Sunday, November 14, 2010

Topkapı Palace, a first installment

Home to the Sultans for more than 400 years, Topkapı (top-cop-eh) Palace is sprawling grandeur. A collection of low, opulent buildings surrounding central garden courtyards, the Topkapı is more like a royal village than a European castle. We weren't as excited to see Topkapı as we were to see some of the other art and architectural sites of Istanbul, thinking it would be one long display of wealth without much of real visual interest to our tastes. As with many of our assumptions about this city, we were wrong again. There are the expected fruit-sized diamonds, hefty gold candlesticks, cursed daggers and ostentatious throne rooms, but the overall experience of the Palace is that of a very real place, full of small moments of beauty, gorgeous design and the mark of the many people who lived within its walls. 

At its peak, four thousand people resided within the Palace. Like a small city, it housed bakers, craftsman, soldiers, school teachers, politicos and artisans, as well as the often huge royal family and their staff. We have visited twice now, and have seen just a little more than half. On both visits, we went through the Harem, a winding complex of buildings with more than four hundred rooms. The Harem was the private residence of the Sultan, his family, concubines, consorts and eunuchs. Many of the photos below are from the Harem. Because these rooms were essentially private, serving the daily needs of children, wives and the Sultan's mother, it has a surprisingly intimate, home-like feeling.

Other highlights of our visits were the airy Library, the Imperial Council's Chamber, and the Hall of Holy Relics. The Library is right in the middle of the central garden, and would have been our choice, if we had been the Sultans, as the best place to relax with of cup of çay. The Imperial Council Chamber was where the ministers of state, council members and the Grand Vizier held meeting to fight out the best way to run the Empire. The Sultan did not participate in these deliberations directly, but sat in a private room adjacent to the Chamber, behind a gold grating. Here he would listen to the arguments, closing the sessions with a rap on the grating, at which time he would single out members to summon one by one for an audience. He then had the final word.

The Hall of Holy Relics houses sacred artifacts, including many items from Muhammad, among them his cloak, sword, letter, his foot print... and a tooth... and collection of beard hairs. The thirty or so beard hairs of the prophet are each separately enshrined in tiny and elaborate glass reliquaries, like pieces of the true cross. Beard hairs not withstanding, the most interesting part about this area of the museum is the chanting that fills these (still) sacred rooms. At first we thought it was an atmospheric recording, but the chant got louder, and we finally stepped into a light-filled stone room where an Imam was chanting verses from the Koran. Scrolling supertitles translate the verse into Turkish and English. The amazing thing is that this chant has been going on twenty-four hours a day since the sixteenth century(!)

We have more to see at Topkapı Palace, and know we will be going back several more times. Maybe on our next installment, we will have finally made it to the royal kitchens, the armory, and the large garden overlooking the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and the Sea of Mamara.

The Sultans private apartment in the Harem 

Entrance into the Harem 

The Harem entrance has this lovely pebble path, reportedly to give the Sultans horse a good footing.

In the Sultan's Mother's apartment

Marble drawers in the deep reveals around the windows in the Sultan's apartment. 

Looking our toward what was the large stone pool.

The exterior of the Sultan's apartment is elaborately tiled 

Sultan's bath. Water used to trickle over the scalloped wall. 

Honeycombed ceiling in the bath. This type of natural light ceiling is in many areas of the Harem. 

Sultan's toilet, very like some we have encountered (minus the gold and marble.) 

Council Chamber's with the Sultan's gold grate "listening hole."

In the Council Chambers 

Peristyle courtyard of the second garden.

A view to Topkapı from the Bosphorus

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