Istanbul is unique. It is the only city in the world where two continents meet. Enjoy old and new in the cultural capital of Turkey with Istanbul expert Marc Guillet

Topkapı, an intriguing Ottoman palace

Posted on 8 July 2019

Main gate of Topkapı Palace. Photo: Slawomira Kozieniec

Topkapı Palace is the oldest and also the most Ottoman of all Turkish palaces. It is different from palaces in the rest of Europe. It reminds you of a tent camp of nomads built of stone, as the palace is not a single large structure like Buckingham Palace or Versailles, but a collection of relatively small kiosks and pavilions surrounded by beautiful gardens.

One of the buildings was the ‘Harem’ (‘forbidden’ in Arabic), a labyrinth of corridors and rooms, where the family of the sultan lived and where the foreign women, who were bought as slaves, were living as concubines for the pleasure of the sultan. The whole complex is surrounded by high walls.

The Topkapı Palace is located on the top of the First Hill of the peninsula that formed the old cities of Byzantium, Constantinopel and Istanbul. From here the sultans had a magnificent view over the Bosporus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. And from here they governed the Ottoman Empire for 400 years before they moved in 1856 to the Dolmabahce Palace, a baroque, western style palace on the southern shore of the Bosporus and designed by the famous Armenian architects Gabaret and Nikogos Balyan.

Walking through the buildings and the four courtyards of the Topkapı Palace you will feel the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. But also the horrors that took place there like executions and the mass killing of Ottoman princes.

Like in 1595 when Sultan Mehmed III became sultan and gave the order to mute palace servants to strangle all 19 of his brothers (no blood was allowed to be shed of course as they had royal blood!) lest they challenge his right to the throne. Some of them were still infants at the time. They were buried in their father’s tomb left to the exit of the Hagia Sophia. You can visit this tomb and see all the coffins of the sultan and his 19 murdered brothers.

Don’t forget to visit the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle in the third courtyard. It is a holy place for Muslims, because there are several relics of the Prophet Mohammed on display: teeth, hairs from his beard and the impression of his footsteps. Throughout the day the Koran is recited here, so a respectful and quiet attitude is required here.

The most important of all are the holy standard and the holy mantle of the Prophet that were brought from Egypt by sultan Selim Yavuz after he conquered the country in 1517.

This pavilion is a holy place for Christians and Jews too: pieces of the skull of St. John the Baptist, the sword of David and the rod of Moses are displayed there as well.

The Topkapı Palace has been a museum since 1926. It is closed on Tuesdays.

How to get there?

Take the tram. Get off at the stop Sultanahmet/Blue Mosque. Walk around the Hagia Sophia (right) and to the main entrance of the Topkapı Palace.

Watch a short video on the palace here

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