Monday, May 26, 2014

Istanbul 2014 - Topkapi Palace

Date of visit: 6th April 2014

The famous Topkapi Palace was once a residence for the Ottomon Sultans approximately for 400 years during their 624 years reigns. The palace was a setting for state occasions and royal entertainments during it's glory Ottoman's empire, beside being an imperial royal palace. It is now a major tourist attraction which contains important holy relics of the Muslim world, including Prophet Muhammed's cloak and sword that makes it as a must visit place by majority of the Muslims all over the world. The Topkapı Palace is among the monuments contained within the "Historic Areas of Istanbul", which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, and is described under UNESCO's criterion iv as "the best example of ensembles of palaces of the Ottoman period."

The Gate of Salutation to enter the Second Courtyard of the Palace

The tour bus dropped us straight from the airport on my trip 10 years ago at the main entrance gate. However, on the trip without guided tour, we had to follow the tourist guide map which is very very helpful provided FREE at Ataturk's Airport on arrival. We stopped at 2 tram station away from Sirkeci station. It lead us to another shared gate entrance of Topkapi Palace Museum/Topkapi Archaeological Museums once a huge palace compound (becoming smaller these days) as clearly directed from below directional signs. To the left was Gulhane Park. Following the direction, we arrived at the palace museum compounds but mistakenly followed a small queue at the archaeological museum by paying a nominal fee. I was a little bit confused thinking that it was for another entrance to the palace museum.

South eastern entrance to the Palace as clearly shown on the Directional sign 

Nevertheless, the exploration inside the archaeological museum was worth every single amount that we pay as we saw a lot of beautiful preserved collection in the museum. Not many visitors were inside as the place is not a main interest or visitor's focus. I'm sharing 5 selected photos as a memoir in this entry. If I were given more time to wander on my own, I would easily takes 3 hours to appreciate those beautiful collections like the way Anne decided to explore the art's collection in Louvre Paris. 

After the 17th century the Topkapı Palace gradually lost its importance as the sultans preferred to spend more time in their new palaces along the Bosphorus. In 1856, Sultan Abdul Mecid I decided to move the court to the newly built Dolmabahçe Palace, the first European-style palace in the city. Some functions, such as the imperial treasury, the library, and the mint, were retained in the Topkapı Palace.

Following the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Topkapı Palace was transformed by a government decree dated April 3, 1924 into a museum of the imperial era. The Topkapı Palace Museum is administered by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The palace complex has hundreds of rooms and chambers, but only the most important are accessible to the public today. The complex is guarded by officials of the ministry as well as armed guards of the Turkish military. The palace includes many fine examples of Ottoman architecture. It contains large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, shields, armor, Ottoman miniatures, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts and murals, as well as a display of Ottoman treasures and jewelry.

After a quick tour inside the archaeological museum, we adjourned to the palace museum. The queues was amazingly very far and long as it was Sunday. Tired from a long walk the whole day, we take our turn to queue for paying an entrance fee.

The palace complex is located on the Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu), a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, with a good view of the Bosphorus from many points of the palace. The site is hilly and one of the highest points close to the sea. During Greek and Byzantine times, the acropolis of the ancient Greek city of Byzantion stood here. There is an underground Byzantine cistern located in the Second Courtyard, which was used throughout Ottoman times, as well as remains of a small church, the so-called Palace Basilica on the acropolis, which have been excavated in modern times. The nearby Church of Hagia Eirene, though located in the First Courtyard, is not considered a part of the old Byzantine acropolis. 

My sister seat sweetly at the First Courtyard with the Byzantine Church of Hagia Eirene at her background and the former Imperial Mint built in 1727
After the Ottoman conquest in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II found the imperial Byzantine Great Palace of Constantinople largely in ruins. The Ottoman court initially set itself up in the Old Palace which today becoming the site of Istanbul University. The Sultan then searched for a better location and chose the old Byzantine acropolis, ordering the construction of a new palace in 1459. Sultan Mehmed established the basic layout of the palace. He used the highest point of the promontory for his private quarters and innermost buildings. Various buildings and pavilions surrounded the innermost core and grew down the promontory towards the shores of the Bosphorus.

The Gate of Felicity to enter the Third Courtyard as the background photo
The whole complex was surrounded by high walls, some was built during the Byzantine acropolis. Sultan Mehmed II's basic layout governed the pattern of future renovations and extensions. The sultan took the details supervision of the palace construction like the way Shah Jahan did when he built a Taj Mahal for his wife. The very best workmen i.e. masons, stone-cutters and carpenters were employed from everywhere, for he was constructing a great palace complex which were worth seeing and should in every respect vie with the greatest and best of the past. Beside careful oversight as to workmen and best quality materials the Sultan also was very concerned with the expenses and outlays. It was said that the palace was completed in the late 1460's. 

Topkapı Palace was developed over the course of centuries, with sultans in throne after the great Sultan Mehmed II adding and changing various structures and elements. It is growth and change over time, although the main layout by Sultan Mehmed II was preserved. Most of the changes occurred during the reign of another great sultan, Sultan Suleyman from 1520 to 1560. With the rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman wanted its growing power and glory to be reflected in his residence, by adding new buildings and enlarged some of the existing structure, including expansion of the Harem. I visited the Harem in 2004 but due to time constraint, our small group did not manage to cover the entire palace.

The ladies stands adjacent at the Palace kitchen seated on their left
The palace is an extensive complex rather than a single monolithic structure, with an assortment of low buildings constructed around courtyards, interconnected with galleries and passages. Few of the buildings exceed two stories. Interspersed are trees, gardens and water fountains, to give a refreshing feeling to the inhabitants and to provide places to rest. The buildings enclosed the courtyards, and life revolved around them. Doors and windows face the courtyard to create an open atmosphere and provide cool air during hot summers.
Lavender garden in front of the divan which now displays belongings of the late Prophet Muhammad
The palace compound is a rough rectangle, divided into 4 main courtyards (Alhamdulillah that I've covered all the 4 courtyards) and the harem. The outermost is the 1st courtyard starting at the south, with each successive courtyard leading north, most accessible point. The innermost is the 4th courtyard and the harem which were more private and most inaccessible, being the sole private domain of the sultan. The 5th courtyard was in reality the outermost rim of the palace grounds bordering the sea (as can be seen from below panorama photo). Access to these courtyards was restricted by high walls and controlled with gates. Apart from the 4 to 5 main courtyards, various other small to mid-sized courtyards exist throughout the complex. The total size of the complex varies from around 592,600 square meters to 700,000 square meters, depending on which parts are counted.

Panorama view overlooking Bosphorus from the top of the Topkapi, 5th courtyard
The total area of Topkapı Palace was in fact much larger than what it is today. It was the main residence of the sultan and his court and was initially the seat of government as well as the imperial residence. Even though access was strictly regulated, inhabitants of the palace rarely had to venture out since the palace functioned almost as an autonomous entity "A city within a city". Audience and consultation chambers and areas served for the political workings of the empire. For the residents and visitors, the palace had its own water supply through underground cisterns and the great kitchens provided for nourishment on a daily basis. Dormitories, gardens, libraries, schools, even mosques, were at the service of the court. 

Today, Koyali Restaurant had occupied the best view of the palace overlooking Bosphorus by operating it's cafeteria and fine dining restaurant. It provided meals to the tourist who most probably require the whole day to explore the palace. For lunch that day, we treated our self a once in a lifetime experience having a Turkish meal at their fine dining with the best view of the palace. I will write about the food in the separate entry.

The 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 grilled windows and building secret passageways. The main street leading to the palace was where the Byzantine processional Mese avenue, today is called Street of the Council. The Mese was used for imperial processions during the Byzantine and Ottoman era. It leads directly to the Hagia Sophia and takes a turn northwest towards the palace square where the landmark Fountain of Ahmed III stands. 

The visitor's lounge for Ottomon's imperial guests 
Last but not least, I wish to share some of the facts about "Gate of the Sultan" use in a cover photo of this entry located to the south of the palace. The gate, originally dating from 1478, is now covered in 19th-century marble. The massiveness of this stone gate accentuates its defensive character. 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 Sultan Mehmed II and Abdül Aziz I, who renovated the gate. The inscriptions at the gate proclaims:

"By the Grace of God, and by His approval, the foundations of this auspicious castle were laid, and its parts were solidly joined together to strengthen peace and tranquility. This blessed castle, with the aim of ensuring safety of Allah's support and the consent of the son of Sultan Mehmed, son of Sultan Murad, sultan of the land, and ruler of the seas, the shadow of Allah on the people and demons, God's deputy in the east and west, the hero of water and soil, the conqueror of Constantinople and the father of its conquest, Sultan Mehmed Khan- May Allah make eternal his empire, and exalt his residence above the most lucid stars of the firmament."

I thanked God for allowing me to see the leadership sense of the great Muslim's conqueror, Fatih Sultan Mehmed II and his fine contribution monument of that Topkapi Palace.

Topkapi Palace snapped from our cruise trip on 7th of April 2014 (Notes: the date on the photo was a Malaysia time)

Note: sources mainly used from Wikipedia.
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