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  • Writer's pictureJoel Butler, MA

A Brief History of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul

What is Topkapi Palace?

Topkapi Palace is an Ottoman imperial palace, constructed in the mid-15th century, that was in use as the sultan’s residence and seat of government for nearly four centuries.

Topkapi Palace

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Topkapi Palace History

Often when we visualise social and political hierarchy, we imagine a pyramid or a ladder, with each step up being both literally and figuratively higher. Political power relationships in the Ottoman world are perhaps better viewed through the lens of proximity and the household. The Topkapi Palace is the ultimate example of this – the seat of the imperial household for nearly four centuries from 1465 to 1853, with only a few short breaks when the sultan’s seat moved to Edirne in north-west Turkey, its architecture was specially tailored to reflect the nature of imperial power. The location is highly significant: it occupies the same site as a former Byzantine palace, and architectural remains dating back to the Roman era have been found here too. Part of the rationale for choosing this site as the seat of Ottoman power was to emphasise this sense of continuity from the Roman past.

As 21st-century tourists, we enter the palace through the Bâb-ı Hümâyûn (or Imperial Gate). The first courtyard, which has the feeling of a public park, is the largest section of the palace and has always been the most generally accessible. Historic buildings remaining in the first courtyard include the Hagia Irene church, the former Ottoman imperial minting house, and several fountains. At the north end stands the Gate of Salutation or Middle Gate, built in a Balkanesque or Central European style. This was the much more closely controlled entrance to the second courtyard, through which only the sultan was allowed to pass on horseback.

The second courtyard is also known as Divan Square, since it’s where the senior ministers of the Ottoman Imperial Bench (or divan) had their council chamber. The current appearance of this courtyard dates to the renovations of 16th-century Sultan Süleyman early in his reign. The Imperial Council is a kiosk-like building with a low-hanging roof supported by pillars. Here the grand vizier (the chief minister) and his subordinates on the bench held meetings alongside a golden grille, behind which the sultan or Queen Mother could listen to their deliberations in a room accessible from the Tower of Justice, which dominates the courtyard as the tallest building in the palace, visible from the Bosphorus. The Imperial Treasury and the palace kitchens are nearby.

The third courtyard is much more the sultan’s private world. It’s accessed via the Gate of Felicity, which marks the border between the inner palace (or Enderûn) and outside world (or Birûn). The buildings either side of this passage contained the quarters of the eunuchs of the harem and the palace schools. The third courtyard was also home to the sultan’s harem – where the women and children of his immediate family resided with him – the audience chamber, privy chamber, a library, mosque, and another imperial treasury.

The fourth and final courtyard was the innermost preserve of the sultan and his family. It contained extensive gardens – much of which is now the neighbouring Gülhane Park – and a variety of kiosks, chambers and terraces, including the terrace mosque. The terraces offer excellent views out over the sea and much of the capital, which the imperial family could admire from their private and secluded sanctum.

The 19th-century Italian writer Edmondo de Amicis beautifully described the importance of Topkapi: ‘Hardly had the [Ottoman] dynasty entrenched itself when it planted its foot upon this spot; here it climbed to the apex of its glory, and here its decline began. It was at once a palace, a fortress, and a sanctuary; it was the brain of the empire and the heart of Islam; it was a city within a city, an imposing and magnificent stronghold, inhabited by a people, guarded by an army, and which embraced within its walls an infinite variety of buildings…where sultans were born, elevated to the throne, deposed, imprisoned, strangled; where the tangled webs of conspiracy that threatened the empire were woven; where the cry of revolt resounded.’

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