1- Haghia Eirene.
In the first courtyard, this 6th-century Byzantine church was never converted into a mosque—although used as a weapons arsenal in Ottoman times – and presumably part of the same
complex as Haghia Sophia. Unfortunately you’re only likely to see the inside during rare concerts during the Istanbul Music Festival in summer, during which performers use the original five rows of built-in seats hugging the apse, above which is an 8th-century black mosaic cross on the wall.@10 min.
2- Cellat [email protected] (Fountain of the Executioner).
It looks like a disused water-fountain, but this is where, back in the 16th century, the executioner would
clean his sword and hands after a public execution, before re-entering the palace. @10 mins.
Probably Istanbul’s most famous attraction, this huge palace complex was built by Mehmet II in 1478 at Sarayburnu, astrategic point overlooking the Bosphorus. Central to the Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years, it housed several thousand people, a city within a city. The stone pavilions echoed tents of nomadic Ottomans, containing the residence, offices, seat of government and solders’ training ground. In turn, new sultans made their own additions to the palace. Below are some of my highlights from the vast collections, and with grounds covering over 80,000m2of courtyards, kiosks and exhibitions, count on several hours for a visit. Peruse the first courtyard’s attractions before entering the main entrance.
START: Tram to Sultanahmet.
Stock up on bottled water or refresh yourself before your palace visit on the relaxing terrace, with a choc-ice and coffee—ata fraction of the cost of snacks inside the palace grounds. $.
4- Bab-us Selam (Gate of Salutations).
With distinctive twin conical towers, this leads to the second courtyard, where all visitors had to dismount, as only the sultan could ride through on horseback. It was also known as kapi araligi, where high officialswho had displeased the Sultan were arrested and choked to death. On a more cheery note, before you take your bags through the X-ray machines to the second courtyard, look up at the superbly ornate gold painted ceiling. @10 min.
A highlight of any palace visit (see below, Life of a Concubine) and worth the extra ticket, only a fraction of the Harem’s rooms are open to the public. Your journey into the ‘forbidden’ quarter, in the third courtyard, begins at the colonnaded Corridor of Concubines with black-and-white patterned cobbles lined with marble counters where plates of food were laid out. You’ll gasp at the opulence
of the Imperial Hall, complete with crystal chandelier and Sultan’s sofa, where he entertained his best buddies. The Sultan’s apartments and marble hamam, enclosed behind a golden door – allegedly for his own safety – contrast sharply with the more modest living quarters of the concubines and eunuchs. But the prize woman, the Valide Sultan (Sultan’s mum) enjoyed five-star living quarters, where her devoted son visited her every morning. @45 mins.
The cobbled Courtyard of the Concubines.
The palace’s only restaurant is pricey, although the traditional Turkish dishes are good. The adjacent courtyard’s café is slightly cheaper with the same superb Bosphorus view. 0212 513 9696. $$.
7- Palace Kitchens.
In contrast to the lavish Treasury or the Throne Room, this is one of my favorites. Heard the phrase ‘An army marches on its stomach’? Every soldier, and in this case sultan, needed feeding, so this was the working room of the palace, where food was prepared by a few hundred staff (12 just to prepare food for the sultan) to feed about 5,000 people each day. The domed stone ceilings are wonderful, as are the display cabinets of silverware and crystal, with plates of Chinese celadon favored by the sultans because, allegedly, it changed color when in contact with poison. Paranoid, them? @20 min.
Slightly more glamorous than today’s buses, peer behind the glass window to see 19th-century state carriages for Abdulaziz (1830–1876), made in Vienna. Close by is a scaled-down model of the entire palace and its surrounds, which might help in your navigation.@15 min.
Most visitors queue for a glimpse of the famous Topkapi Daggerfrom 1741, (made even more famous thanks to the 1964 film Topkapi) encrusted with diamonds and huge emeralds. Made for the Shah of Persia, in appreciation of his gift of the Nadir Shah throne in the fourth hall, he was assassinated before he had chance to receive it so, you guessed it, Mahmud I (1696–1754) kept it for himself. If the eye-popping emeralds aren’t enough, take a look at the 84- carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond; the background to its name is a little hazy, but it may have been found by a scrap merchant who was given
three spoons in return. You’ll also see jeweled golden candlesticks, sent as a gift to the tomb of Mohammed, but returned to Constantinople after the evacuation of Medina in World War I. @30 min.
The Royal Kitchens.
It’s a Concubine’s Life
Although ‘harem’ might conjure up images of Oriental debauchery, it literally means ‘forbidden’, referring to the private quarters for the palace’s women. Life in this 300-room complex was no picnic; girls and young women were brought from all corners of the Ottoman Empire, living a mundane existence, working as servants, sleeping in dormitories and learning the ways of the palace.
The only other people allowed in the harem were the sultan and his sons, plus hundreds of eunuch slaves (castrated boys), many from Ethiopia and Sudan, to guard the women. Favored girls were
‘trained’ as wives or concubines for the sultans by the Valide Sultan (the sultan’s mother, who really ruled the roost) and, ideally, bearing them sons. The harem’s history (some of it apocryphal) is littered
with tales of dastardly power games, drowning and poisoning galore, involving a cast of thousands.
Topkapi Palace: Practical Matters
Babihumayun Caddesi. y0212 512 0480. www.topkapisarayi.gov.tr.
Tram: Sultanahmet. Wed–Sun 9am–5pm (winter); 9am–7pm (summer); tickets 10 YTL. Perennially busy, especially in summer and at weekends, beat the crowds by getting there at opening time or, in
summer, late afternoons. Buy separate tickets for the Harem 10 TL near its entrance (9am–4pm year-round), and separate audio guides for the palace and harem in many languages. Tip: If you’re getting a taxi to the palace, ask the driver for “Topkapi Sarayi”. If you just say “Topkapi”, unscrupulous drivers might take you to the unrelated area of Topkapi!