Istanbul Stories and Tips

Centre of Empire - Topkapi - forbidden palace of the Ottoman Sultans

The famous Divan Photo, Istanbul, Turkey

Ibrahim asked, "Master Ali, wherefore art thou come?"
He replied, "My Emporer, to perform your funeral service..."
To this, Ibrahim replied, "we shall see..."

Ali then fell upon him; and while they were struggling, one of Ali's assistants came in, and Ibrahim was finally strangled by a garter. Kara Ali received a reward of five hundred ducats, and was urged to remain no longer in Constantinople, but to proceed on a pilgrimage to Mecca."

Noel Barber, Lords of the Golden Horn, 1973

As you can see very few of the Ottoman sultans lived to a ripe old age. Most after serving terms of incarceration in 'The Cage' were deposed, poisoned, or murdered. The life of an Ottoman Sultan - or even if you were one of his brothers - was precarious at least. Sultan Mehmet was twenty years in the cage and when his brother died they came for him. He thought they had come to kill him and had to be physically removed. With nothing but concubines and mute eunuchs for company he had become quite mad.

The Topkapi Palace has dozens of stories like this. It was the palace of one of the most memorable dynasties history has ever produced. A dynasty that over time forgot its warrior roots and became absolutely decadent - harem girls, eunuchs, grand viziers, janissaries, and the famous Kafes 'Cage'. No stay in Istanbul is complete without a visit here. To me, it exceeded expectation. It was one of the best preserved and interesting palaces I have ever visited. Up there with Versailles, Blenheim, and Beijing's Forbidden City. The ambience of 'The Sublime Porte' is there for everyone to experience.

But it is the stories of the Sultanate which make this palace such a treasure. For nigh on 300 years the Ottomans terrified Europe. When Mehmet the Conqueror breached the walls of Christian Constantinople in 1453 he created a medieval/Renaissance superpower. Down in the southeast corner of the continent, far too close to call for some, was a bogeyman completely at odds with the rest of Europe. Sandwiched between Orthodox Russian and the pope in Rome was a Muslim superpower with a mission - the conversion of Christian Europe into Islam. Twice it nearly succeeded; at the gates of Vienna in 1529 and most famously in 1683. If the Austrian capital had fallen then the Sultans would have reached as far as Paris or Barcelona. After 1750, the Ottomans were on the decline, the old empire being "the sick man of Europe" in the 19th century. Race memory of the "infidel Turk" continues today with Austria being one of Turkeys main foes to its entry into the European Union.

To see where the fate of Europe was decided for so long head for Gulhane Park in the centre of Sultanhammet. Once in the park follow the cobbled road, past the Archaeological museum, to where the park opens up to the gigantic walls of the palace. The 'Gate of Salutations' is where you enter. 10 Turkish lira is the entrance fee (another 10 lira for the harem tour) and you have to pass through tough airport-style security. Its worth it when you see the 'The Second Court' - a 100ft square lawn dotted with mulberry trees and fountains. The eastern edge is covered in cloisters leading to the massive kitchens which fed the 5,000 people who worked at the palace. At the far end is 'The Gate of Felicity' which leads deeper into the palace and in Ottoman times was as far as anyone could get. Up close it is impressive, a giant arch decorated with gilt and carving. Each year Istanbul puts on Mozarts Abduction from the Seraglio with the gate as a backdrop.

The Harem Tour (covered in another journal) starts each half hour at the western end of this courtyard. But nearby is the Divan. Many of the Sultans were brilliant rulers, but others were just not up to the job or had had their wits addled by incarceration in 'The Cage' so the day to day running of the empire was handled by the Grand Vizier. The 'Divan' was where the Sultan would have audience with his Vizier. Life as a Vizier was pretty precarious; many a Vizier felt the edge of the executioners sword if he didn't measure up or fell afoul of palace intrigues. 'The Divan' itself is rather beautiful and covered in gold. Next door is the 'State treasury' where he used to meet with his ministers. The Sultan would watch his ministers debate from behind a lattice screen.

'The Third Court' was out of bounds to everyone except palace staff and Imperial family. The penalty for trespass was death. The most striking building here is The Audience Chamber. A white marble confection straight out the 'Arabian Nights'. It was a beautiful building of Muslim curves, domes and arches and was mainly where the Sultans did business. Across the lawn is the entrance to 'The Fourth Court'. A few rooms off here showed the religious significance of the Sultan as he was Islams chosen representative on earth. Which meant for some impressive Islamic relics - Mohammeds hair, jewelled Korans and a mother of pearl 'Dome of the Rock' given by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The religious air was enhanced by a real life imam reading out loud passages from the Koran in the corner.

'The Fourth Court' are gardens overlooking the Bosphorus. The 'Kiosk of Ivory Pasha' was the most impressive. An ivory balcony overlooking a blue pool with arched Islamic colonnades. The whole side of the palace was a concoction of Islamic architecture - bulbous columns, arches and intense latticework. At the far end are some marble benches overlooking the Bosphorus and the Asian shore.

Topkapi is something special. It ignites the imagination. Some pretty terrible things went on here despite all the luxury. But it remains my favourite sight in Istanbul.

Correction. Probably my favourite place in the entire trip. Very impressive.

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