Crossroads Tour – The Topkapi Palace and Harem Apartments

  • The Topkapi Palace, built between 1460-78, is a walled complex covering 700,000 square meters, comprised of courtyards, gardens and all the buildings required for a royal administrative city. It became a museum in 1924.

I arrive about 2 hours before closing. I wait in a line that eats up twenty valuable minutes, and enter the Topkapi Palace through the Gate of Salutation, whose iconic towers were built during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent.

The Gateway of Salutation and the entrance to the Topkapi complex

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. It contains more than 300 rooms, nine bathhouses, two mosques, a hospital, dormitory and laundry.

After passing through the Carriage Gate, and into the Domed Cabinets, through the Fountain Hall, and into the Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs, I stop taking photos. Baha was not kidding. The palace is immense, room after room after hallway, linking to courtyards to even more rooms. (For my room-by-room itinerary, pleases see my original journal at AugustPhoenixHats.com.)

Gate separating the Harem from the Paved Courtyard of the Black Eunuchs,
who were the personal guards to the wives of the harem

The Main Gate leads to the sultan’s private apartments and the Courtyard of the Sultana Mother. Each apartment is two stories, though public access appears to only be available to the rooms at the ground level.

  • The majority of girls brought to the Topkapi as concubines were actually employed as servants. The pretty and intelligent ones would be educated in reading, writing, music, religion, etiquette and the arts of the courtesan. Those who became favorites or whom bore the sultan a child, would become wives and would receive letters patent, new dresses and their own chambers. Wives founded charities, commissioned mosques, and devoted themselves to good works in keeping with their conversion to Islam.

The Courtyard of the Favorites housed the wives, in close proximity to the Sultana Mother. Each Favorite had a private room on this second floor, with a fireplace and closets. Those rooms overlooking the Golden Horn also had separate toilets and hamamis. The lower level dormitories housed their 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.

A fireplace in one of the Harem 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 calligraphic band reciting the Verse of the Throne from the Koran. It is spectacular even in this dim light.

This is either the Privy Room of the Sultan, or one similar to it.

The palace will close soon so I run through rooms of jewelry, metalworks and weapons, catching the briefest glimpse of the Topkapi Dagger with three enormous emeralds set into its handle. 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 really too bad I couldn’t take photo.

I visited several other buildings on the Palace grounds, many with corbelling, an architectural feature I first saw in Florence. This example is from the Chamberlain’s Courtyard, which you will also find a photo of in the gallery below.

  • This is an excerpt from my original travel journal. The full text, which includes historical notes and traveler tips, is available for your literary pleasure at AugustPhoenixHats.com.

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