Topkapi Palace, or the Seraglio, is a large museum and library located in the eastern part of the Fatih district of Istanbul, Turkey. From the 1460s until the completion of the Dolmabahce Palace in 1856, it served as the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire and the main residence of its sultans.
Construction began in 1459, six years after the conquest of Constantinople, on the orders of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. Topkapi was originally called the New Palace (Yeni Saray or Saray-ı Cedîd-i Âmire) to distinguish it from the Old Palace in Beyazıt Square. It was given the name Topkapi, meaning Cannon Gate, in the 19th century The complex expanded over the centuries, with major renovations following the earthquake of 1509 and the fire of 1665. The palace complex consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. Female members of the Sultan’s family lived in the harem, and leading state officials, including the Grand Vizier, held meetings in the Imperial Council Building.
After the 17th century, Topkapi gradually lost its importance. The sultans of the time preferred to spend more time in their new palaces on the Bosphorus. In 1856, Sultan Abdulmejid I decided to move the court to the newly built Dolmabahce Palace. Topkapi retained some of its functions, including the imperial treasury, library and mint.
After the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Topkapi Palace was turned into a museum by a government decree on 3 April 1924. Today, the Topkapi Palace Museum is administered by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The palace complex has hundreds of rooms and chambers, but only the most important will be open to the public in 2020, including the Ottoman Imperial Harem and the treasury, known as the Hazine, which houses the Spoonmaker’s Diamond and the Topkapi Dagger.
The museum’s collection also includes Ottoman clothing, weapons, armour, miniatures, religious relics and illuminated manuscripts such as the Topkapi Manuscript. The complex is guarded by ministry officials and armed guards from the Turkish military. Topkapi Palace is part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul, a group of sites in Istanbul that were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985.
Topkapi Palace Salutation Gate
The name of the palace was Saray-i Cedid-i Amire until the 18th century. The palace received it’s current name during the reign of Mahmud I; when Topkapusu Sâhil Sarâyı, the seaside palace, was destroyed in a fire, its name was transferred to the palace In Turkish, the palace’s current name, Topkapi, means Cannon Gate.
The palace complex is located on Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu), a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn, where the Bosphorus Strait meets the Sea of Marmara. The terrain is hilly and the palace itself is on one of the highest points near the sea. During the Greek and Byzantine periods, the acropolis of the ancient Greek city of Byzantion stood here.
After the conquest of Constantinople (known in English as Istanbul since 1930) by Fatih Sultan Mehmed in 1453, the Great Palace of Constantinople was largely in ruins, and the Ottoman court was initially housed in the Old Palace, now the site of Istanbul University in Beyazit Square.
Fatih Sultan Mehmed ordered the construction of Topkapi Palace in 1459. According to an account by the contemporary historian Critobulus of Imbros, the Sultan “took care to summon the best workmen from everywhere – masons, stonemasons and carpenters… For he was building great edifices which should be worth seeing and which should compete in every way with the greatest and best of the past.” Accounts differ as to when construction of the inner core of the palace began and was completed. Critobulus gives the dates 1459-1465; other sources suggest that construction was completed in the late 1460s.
Topkapi Palace History
Mehmed II determined the basic layout of the palace. His private quarters would be located at the highest point of the promontory, with various buildings and pavilions surrounding the innermost core and winding down the promontory to the shores of the Bosphorus. The entire complex was surrounded by high walls, some of which dated back to the Byzantine acropolis. This basic layout set the pattern for future renovations and additions. The layout and appearance of Topkapi Palace was unique not only to European travellers, but also to Islamic or Oriental palaces. European travellers described it as “irregular, asymmetrical, non-axial and non-monumental proportions”.
The Ottomans called it “The Palace of Felicity.” A strict, ceremonial, codified daily life ensured imperial seclusion from the rest of the world. One of the central tenets was the observance of silence in the inner courtyards. The principle of imperial seclusion is a tradition that was codified by Mehmed II in 1477 and 1481 in the Kanunname Code, which regulated the rank of court officials, the administrative hierarchy and matters of protocol. This principle of increasing seclusion over time was reflected in the architectural style and layout of various halls and buildings.
Architects had to ensure that even within the palace the sultan and his family could enjoy a maximum of privacy and discretion, making use of barred windows and secret passageways.
Later sultans made various changes to the palace, although Mehmed II’s basic layout was largely preserved. Between 1520 and 1560, during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, the palace was greatly expanded. The Ottoman Empire was expanding rapidly and Suleiman wanted his residence to reflect his growing power. The chief architect during this period was the Persian Alaüddin, also known as Acem Ali, who was also responsible for the expansion of the harem.
In 1574, after a great fire destroyed the kitchens, Architect Sinan was commissioned by Sultan Selim II to rebuild the damaged parts of the palace. Architect Sinan restored and enlarged not only the damaged areas, but also the harem, the baths, the Privy Chamber, and various pavilions along the shore.
By the end of the 16th century, the palace had acquired its present appearance The palace is an extensive complex rather than a single monolithic structure, with a series of low buildings built around courtyards and connected by galleries and passages. Few of the buildings exceed two storeys. Viewed from above, the palace grounds are divided into four main courtyards and the harem.
The first courtyard was the most accessible, while the fourth courtyard and the harem were the most inaccessible. Access to these courtyards was restricted by high walls and controlled by gates. In addition to the four or five main courtyards, there are several other small to medium-sized courtyards throughout the complex. Estimates of the total size of the complex vary from about 592,600 m2 (146.4 acres) to 700,000 m2 (173 acres).
To the west and south, the complex is bordered by the large imperial flower park, now known as Gülhane Park. Various related buildings such as small summer palaces (kasır), pavilions, kiosks (köşk) and other structures for royal pleasure and functions used to exist on the shore in an area known as the Fifth Courtyard, but disappeared over time due to neglect and the construction of the coastal railway in the 19th century. The last remaining structure on the seafront is the Basketmakers’ Kiosk, built in 1592 by Sultan Murad III.
Topkapi Palace The Imperial Gate
The main street leading to the palace is the Byzantine processional Mese Avenue, now known as Divan Yolu (Council Street). This street was used for imperial processions during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. It leads directly to Hagia Sophia and turns northwest towards the Palace Square to the Ahmed III Fountain.
The Imperial Gate is the main entrance to the First Courtyard, and the Sultan would enter the palace through the Imperial Gate (Turkish: Bâb-ı Hümâyûn, which means “Royal Gate” in Persian, or Saltanat Kapısı), located to the south of the palace. This massive gate, originally dating from 1478, is now covered in 19th-century marble. Its central arch leads to a high-domed passage; gilded Ottoman calligraphy adorns the structure at the top, with verses from the Qur’an and tughras of the sultans. The tughras of Mehmed II and Abdulaziz, who renovated the gate, have been identified.
According to old documents, until the second half of the 19th century there was a wooden apartment above the gate, which was used as a pavilion by Mehmed, a depository for the property of those who died in the palace without heirs, and a receiving room for the treasury. It was also used as a viewing point for the ladies of the harem on special occasions.
Surrounded by high walls, the First Courtyard (I. Avlu or Alay Meydanı) functioned as an outer precinct or park and is the largest of all the courtyards in the palace. The steep slopes leading down to the sea had already been terraced under Byzantine rule Some of the historic structures of the first courtyard no longer exist. Those that remain are the former imperial mint (Darphane-i Âmire, built in 1727), the church of Hagia Irene and various fountains.
The Byzantine church of Hagia Irene was used by the Ottomans as a storehouse and imperial armoury, and was also known as the Janissary Court or Parade Court. Court officials and janissaries would line the path in their best dress. Visitors entering the palace would follow the path to the Gate of Salutation and the second courtyard of the palace.
The large Gate of Salutation, also known as the Middle Gate, leads into the palace and the Second Courtyard. This crenellated gate has two large pointed octagonal towers. The date of construction is uncertain; the architecture of the towers appears to be Byzantine An inscription on the door dates the gate to at least 1542. The gate is richly decorated with religious inscriptions and monograms of sultans. Passage through the gate was strictly controlled and all visitors had to dismount, as only the Sultan was allowed to enter the gate on horseback, also a Byzantine tradition taken from the Chalk Gate of the Great Palace.
The Executioner’s Fountain is where the executioner is said to have washed his hands and sword after a beheading, although there is some dispute as to whether the fountain was actually used for this purpose. It is located on the right hand side of the first courtyard, facing the Gate of Greeting.
In April 2021, archaeologists excavating underground at Topkapi Palace uncovered a Roman gallery consisting of three sections. The gallery, located near the Emperor’s Gate, was discovered during the excavation of the First Courtyard.
Through the central gate is the Second Courtyard (II. Avlu) or Divan Square. The courtyard was probably completed around 1465, during the reign of Fatih Sultan Mehmed. It received its final appearance around 1525-1529 during the reign of Suleyman I. It is surrounded by the former palace hospital, the bakery, the janissary quarters, the stables, the imperial harem and the divan to the north and the kitchens to the south. At the end of the courtyard, the Gate of Felicity marks the entrance to the third courtyard. Numerous Roman and Byzantine artefacts, including sarcophagi, found during recent excavations in the palace grounds are displayed in the Second Courtyard in front of the imperial kitchens.
Under the Second Courtyard is a Byzantine cistern In Ottoman times, this courtyard would have been full of peacocks and gazelles, and it was used as a meeting place for courtiers. The Sultan, seated on the gilded Bayram throne, used to hold audiences in the Second Courtyard. Some foreign dignitaries, including the French ambassador Philippe du Fresne-Canaye, wrote accounts of these audiences.
The imperial stables, some five to six metres below ground level, were built under Fatih Sultan Mehmed and renovated under Suleyman the Magnificent. A large collection of harness “treasures” is kept in the private stables. This area also contains a small 18th-century mosque and the bath of Besir Aga , the chief black eunuch of Mahmud I..
At the end of the imperial stables are the dormitories of the halberdiers. The duties of the halberdiers included carrying wood to the palace rooms and serving some of the palace quarters. The halberdiers wore long tresses to signify their higher position. The first mention of this corps is from around 1527, when it was formed to clear the roads ahead of the army during a campaign.
The dormitory was built in the 15th century. It was enlarged by the chief architect Davud Aga in 1587, during the reign of Sultan Murad III. The dormitories are built around a main courtyard in the traditional layout of an Ottoman house, with baths and a mosque, as well as recreational rooms such as a pipe room. The exterior and interior of the complex are littered with pious inscriptions describing the various duties and upkeep of the quarters. Unlike the rest of the palace, the quarters are made of red and green painted wood.
Palace kitchens and porcelain collection
The Palace Kitchens were built during the construction of the palace in the 15th century and extended during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent. They were modelled on the kitchens of Edirne Palace. After the fire of 1574, which damaged the kitchens, they were rebuilt by the court architect Architect Sinan The rebuilt kitchens form two rows of 20 wide chimneys; these chimneys were added by Architect Sinan.
The kitchens are located on an internal street that runs between the second courtyard and the Sea of Marmara. The entrance to this section is through the three doors in the portico of the Second Courtyard: the door of the Imperial Commissariat (Lower Kitchen), the door of the Imperial Kitchen and the door of the Confectionery Kitchen. The Palace Kitchens consist of 10 domed buildings: Imperial Kitchen, (Palace School), Harem (Women’s Quarters), Birûn (Outer Service Section of the Palace), Kitchens, Beverage Kitchen, Confectionery Kitchen, Creamery, Storerooms and Cooks’ Rooms.
These were the largest kitchens in the Ottoman Empire. Food was prepared for about 4,000 people and the kitchen staff consisted of more than 800 people. The kitchens included dormitories, baths and a mosque for the staff, most of which have disappeared over time.
In addition to kitchen utensils, the buildings now house a collection of silver gifts and a large collection of porcelain. The Ottomans had access to Chinese porcelain from the mid-15th century; although official Chinese sources document that some Ottoman envoys paid tribute visits to China and received gifts, including porcelain, as rewards from the Chinese emperor, no Ottoman sources document such official missions.
Chinese porcelain is one of the finest porcelain collections in the world, porcelains often entered the Topkapi Palace collection as part of the estates of deceased persons, and were sometimes circulated as gifts among members of the royal family or other leading officials. Records show that by the 18th century the Topkapi Palace collection had 16,566 pieces of Chinese porcelain, compared with 400 pieces in the 16th century and 3,645 pieces in the 17th century The Chinese porcelain collection ranges from the late Song dynasty (960-1279) and the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368) through the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
The pieces include celadon and blue and white porcelain. The Japanese collection consists mainly of Imari porcelain from the 17th to 19th centuries, and there are also around 5,000 European pieces in the collection. Researchers believe that Ottoman tastes changed over time to favour various types of European porcelain by the 18th century.
The Imperial Council building is the chamber where the Imperial Council – consisting of the Grand Vizier and other Council Ministers – met. The domed chamber of the building is called Kubbealtı, which means “under the dome.” The Council Building is located in the northwest corner of the courtyard next to the Gate of Felicity.
The imperial council building was first constructed during the reign of Mehmed II. The present building dates from the time of Suleyman the Magnificent and the chief architect was Alseddin. It had to be rebuilt after the harem fire of 1665. According to the inscription at the entrance, it was also restored during the reigns of Selim III and Mahmud II; there are verse inscriptions on the façade mentioning the restoration works carried out in 1792 and 1819 by Sultans Selim III and Mahmud II. The rococo decorations on the façade and inside the Imperial Council date from this period.
There are several entrances to the Council Hall, both from inside the Topkapi Palace and from the courtyard. The vestibule consists of several marble and porphyry columns, with an ornate green and white wooden ceiling decorated with gold. The external entrances to the hall are in the Rococo style, with gilded grilles to admit natural light. While the pillars are of an earlier Ottoman style, the murals and decorations are of the later Rococo period. Inside, the Imperial Council Building consists of three adjoining main rooms.
The 15th-century divanhane, built with a wooden portico at the corner of the divan court, was later used as the council’s mosque. There are three vaulted chambers: the first, called Kubbealtı, was where the imperial council met, the second was where the secretariat of the imperial council met, and the third, called Defterhāne, was where the chief clerks kept the records of the council meetings. The main chamber, Kubbealtı, however, is decorated with Ottoman Kütahya tiles.
The building in which the arms and armour are displayed was originally one of the Topkapi Palace treasuries. As there was another (“inner”) treasury in the third courtyard, it was also called the “outer treasury” Although it contains no dated inscriptions, its construction technique and layout suggest that it was built at the end of the 15th century, during the reign of Süleyman I. It was later rebuilt and renovated several times. It is a stone and brick hall with eight domes, each measuring 5 x 11.40 m.
This treasury was used to finance the administration of the state. It was also the place where the kaftans and other valuable items given by the Sultan and the Finance Department to the viziers, ambassadors and residents of the Topkapi Palace were kept. The janissaries were paid their quarterly wages from this treasury, which was sealed with the imperial seal entrusted to the grand vizier. In 1928, four years after Topkapi Palace was converted into a museum, its collection of arms and armour was displayed in this building.
In 1937, excavations in front of the building revealed the remains of a 5th-century Byzantine religious building. Since it could not be identified with any of the churches known to have been built on the palace grounds, it is now known as the “Topkapi Palace Basilica” or simply the Palace Basilica.
Also outside the Treasury building is a target stone over two metres high. This stone was erected to commemorate a record shot by Selim III in 1790. It was brought to the palace from Levend in the 1930s.
The Arms Collection, which consists mainly of weapons that remained in the palace at the time of its conversion, is one of the richest assemblages of Islamic arms in the world, with examples spanning 1,300 years from the 7th to the 20th centuries.
The palace’s collection of arms and armour consists of items made by the Ottomans themselves, collected from foreign conquests or given as gifts. Ottoman weapons form the bulk of the collection, but it also includes examples of Umayyad and Abbasid swords, as well as Mamluk and Persian armour, helmets, swords and axes. A smaller number of European and Asian weapons make up the rest of the collection. There are currently around 400 weapons on display, most of which bear inscriptions.