief Harem Eunuch’s apartment is opposite to the dormitory and contains its own bath, living rooms and bedrooms.

The Apartments of the Sultan and the queen mother form the largest and most important section in the harem. The lower section of the apartments are the quarters of the concubines, while the upper story rooms are those of the Queen Mother and her ladies-in-waiting. These apartments are decorated with blue-and-white or yellow-and-green tiles with flowery motifs and İznik porcelain while the decoration of the upper rooms resembled more of rococo style.

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The kitchen is probably my favorite place in the palace and no, it does not have a grand design akin to the harem or the quarters. I just found the process of preparing food here quite fascinating and how trade relations affected not just the type of food served but also the entire set of dining ware used. The meals for about 4,000 people which included the Sultan and the residents of the Harem were prepared here. Even though thousands of meals were prepared per day, strict protocols were undertaken, most especially for the meal of the sultan.

From what I remembered, meals are delivered to each quarters. The sultan is always the first one to eat followed by immediate relatives and then the other residents of the harem.

Aside from kitchen utensils and dining ware, the present day exhibit contain a large collections of Chinese porcelain and Western style silverware.

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Topkapi Palace is worth your time, not only for those who are interested for arts, history and archaeology, I think it was remarkable learning how the operations and logistics worked in palace as massive as this. Lastly, true to some warning, the crowds are quite heavy though you could have a headstart by going early.

I was one of the earlybird visitors in all the sites (museums, palaces etc.) that I have visited and the benefits were tremendous! I could ponder in silence plus most of the photos are free from photo bombers.

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