Istanbul: Topkapı Palace and Its Harem

Istanbul may not have nearly as many palaces as Germany has along the Rhine, but you can still ramble about the city and inadvertently stumble upon a royal residence. A palace in the new city, a palace in the old city. A palace inland, a palace on the waterfront. A palace that’s really a mansion, a palace that’s actually a summer residence. Let’s explore a sprawling royal complex in the old city, Sultanahmet: Topkapı Sarayı – Topkapı Palace.

Until Dolmabahçe Sarayı (Dolmabahçe Palace) was built in the new city, Topkapı was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans. One can only expect resplendence in such a royal compound, and Topkapı does not disappoint. With countless buildings (library, treasury, council offices, royal residences, numerous mosques, military dormitories, and more!) laid out around four central courtyards, Topkapı is more like a village in its own right…perhaps even a city within a city.

The first of its four courtyards exits into Sultanahmet Square, right by the Hagia Sophia. The second courtyard features an expanse of green and the administrative buildings.



Among these buildings sits the Dîvan-i Hümâyûn (or Kubbealtı for short), the Imperial Council Hall, where a sultan’s trusted advisers might convene to discuss matters of state. Check out the decorative details…not a bad place to hold office, wouldn’t you say?



In this sector of the palace grounds, there is a magnificent weapons display, a stunning kitchen collection, and a vast assortment of intricate timepieces. The ottoman royals amassed a rather impressive collection of clocks and watches; many were gifts from countries such as Germany and England, but many were also made by Turkish master craftsmen. The palace’s Divit Hall displays an eclectic mix of table clocks, grandfather clocks (of gold and mother-of-pearl!), pocket watches, and decorative centerpieces adorned with gold, rubies, diamonds, emeralds, and other precious jewels. Alas, photos are not allowed…a fact I neglected to notice; so I was only able to capture these beauties before a prompt (yet gentle) chastisement.



Photos are not allowed in other indoor exhibits either, so I can only tell you that the imperial kitchen houses 5 karat plates of gold…as well as other fineware of silver, crystal, and porcelain, some from faraway Japan and China. I can also only share my opinion that it’s a good thing sultans didn’t frequently enter into battle because their weapons were ornamented with gold, rubies, diamonds, and emeralds. Swords, pistols, helmets, bows, chainmail, longswords, thin swords, daggers, shields, battle-axes – you name it, you’ll find it on display here…covered in precious stones and metals. Even the rifles here are plated with more gold than I’m likely to ever own. As for the imperial treasury…. Well, we won’t even go there.

Since we can’t photograph the stunning artifacts indoors, let’s move on to the outdoor panoramas. Here’s what you might see from your chambers in the royal apartments:



It’s cloudy today, but imagine living here and looking out on a sunny day: you’d have exclusive views of Istanbul, overlooking the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. To obtain this view, however, we first have to walk through the harem.



This complex within a complex, the living space of the royal family (and the sultan’s concubines and eunuchs), boasts 300 rooms, 2 mosques, and a hospital. Although Topkapı’s third courtyard features a library, treasury department, and audience hall, it’s the fourth courtyard that is most stunning (especially on a bright summer day). Let’s take a closer look.



Let’s duck back inside, away from the rain, and explore the plush imperial apartments.



Have you had enough today? Let’s go find ourselves some simit and Türk kahvesi, Turkish coffee. Maybe we can get our fortunes read too. Dear coffee grinds, please show me there’s a palace in my future.