Crossroads Tour: The Topkapi Palace…

Most of my travel journals are now at Daveno Travels where I am reissuing them as Director’s Cuts, with full text and previously unpublished photos. This is an excerpt from my first trip to Istanbul in 2011.

The Topkapi Palace, built between 1460-78, is a walled complex covering 700,000 sq/m, comprised of three courtyards, several gardens and all the buildings you would expect to see in a royal administrative city. It was the residence of the Ottoman sultans until the middle of the 19th century, and also served as the administrative and educational center for the state. It became a museum in 1924, two years after the Ottoman monarchy in Turkiye came to an end under President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

I arrive about 2 hours before closing. I wait in a line that eats up twenty valuable minutes, and enter the Topkapi Palace through the Gate of Salutation, whose iconic towers were built during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent. 

This gate opens out onto the Council Square, where coronations and other affairs of state were held. The Tower of Justice (used as a council chamber since the 19th century) and the Imperial Chancery (dating from the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent) are also located here. I walk past the Treasury, which is now a Weapons Museum, in search of the Palace Kitchen, which houses Turkish glassware and Asian porcelain collections. Disappointed to find it closed, I head towards the Carriage Gate.

The Carriage Gate leads to the Harem Apartments, the private residence of the sultan and his family. Built in the 16th century and expanded over the next three centuries, the Apartments contain more than 300 rooms, nine bathhouses, two mosques, a hospital, dormitory and laundry. The Harem also served as a recruitment center for young children who were trained for state service. 

The palace is immense, with room after room after hallway, linking to courtyards to even more rooms. After half an hour, I stop taking photos.

The Courtyard of the Favorites housed the wives; each had a private room with a fireplace and enameled closets. The Sultana Mother’s apartments were also heavily tiled, and included a fireplace and a fountain in every room. The Sultana’s living area also included a prayer room, bathhouse and toilet, making it an independently functioning structure from the rest of the harem apartments.

I cannot remember which of the apartments had this beautiful dome, painted with vines. I was so inspired by the dome that I replicated the design as a hat a few weeks later.

I duck into what would be the first of several gift shops here, and find a book of Suleyman’s poetry and books about the Harem which I hope to use for a comparative study of the courtesans of Venice and Istanbul. I run through rooms of jewelry; metal works; weapons and helms, catching the briefest glimpse of the Topkapi Dagger with three enormous emeralds set into its handle.

I find the textile collection, it’s much smaller than I expected, but most of the pieces are laid out flat which gives the perfect view of their construction. I am sad that photography is not allowed here.

A 17th century Italian velvet that I watched being produced on a video at the Lanterna in Genoa, is here, in the form of a Sultan’s coat. Italian silks and velvets were highly prized by the Ottoman sultans and princes. There are several inner caftans here as well – collarless, and tight fitting, with gussets running from waist to hem. Caftans were worn over a loose robe called an entari, which in turn were worn over shalwar trousers, with a wide waist which was gathered in with a sash which passed through drawstrings on the waistband. In addition to Italian velvets and silks, a metallic brocade called serâser (a cloth of silver/gold alloys produced in Istanbul during the 16th century) and kemha, (a compound weave blending polychrome silks with metallic threads) were also worn.

(Shown below is a brocaded silk caftan, possibly worn by the sons of Suleyman I, Crown Princes Bayezid and Mustafa, which would date it to about 1560. From the Topkapi Palace guidebook, published by

Towards the 18th century, the heavy silks and velvets gave way to satins, taffeta, gezi (a thick silk), sandal (a cotton/silk blend) and selimiye, a silk produced in Istanbul. I loved the talismanic shirts, which reminded me of the Taoist caftans from some of the Mongolian exhibits I had seen. Verses from the Kor’an and other prayers were meant to protect the wearer from illnesses and enemies, and are thought to have been prepared through a combined effort of the court astrologers and theologians.

I exit the Topkapi grounds through the Imperial Gate, capped with beautiful gold Arabic script against a blue background. 

If I ever came back to Istanbul, I’d want to spend at least two days here. Read more at Daveno Travels.

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