Topkapi – A Palace of Dreams and Tears from the Ottoman Empire

Topkapi – A Palace of Dreams and Tears from the Ottoman Empire

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The palace of Topkapi near the Bosphorus strait was a witness to the greatest glories and the most heartbreaking tragedies in the history of the Ottoman Empire. Currently the Topkapi palace is a museum but less than one hundred years ago it was the home of a sultan, his harem, and his many attendants.

The palace was built in Istanbul between 1466 and 1478 by sultan Mehmet II. After the conquest of the city in 1453, he needed a new place in which to live and rule the empire. Topkapi was created on top of ancient ruins from the Byzantine Emperors. This may have been because the Ottomans wanted to be seen as a continuation of the glory of ancient power, not as just creators of a new one. In the late 15th century, the palace became the main residence for sultans.

In Turkish, ''Topkapi'' means ''The Gate of Cannons.” The palace’s name comes from the huge cannons displayed outside of its gates. They were in use during the conquest of the city.  On April 3, 1924, it was decided that the Topkapi Palace should be transformed into a museum. It was the first museum of the Republic of Turkey. The palace continues to be located in the heart of the city, close to famous mosques such as the Suleymaniye and the Blue Mosque, near the Bosphorus. Many of the wooden buildings disappeared or were replaced by newer ones, but the main constructions of the palace still exist.

The Sultan’s Three Residences

Originally there were around 700-800 residents in the palace, but over the centuries, the number raised to 5,000 people. The palace has three main parts: The Old Palace, the New Palace, and Yildiz Palace. The one which is known as Topkapi is the New Palace.

Overview map of the courtyards.

Overview map of the courtyards. ( CC BY 4.0 )

The Old Palace was the first construction created in the newly conquered city. It was damaged by fire in 1514 and after that most of the people went to live in the New Palace. The old one was partially restored and rebuilt but fire destroyed it once more during the reign of sultan Abdulaziz, who ruled between 1861 – 1876. This time, the Commander-in-Chief gate was placed in place of the palace. Now, it is a part of Istanbul University.

The building of the New Palace was started by Mehmed II and it was much more luxurious. The site dominated the landscape and contained State buildings, pleasure pavilions, baths, workshops, kitchens, residential quarters, etc. All of the sultan’s private and political life was centered in this site. The ruler met with his advisers there, celebrated battles his soldiers won, and created strategies. With time, it also became a center of family life and local culture.

Sultan Mehmed II ordered the initial construction around the 1460s.

Sultan Mehmed II ordered the initial construction around the 1460s. ( Public Domain )

In the 18th century, a new palace was built in Besiktas in Istanbul. It was a summer palace for the sultan Selim III (1789 – 1807). Sultan Mahmud II (1808 – 39), who loved to get out of the crowded court, spent lots of time in this palace. The Yildiz Palace was an oasis for a ruler, a place to rest without leaving the capital. However, this idea was changed by the sultan Abdulhamid II, who moved his entire court there.

The Heart of a Harem

The harem was a home for hundreds of women and their children. It was also the place where princes lived until they were 16 years old. The women of Ottoman harems received the best education and worked to support the finances of the palace.

Imaginary scene from the sultan's harem.

Imaginary scene from the sultan's harem. ( Public Domain )

The name ''Harem'' means ''forbidden'' in Arabic. Most men couldn't enter this space. Previously, it was separated even from the palace of the sultan. The situation changed when a beautiful and intelligent woman stole the heart of the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. She was born in the territory of The Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. Her name was Alexandra, but the sultan called her Hurrem –cheerful one.  She was a Christian and wanted to create a real relationship with the sultan, but to achieve her goals she also needed help from fate. As Andrew Colt wrote in his book:

''When a fire did a great damage to the Old Seraglio (Old Palace), Roxelane used the opportunity to ask for permission to live in the New Palace – known to us as Topkapi – the center of political life and the sultan's court, where he also had an apartment. She brought with her a crowd of eunuchs, black and white, servants and domestics; once installed there, she stayed. The Harem and the state were no longer separate; the consequences of this were to prove deplorable.''

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