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

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

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.''

The center of the power in the Harem was located in the Valide Sultan's apartments. Valide was the Queen Mother and she was the first lady of the Imperial Ottoman Harem. The woman who ruled the harem could be the mother or wife of a sultan. The first great Valide was Hurrem Sultan, but it is necessary to mention women like Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Selim II and Kosem Sultan, wife of Ahmed I. All of these women were powerful and had skills which allowed them to multiply the income generated by the harem.

Portrait of the mother Sultan. On the right, the head of a black eunuch of the harem.

Portrait of the mother Sultan. On the right, the head of a black eunuch of the harem. ( Public Domain )

Some of the decorations of the Topkapi harem still relate to the women who ruled this place in the 16th century, but most of the items are from the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.

A New Life for the Palace

Topkapi Palace has an impressive library and archive, which has a collection of approximately 300,000 archive documents. The gardens of Topkapi, with plants like hyacinths, roses, tulips, etc., are still related to the Ottoman tradition.

When the palace became a museum, it was opened to all people for the first time in history. The museum contains many treasures left by people who lived there for more than 400 years. The impressive collection located in the treasury is only a small part of the collection that is hidden in storage.

Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, Turkey.

Topkapı Palace, Istanbul, Turkey. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Apart from portraits, jewels, and personal items which belonged to sultans and their families, the exhibition contains Holy Relics - including artifacts related to the prophet Muhammad.

Topkapi Palace now welcomes tourists throughout the year. It has become a center for knowledge about the Ottoman Empire, and a calming place for rest for people who would like to imagine what life must have been like in this magnificent palace of yesteryear.

Feature image: The Topkapı Palace, Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu), and the Golden Horn at sunrise, photographed from across the Bosphorus at the Harem ferry terminal in Turkey. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

By Natalia Klimczak


Kemal Cig Sabahattin, Cengiz Koseoglu, The Topkapi Saray Museum – Architecture, 1988.

Andre Colt, Suleiman the Magnificent, 2005.


I would have liked to have posted a comment that had been posted that one can read under 'posted comments'. The problem is that when I try to post it turns out you get a restricted page. I found out that the posted comment that I wonted to respond to was posted in the FORUM section. If you are going to post comments that are in the forum section that can be read my anyone due to the fact that it is posted in the general posted site- why can we not respond to it?- without having to register in the forum section ie- become a member?

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