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Topkapı Palace

Topkapı Palace History

Topkapı Palace was the main residence of the Ottoman sultans (from the mid-15th century until the construction of Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosporus. This vast conglomeration of buildings stands on a magnificent promontory on the tip of the peninsula overlooking the Bosporus and the inner harbour on the east and the Golden Horn on the north.

It is isolated from the city on the landward sides by walls on the south and west. Originally known as the New Palace, only in the 19th century did it come to be known as Topkapı (‘Cannon-gate’) Palace, after a shore pavilion built near a gate of that name. The layout of the palace, established by Mehmed II, is based on the First Court, an outer precinct or park, and an inner precinct of three courts that constitute the palace proper.

(I) Before 1453

The hill on which Topkapi Palace stands was the acropolis of ancient Byzantion; it was surrounded with walls and graced with secular and religious structures, some of which have been excavated among the present buildings. The Temple of Poseidon, known to have been situated within the precincts of the palace, was transformed into the church of St Menas, and it has been suggested that the present Arcade of the Chamber of the Holy Mantle were built on the site. Under Byzantine rule the steep slopes of the hill were terraced and cisterns built, of which 39 have been identified within the palace grounds. These cisterns were supplied from an ancient ashlar-lined well, 5 m in diameter and 30 m deep. It later became the main water source for the palace, and it was repaired by Sinan during the reign of Süleyman.

The Mangana arsenal stood on the lower slopes of the eastern side of the hill, and its name was later applied to the whole district. Constantine IX (1042–1055) built the monastery and palace of Mangana; the latter was reportedly a large complex with five storeys, the last remains of which were razed by Isaak II Angelos (1185–1195). According to the sources this district contained numerous churches, among which were the Mangana monastery church of St George, Christ the Philanthropist Church, St Demetrios, St Lazaros and St Barbara. None of these buildings have been identified with the remains of various religious structures found on the site.

Objects from the Roman and Byzantine periods found on the site include sarcophagi, baptismal fonts and parapet slabs, and fragments of architectural elements and sculpture, many of which were reused under the Ottomans. Sarcophagi and fonts were often used as the drinking basins of fountains or water tanks. The font in the Treasury Apartments was reportedly used as a safe for cash.

(II) 1453–1622

Within a few years of the conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed II constructed a palace in the centre of his capital as well as several large fortresses in or near the city. His selection of the magnificent site—easily defensible, highly visible and close to the symbolic centre of the ancient city—was a logical choice for the major imperial residence and administrative centre of the growing empire.

Construction of the walls surrounding the palace was begun around 1460 and were completed in 1478. There are several gateways in the outer wall, but the major ceremonial route was a linear series of three great portals leading into the First, Second and Third Courts, with the audience throne-room beyond the third portal.

Remains from Mehmed’s period include the encircling walls, the main portal for the entire complex, that of the palace proper, and a series of gardens and pavilions or kiosks, built first in the palace proper and then in the park. Of these pavilions, the Çinili (‘Tiled’) Kiosk in the park, with its splendid decoration and complex axial arrangement of rooms, follows a 15th-century Timurid-style plan probably considered somewhat exotic in Istanbul at the time.

Inside the palace proper, the most important building to survive is the Arcade of the Conqueror’s Kiosk, built in a corner of the Third Court at the top of the promontory on a cliff overlooking the conjunction of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara; the magnificent view from its covered porch and its great visibility from the water leave little doubt why the site was selected.

The Tower of Justice, the highest structure in the complex, recalls in its original form a similar tower erected during Mehmed’s reign in the palace at Edirne. The basic layout of the park and three interior courts established under Mehmed dictated the pattern of subsequent development.

The next major additions took place under Süleyman (1520–1566), when certain ceremonial parts of the palace were rebuilt on a larger scale, and the palace infrastructure was enlarged to support the burgeoning administrative bureaucracy of the empire.

At this time the Counchill Hall building was erected and the neighbouring Inner Treasury in the Second Court and the Throne-room in the Third Court were built too. Although these structures have been greatly altered in subsequent rebuildings, their decorative tiles have been preserved in other parts of the palace, most notably on the walls of the Circumcision Room in the Fourth Court. The massive gilded iron doors in the Middle Gate were placed there in 1525.

Under Selim II (1566–1574) the great Ottoman architect Sinan built his first important additions to the palace. New baths for the Sultan were erected and decorated with Iznik polychrome tiles of the highest quality. In 1574, after the kitchens in the Second Court were destroyed by fire, Sinan began the gigantic kitchens that still constitute the largest single structure in the palace.

Other additions made to the Harem were substantially altered, and much of the tile decoration was recycled by Ahmed I (1603–1617) for his great mosque. In the reign of Murad III (1574–1595) the palace attained its present form with the construction by Sinan of the Privy Chamber, previously remodelled between 1512 and 1520 under Selim I, in the Fourth Court; vast additions to the Harem were also made, including the complex known as the Bedroom of Murad III, several seashore kiosks in the park and more housing for the palace staff. Murad’s architectural patronage was heavily concentrated in the palace, for he was the first sultan since the conquest to forego building an imperial mosque in the capital.

In particular, his architectural patronage involved massive purchases of ceramic tiles from Iznik. Contemporary documents sent from the palace to the administrative judge of Iznik complained that potters were producing more lucrative tablewares for sale in the bazaar rather than tiles for the palace. Murad’s additions were altered by the stripping of their tiles and by the intrusion of European taste in the 18th century.

During the reigns of Mehmed III (1595–1603) and Ahmed I little was added to Topkapı Palace. Ahmed’s preoccupation with the building of his mosque even meant that the palace was stripped of tiles from structures damaged in the fire of 1574 for reuse in the mosque.

(III) 1623–1853

The first major additions to the palace in the 17th century occurred during the reign of the bellicose Murad IV (1623–1640), who built in the Fourth Court the lovely Revan and Baghdad kiosks to commemorate his victories at Erevan (1635–1636) and Baghdad (1638–1639).

Based on the classical type of four-iwan plan, they have projecting eaves, domed central spaces and interiors with recessed cupboards and woodwork inlaid with mother-of-pearl. They typify Islamic and Ottoman palace structures. Their decoration in blue-and-white tiles deliberately patterned after those of a century earlier are self-conscious attempts to duplicate the glories of an earlier age.

The nearby Circumcision Room (Sünnet Odası), built in 1648 by Ibrahim, is an altogether simpler structure than Murad’s two kiosks, but it is largely decorated on the exterior with tiles that once graced ceremonial buildings of Süleyman.

Although it is not certain when these recycled tiles were added to the Circumcision Room, it is highly probable that these prototypes for the decoration of Murad’s kiosks were moved to their present location c. 1648 as part of the same reverence and nostalgia for the art of the age of Süleyman. Ibrahim also erected the terrace that links the Circumcision Room with Murad’s kiosks and the arcaded roof around the Chamber of the Holy Mantle.

Another fire in 1665 resulted in the wholesale redecoration of the Harem, although little of its plan and structure was changed. Once again the reverence for the 16th century is manifested in a tenacious adherence to polychrome underglaze-painted tiles in the Iznik mode, despite the poor quality. Although the redecoration is notable for its extreme dreariness, it does include direct imitations of the mass-produced tiles of the reign of Murad III.

Topkapı Palace continued to serve as the formal seat of government and primary imperial residence in Istanbul after 1687, but the palace gradually lost its predominance as the Ottoman sultans spent more time in their new suburban palaces on the Bosporus and at the Sweet Waters of Europe. Major additions during the reign of Ahmed III (1703–1730) include the lovely Neo-classical library in the Third Court, built on the foundations of an earlier kiosk; the spectacular Dining-room in the Harem, painted with floral designs; and the pool and fountain in the Fourth Court.

Under Mahmud I (1730–1754) and Osman III (1754–1757) the Harem was redecorated in the Ottoman Baroque style, an Italianate rather than French-inspired mode of decoration that adds a jarring note when juxtaposed with the decoration of the Ottoman classical age. In 1752 Mahmud I rebuilt the Kiosk of Mustafa Pasha in the Fourth Court: the interior contains a Rococo ceiling, but this unusually spare and open building, with its large windows derived from the wooden residences along the Bosporus, injects a refreshing and forward-looking architectural note.

The last significant royal addition to the palace was the Kiosk of Abdülmecid constructed by Sarkis Balyan on a built-up terrace beyond the Conqueror’s Kiosk, with the same sweeping view of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara. This building, in the eclectic Europeanized style popularized by the Balyan family in the 19th century, is simply another typical seaside palace; its location within the Topkapı complex was due primarily to the magnificent view rather than to old imperial associations.

(IV) After 1853

Although Abdülmecid (1839–1861) moved his official residence to Dolmabahçe Palace, the sultans’ ties with Topkapı Palace were not completely broken. The palace continued to be the residence of court officials and site of the treasury, ceremonies on the sultan’s accession and handing over of the treasury were performed there, funerals for sultans began there, and the yearly visit to the Chamber of the Holy Mantle on 15 Ramadan continued to take place.

The Kiosk of Abdülmecid was opened on occasion to accommodate foreign guests. The Sultan gave special permission for foreign ambassadors resident in Istanbul and their associates to visit the palace. They were able to tour two rooms in the Treasury and the Dormitory of the Expeditionary Force, where a collection of 360 ceramic objects was exhibited. According to Georgina Max Müller, who toured the palace with such a group, they had to pay a substantial fee.

Topkapi Palace underwent various changes and repairs to suit the needs of its residents. The imperial historiographer Abdurrahman Şeref  was the first to receive special permission to spend a long time in the palace, where he established the condition of the buildings and recorded their inscriptions.

Major repairs that changed the appearance of the Third Court were begun under Abdülhamid II (1876–1909) and completed under Mehmed V Reşad (1909–1918). A report in 1915 stated that the repairs had been poorly done and recorded mistakes. The demolition of the Music-room (Meşkhane) built by Selim III (1789–1807) at the entrance to the Gate of the White Eunuchs was strongly criticized.

The Topkapı Palace  was officially opened as a museum on 3 April 1924. The first campaign of restoration (1940–1944) restored the kitchens and adjacent cooks’ quarters, as well as the privy stables and Treasury Apartments. The Treasury of the Ambassadors, built in front of the Treasury Apartments under Mahmud I (was removed.

The second restoration campaign (1959–1962), directed by the architect Selma Emlar, delineated the Harem water-supply and exposed the pool under the Courtyard of the Favourites in the Harem Apartments, known from its depiction in manuscript illustrations. The larder beside the kitchen was repaired, the dairy restored and the archives transformed into the textile depot. Under the architect Mualla Egüpoğlu Anhegger, the restoration of the Harem continued.

The most striking part was the removal of the decorated wooden partitions and penthouse from the Apartments of the Heir Apparent. The dome, which had been covered with a flat ceiling, was revealed when the ceiling was dismantled. İlban Öz restored the apartments of the Favourites and of Abdülhamid in the Harem and of the Halberdiers with Tresses. An exhibition hall was constructed on the rampart opposite the kitchens.

Topkapı Palace Map&Location

Address: Topkapı Sarayı, Hotel İbrahim Pasha, Binbirdirek Mh., Terzihane Sk 7, 34122 Istanbul, Turkey.

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 Topkapı Palace Photos

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Topkapı Palace © QuartierLatin1968
Topkapı Palace © Tony Mendez
Entrance - Gate of Salutations © Lars Strojny
Palace Kitchens © Gannon
Silver exhibition © Gannon
Garden © Michael Pilat
Courtyard detail © Chris Brown
Palace interior © Luca Zappa
Palace interior © Luca Zappa
 Church of Hagia Eirene © Robin Zebrowski
Imperial Gate © Robin Zebrowski
Gate of Felicity © David Jones
Imperial Divan © David Jones
Tower of Justice © David Jones
Audience Chamber © Paul Simpson
Yerevan Kiosk © Paul Simpson
The Third Court © Paul Simpson
The Harem © Paul Simpson
Pavilion of the Blessed Mantle © David Jones
Library of Ahmet III © Paul Simpson
Palace Windows detail © Regine Stiller