Built on the top of a hill in a small peninsula and dominating the Golden Horn to the north, the Sea of Marmara to the south, and the Bosphorus Strait to the northeast, the Topkapi Palace, meaning Cannon Gate Palace, once served as the main residence and administrative headquarters of the powerful sultans of the Ottoman Empire during the 15th century. Construction of the palace began in 1460, around six years after the conquest of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, by the Ottoman army commanded by the 21-year old Sultan Mehmed II, popularly known as Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. The construction of the palace, originally called the New Palace to distinguish it from the Old Palace, was completed in 1478 and Sultan Mehmed II took up residence in the newly built palace.
After his death three years later, successive sultans renovated and expanded the palace over the centuries. Especially, major renovations took place after the earthquake of 1509 and the 1665 fire. As a result, the palace is formed by a maze of buildings centred around a series of courtyards protected by different gates and reflects the Islamic, Ottoman, and European architectural styles and decoration. It was named the Topkapi Palace in the 19th century.
The immense Topkapı Palace, built on the 700.000 square meters area, once housed 1000-4000 inhabitants, including up to 300 in the harem. Initially, the Harem was left in the Old Palace and was moved to its present location by Sultan Murad III, only at the end of the 16th century.
Originally, the Topkapi Palace consisted of four consecutive courtyards and many smaller buildings, surrounded by high walls to provide protection and the necessary security. Each courtyard served different purposes and was separated by a gate that restricted entry, culminating in the most-private third and fourth courtyards. The blend of architectural styles and decorations found throughout the Topkapı Palace is evident in the first courtyard, also called the Outer Courtyard, which is the largest and the only public courtyard. The iconic Gate of Salutation, or the middle Gate, located in the first courtyard, recalls the medieval European fortresses with its pointed towers and walls with slots along the top of the parapet for throwing arrows or other weaponry on the enemies. On the contrary, the Tiled Pavilion, a large vaulted hall enclosed on three sides with its polychrome-tiled iwan, indicates the influence of the Persian Timurid style of architecture.
The Gate of Salutation in the first courtyard leads to the second courtyard, called Divan Square, which was the administrative centre of the palace and was restricted except official visitors and members of the court. While the Council members met several times a week to discuss state affairs in the Domed Chamber, the sultan sometimes listened in through a grilled window from a small room of the adjacent Tower of Justice, the palace’s tallest structure. The Neoclassical lantern in the tower offered the sultan a view of the entire palace and thus symbolized the omnipresence of the sultan in the complex.
The second courtyard also includes the palace kitchens and confectionaries, which now display the imperial porcelain collection. Some of the porcelain pieces were acquired from China and Japan. It is believed that the willow-green coloured pottery would change its colour if the food served within it was poisoned. The superstitious belief points to the Ottoman sultans’ perpetual fear of assassination. The External Treasury in the courtyard today exhibits the imperial weapons.
The canopied Gate of Felicity leads to the third courtyard, which housed the private residence of the sultan and the inner palace school. The sultan’s apartments were also located in the third courtyard before Murad III moved his residence to the harem in the 16th century. The famous collection of the Imperial jewels is housed in the Pavilion of the Conqueror, located in the same third courtyard. The jewel collection attests to the great wealth of the Ottoman Empire, which includes the so-called Spoonmaker’s Diamond, one of the largest cut diamonds in the world and the emerald Topkapi Dagger. The centre of the third courtyard is occupied by the Library of Sultan Ahmed III, lavishly decorated with painted tiles, stained-glass windows and shutters with mother-of-pearl and ivory inlay. The collection includes rare manuscripts, illustrated volumes and early copies of the Qur’an, which were moved to the adjacent Mosque of the Aghas in the 20th century.
The fourth courtyard, decorated with gardens, is the home to the lushly decorated Circumcision Chamber, the Baghdad Pavilion and the Yerevan Pavilion, along with the quaint gilt-bronze Iftar Pergola, where the Sultans used to break their fast if Ramadan fell in the summer.
The Harem was the complex of apartments in the palace belonging to the wives, concubines and children of the Sultan. It was a restricted area, except for the Sultan, members of his family, his servants and the occasional approved visitor, always guarded by the alert black eunuchs at the Main Gate, also called the Royal Gate. Probably the future guards were purchased from the slave markets and castrated before puberty. The queen mother was the centre of power in the harem, who had significant influence over the sultan. The harem had separate living quarters for the concubines, accessible through the Gallery of the Concubines off of the Main Gate. Most of them were beautiful young girls from other countries received as gifts or purchased from the slave market.
The Sultan’s apartments were connected to the queen mother’s through a white-marbled double hammam or a Turkish bath, one side of which was reserved for the Sultan and the other for the women of the harem. The Sultan’s apartment also includes a throne hall and three privy chambers. The Fruit Room, added by Ahmed III, is uncharacteristically decorated with delicately lacquered fruits and flowers.
The Topkapi Palace gradually lost its importance after the 17th century, as during that period the Sultans preferred to spend more time in their new palaces along the Bosphorus. Finally, when in 1856, Sultan Abdulmejid I decided to move the court to the newly built Dolmabahce Palace, Topkapi lost its glamour, but retained some of its other functions, including the imperial treasury, library and mint. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, it was transformed into a museum by a government decree dated 3rd April 1924. However, as a part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul, the Topkapi Palace was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.