Where is the topkapi palace? What makes the topkapi palace unique?
Neither luxury nor mysterious wealth of interior of the European palaces can be seen in this palace. There is just growth of trees freely like the ones in the wild forests, murmurs of water, singing of pigeons. Various windows in the rooms are always open. The patios are like flying over gardens and seas, and sultans, who sit behind shades in latticed mansions and enjoy from both silence and the magical beauty of Bosporus. (Alphonse De Lamartine, Istanbul Yazıları, p. 127-128)
Topkapı Palace is a unique one compared to the palaces of other states. According to many historians, the construction of the palace took the longest time among state palaces. Unlike other state palaces in the world, construction of Topkapı Palace did not start based on a plan, and was not completed in a certain period. Its construction was started in the following years of the conquest of Istanbul, and it turned into a palace complex developed according to the needs of every coming sultan. Because of this feature, some historians compared it to a living organism.
Before this palace, there had been another palace constructed at Beyazit Square at the spot where Istanbul University is located today. However, in a short span of time, it was understood that this site was not suitable for a state palace, and then the palace, which is found at Sarayburnu today, was constructed.
The first palace is called “Old Palace,” and was used as the residence by the family and children of the sultans who had been deposed or died. The second palace is called “Saray-i Cedid” which means “New Palace.”
There was a wooden palace, named “Topkapusu Coast Palace”, which has been constructed at the time of Sultan Mahmud I on the coast of Sarayburnu. After this palace was destroyed in a fire, the name of “New Palace” was changed into “Topkapı Palace”.
The palace built on the most beautiful part of Istanbul, or a hillock dominating the Golden Horn, Bosporus and Marmara Sea, lies approximately on 80,000 square meter area today. However, the palace used to be located on a wider place (approximately 700,000 square meter) in its early years. For example, the area, known today as Gülhane Park, was used as the garden of the harem section of the palace. In the same vein, the coast of Sarayburnu was also within the limits of the palace before construction of the railroad.
The last addition to the palace, which started to be constructed by Fatih Sultan Mehmed between the years of 1456 and 1478, was made by Sultan Abdülmecid with the addition of Mecidiye Mansion. Topkapı Palace became the center for one of the greatest states of the world for approximately four hundred years that passed between these two sultans. The heart of a 24,000,000 square km world state beat there.
The remarks of Murat Belge, one of our famous historians, is very noteworthy:
“The Ottoman Palace was constructed with the consciousness of the sense of humbleness. The palace is mostly horizontal. The patterns of splendor, which is symbolized by high walls, was avoided. The size of many mosques in Istanbul was intentionally chosen to be big for they are the houses of Allah. However, in this respect, the sultans avoided building their residence in ostentatious styles. For this reason, Topkapı Palace is humbler in form compared to the palaces we see in Europe, and do not like the popular images of splendor of the Orient. They may also have people say, “Is this the great Ottoman palace?” (Murat Belge, Istanbul Gezi Rehberi, p. 38)
Topkapı Palace lost its characteristic to be the state palace after the construction of Dolmabahçe Palace. It was turned into a museum on 9 October 1924.
Topkapı Palace can be visited every day of the week between 10:00-17:00 o’clock except Tuesdays.
Bab-i Humayun (The Sultanate Gate)
Topkapı Palace has many gates both its land side and the sea side, however, Bab-i Humayun or the Sultanate Gate is its only main gate.
Topkapı Palace is formed from two parts according to its main plan: Birun (Outer Palace) and Enderun (Inner Palace).
Harem is the separate special section where the sultan lived his family life.
After entering from the Sultanate Gate, the outer palace or “birun” section starts. There was a mansion constructed at the time of Sultan Mehmed II over this gate, but this place was burned down in a fire in 1866 and has not survived to this day.
Bab-i Humayun used to be opened with the call to Dawn Prayer and closed after performing the night prayer. Scholars and statesmen who came to the palace could enter from this gate and go by the middle gate on their horses.
The bodies of the statesmen who abused their duties, oppressed the society, and the rebels who revolted against the state used to be displayed here after their execution to be a lesson to the public.
The First Courtyard (The Regiment Square)
Entering from the Sultanate Gate means actually entering Topkapı Palace. This is the first courtyard of the palace. In this courtyard, there were some service buildings of the palace (e.g. mint, hospital, bakery, armory etc.) and dorms where the servants of the palace resided. Common people could also enter to this courtyard on certain days of week to deliver their complaints and requests.
After the first courtyard, there is a 300 meter-long road both side of which is covered by plane trees stretching up to the second gate of the palace called Babu’s-Selam (the Gate of Greetings). This road witnessed the ceremonies of new sultans’ accession to the throne (cülus), the ceremonies organized for the foreign ambassadors hosted in the palace and other types of state ceremonies. On the left side of this road, there were the mint, storehouses, which provided the palace’s need for wood, palace stable, bathhouses, which provided services to the servants of the palace, and dorms. However, these buildings could not survive to this day. On right side of the road, there were Enderun hospital, ministry of finance, bakeries, which produced bread and bagels for the palace, and the dorms where servants of this part resided.
Bab-i Humayun and the first courtyard of the palace used to be guarded by the soldiers under the command of Bostancıbaşı (the commander of the palace guards).
Hagia Irene Church
This building, which is one of the oldest churches of Istanbul, is a monument going back to the 6th century.
It is one of the first churches of East Roman Empire. Hagia Irene means “Holy Peace”. It was built in memory of Irene of Hungary (Saint Irene) who contributed to the spread of Christianity among Romans.
It was not converted to a mosque during the Ottoman period. After the period of Sultan Mehmet II, it was used as a storage facility for the spoils of wars and a type of arsenal to store some of the weaponry.
When you approach to the middle gate, you would see a fountain near the wall on the right side of the road. This is the Fountain of Executioner (Cellat Çeşmesi). The fountain was given this name because the hangmen used to wash their hands and cleavers at this fountain after executing the capital punishment. The rock in front of it, which looks like a column, is called “the warning rock” on which severed heads of criminals used to be displayed.
The Second Courtyard and Babu’s-Selam (The Gate of Greetings)
Babu’s-Selam (the Middle Gate) is the second gate of the palace after Bab-i Humayun. Towers on two sides of the gate were built during the period of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent.
When you enter through this gate, you would find yourself at the center of administration of Ottoman Empire. Entering through this gate on horseback and riding in this courtyard was a right given only to Ottoman sultans. This part of the palace beginning from the gate used to be guarded by Kapıkulu Soldiers (Janissaries). Another name of this yard is “Divan (Council) Square.” Payment of the salaries (ulufe) of the janissaries, ceremonies organized for foreign envoys, and festival celebrations used to be carried out in this square. The most spectacular one among these ceremonies was “cülus Ceremony” by which new sultan ascended to the throne. The golden throne used during festival celebrations used to be taken from the treasure and placed to its special place under fringes of Babu’s-Sa’adah.
When the sultan did not join a military campaign with the Ottoman army, he used to entrust the Honorable Flag (Sancak-i Serif) to the army commander there.
One can also see the tablet of Sohum Castle in Divanhane Square. Tablet of the castle, which was captured by the Russians during the Ottoman-Russian War between 1877-1878 (Russo-Turkish War), was removed, brought to Istanbul, and planted in this square to take lesson from it.
Kitchens of the palace, as it is understood from chimneys on the roof, are found on the right side of the courtyard. Today, the kitchen equipment used in the palace is exhibited in these kitchens. This exhibition is one of the richest the kitchen collections of the world. 2,500 pieces selected out of approximately 12,000 Chinese and Japanese porcelains dated between the 13th and 20th centuries are displayed in this exhibition. Istanbul porcelains, silver dinner sets, and European porcelains used in the palace are some other precious pieces of the kitchen collection.
Divan-ı Humayun or Kubbealtı
Divan-i Humayun is like today’s cabinet. Viziers who met there under the presidency of grand vizier used to report their decisions about state administration to sultan after the meeting. Until the time of Sultan Mehmet II, the sultan himself used to attend the divan meetings. This method was abandoned during the period of Sultan Mehmet II. If the sultan wanted, he used to watch the meeting behind the latticed window in divan. Because such meetings used to be conducted in a hall with couches and with a large dome, this place was named “Kubbealtı (the place under the dome).”
Members of divan used to gather on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The divan was formed from the following persons:
Sadrazam (Prime minister), six viziers, Başdefterdar (Finance Minister), Nişancı (Ministers Responsible for Land Affairs), Ra’isu’l-Kuttab (Minister of Foreign Affairs), head clerk of Divan-i Humayun, kadiaskers of Rumelia and Anatolia (two highest level judges), Kaptanpaşa (Fleet Admiral), Yeniçeri Ağası (Chief of General Staff).
The Tower of Justice
One of the first buildings coming to mind related to Topkapı Palace is this tower which is 45 m in height. Because Divan-i Humayun was the administrative center of the state, it was also expected to be the source of justice in the whole country. This tower that is the highest building in the palace representing the superiority of justice over everything is called “The Tower of Justice.” Entrance of the tower is in the harem section.
The Office of the External Treasury and Weapons Collection
The name of the large building with eight domes near Divan-i Humayun is “Dış Hazine Dairesi (The Office of the External Treasury).” Official treasure of the state was kept in this building which was built at the time of Sultan Mehmet II. Today, a precious collection composed of the best war equipment selected from approximately 52,000 pieces of weaponry used in the Ottoman army is displayed in this building. It is possible to see in the collection the swords of Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs dating back between 7th and 13th centuries, weapons of Mamluk sultans dating back to 14th and 16th centuries, European, Iranian, Crimean and Tatar weapons captured during wars.
Weapons of the greatest Ottoman sultans like Sultan Mehmet II, Beyazit II, Yavuz Sultan Selim, and Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent are the most precious pieces of this collection.
Babu’s-Sa’adah (The Gate of Bliss) and Enderun
So to speak, the area in which the heart of the Ottoman Palace is beaten starts after this gate. The section that one enters passing through Babu’s-Sa’adah is called Enderun area of the palace. Even grand vizier cannot come through this gate without getting called from inside or permission of sultan.
This is special place for sultan to spend time during the day. All people found here are special manservants of sultan.
Behind Babu’s-Sa’adah, the large Enderun rooms are found on the right side and small ones are on the left side.
Enderun, at the same time, was a palace school. The most talented young boys selected from all corners of the country used to be admitted to this school as students. Besides getting the most qualified education across the country, they used to be brought up in this school according to palace manners.
Many high-ranking government officials such as grand viziers, fleet admirals, janissary commanders, sancak governors were educated at this school. Not only statesmen but also many poets, painters, architects and musicians were trained and many scholars of history, science and math got their education at Enderun.
Arz Odası (the Sultan’s Audience Hall)
Right after the entry to the third courtyard of Topkapı Palace, a room appears. This is “the Sultan’s Audience Hall called Arz Odası,” which was built by Fatih Sultan Mehmed.
After divan meetings, Grand Vizier and viziers used to report the decisions taken at the meeting to sultan in this hall. Moreover, when a foreign ambassador came to Ottoman lands, if they were accepted to the presence of the sultan, they would meet sultan in this hall.
During the meetings in Arz Odası, taps on the room walls would be turned on. Melodious sound of water filling the room would prevent what is discussed in the room to be heard outside.
There were some protocols that needed to be followed by the ambassadors. While entering the presence of the sultan, two of the gatekeepers would hold from the ambassadors’ arms. When he got inside, he had to salute the sultan three times in three places. While speaking to sultan, they were not allowed to make eye contact with the sultan and look directly at his face. They could speak looking down to the ground, standing still, and their hands attached in their fronts.
Library of Sultan Ahmed III
The library built by Sultan Ahmed III is in the building right behind the Sultan’s Audience Hall. It was built in 1718 by Sultan Ahmet III who himself was a calligrapher and famous for his passion for books.
Its walls are plated with elegant tiles. Its door leaves and window sashes are among the best examples of Ottoman nacre carving. How beautiful the poem penned by Sultan Ahmed III placed on the wall of the library is:
“Eşhedü en la ilâhe ilallah
Yaptım bu makâmı li-merzâtillâh
Okundukça tefâsir ü ehâdis
Şefaattir ümîdim yâ Resûlullâh”
“I bear witness that there is no god but Allah
I built this place for the sake of Allah
So long as exegesis and sayings of the Prophet are studied in it,
Your intercession is my hope, O Messenger of Allah!”
Seferli Koğuşu (The Dormitory of the Expeditionary Force)
The building located on the right side of the third courtyard is called Seferli Koğuşu. The Dormitory of the Expeditionary Force (Seferli Koğuşu) was originally constructed in 1635 by Sultan Murat IV. The old Expeditionary Force Ward consisted of the fountain in front of the Sultan’s Hamam, a bath, a small mosque and the actual dormitory. The building was torn down and rebuilt by Sultan Ahmet III in 1719, in the course of the construction of the Enderûn Library.
Seferli Koğuşu was one of the classes of Enderun School. Students of this class were responsible for the order, cleaning, and tidiness of Enderun. They cleaned the clothes and took care of the laundry of Enderun members.
Today, Ottoman sultans’ clothes are exhibited in this building. One may see in this building the collection of imperial wardrobe that are woven at the palace looms, embroidered with silk, gold, and silver, and are the most valuable examples of their kind.
The Adornment of Yavuz
Sultan Yavuz lived a simple life. Since he slept little and used to spend his nights by reading book. He used to eat just one kind of dish at every meal in a wooden plate. One day when he saw his son Suleyman well dressed up, he said to him:
– “My son, you adorned yourself so much that you did not leave anything for your mother to wear.”
He used to wear in a very simple way.
-“Dressing ornately and resplendently is nothing but a burden. Why do we bear this burden in vein?” he used to say.
He used to wear a cloth until it wore off. All statesmen had to act in this way. Once, the news arrived that the ambassador of Venice was going to come to Istanbul and visit the sultan. Thereupon, viziers felt the need to change their clothes and informed Yavuz via grand vizier. Sultan Selim said:
“Yes, it is appropriate.”
On the day of the arrival of the ambassador, all viziers wearing new clothes came to the presence of sultan. However, they could not believe their eyes, because Yavuz had his old clothes on him. He sat in his throne, drew his sharp sword and put on the stairs of the throne. Its glare was dazzling under sunlight coming through the window. In the face of the situation, all viziers were ashamed of their clothes.
After meeting finished and the ambassador went out, Yavuz said to the grand vizier:
– O pasha! Go and ask the ambassador of what he thought about us.
The grand vizier reported impressions of the ambassador:
– My Sultan! Venice ambassador said, “Glare of his sword dazzled me so much that I could not even see the sultan.”
Yavuz smiled, pointed to the sword by his forefinger and said:
– See, so long as our sword blade is sharp, unbelievers cannot take their eyes off it and cannot see us. May Allah forbid, one day if it gets blunt and does not shine, then unbelievers will despise us and look down on us. (Osman Nuri TOPBAŞ, Abide Şahsiyetleri ve Müesseseleriyle Osmanlı, p. 162-163)
Fatih Köşkü (The Mansion of Fatih)
This department was built by Fatih Sultan Mehmed in 1478. It is one of the places having the most beautiful views in the palace.
The most precious pieces of the palace treasury exhibited in the four rooms of the mansion constitute one of the most valuable collections of the world.
While the treasury building in the second courtyard was official treasure of the state, this one was “the Treasury of Enderun.” The share of the sultan from the war spoils would be transferred to this treasury. The valuable presents given to the sultan would also be kept in this building. Both palace expenses and the sultan’s charitable (building mosques, fountain, school etc.) and private expenses used to be covered from this treasure. When the state treasury was short for money because of reasons like war, the sultan would transfer money from his private treasury to the state treasury. This treasury used to be sealed with the seal of Yavuz Sultan Selim. Sultan had the following bequest:
“Whoever from my predecessors (those who come after me) fills up with mangır (copper money) this treasury which I have filled up with gold, let the treasure be sealed with his seal, otherwise let’s continue to seal it with my seal.”
The golden throne exhibited in the first room was given to Sultan Murat III as a gift by Ibrahim Pasha. This throne was used by the sultans during the feast celebrations in the following years. Sultan Ahmed I’s throne which was adorned with ivory, nacre and precious jewels is one of the most beautiful examples of wood engraving. Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, the architect of Sultan Ahmet Mosque, was the master of this beautiful piece.
The throne made from ebony-tree and adorned with ivory and nacre carvings was used by Sultan Murad IV during Baghdad Campaign. Another important piece exhibited in this hall is a throne considered to belong to Shah Ismail. This throne was given to Sultan Mahmud I as a gift by Nadir Shah. Again, plumes adorned with valuable jewels used by the sultans and throne hangers adorned with jewels are kept in this room. In the second room, beautiful Russian-Chinese-Iranian-Indian handicrafts and state medallions are exhibited.
Precious pieces made of jade-stone, zinc, and pebble are exhibited in the third hall. Two big candlesticks found in this room had been made for the grave of the Prophet (pbuh). Each of them is 48 kg solid gold and adorned with diamonds. During the First World War, they were brought to Istanbul in order to be protected against the danger of invasion of Medina.
In the fourth room, ceremonial swords, valuable daggers, ornaments and rings are found. Topkapı Hançeri (Topkapı Dagger) and Kaşıkçı Elması (Kaşıkçı Diamond) which are from the most favorite pieces of the palace are exhibited in this hall.
Topkapı Dagger, which is adorned with very valuable diamonds and emeralds, was sent to Nadir Shah as a gift by Sultan Mahmud I. After the death of Shah, it turned back to treasury of Topkapı Palace.
86 carat Kaşıkçı Diamond adorned with 49 diamonds is 22nd biggest diamond of the world. Likewise, the golden cradle adorned with valuable stones and Sultan Mustafa III’s armor exhibited in this hall are among the most beautiful pieces of the palace treasury.
The balcony with shadirwan which links the third room of Fatih Köşkü to the fourth room has a gorgeous view of Istanbul.
Has Oda (Private Room) and the Department of Mukaddes Emanetler (Sacred Relics)
This section built by Fatih Sultan Mehmed was the private department of sultan in palace. Because of the şadirvan found in the entrance, the first part was called “Şadirvanli Sofa (the hall with şadirvan).” The platform across the Hall with shadirvan was the section where sultan used to rest. The room on the left side of it is “Destimal Odası (Destimal Room)” which was the dorm of Has Odalı Enderun students (Enderun students of Has Oda).
The room on the right side of the Hall with shadivan is known as “Arzhane.” The sultan used to read his letters and meet people whom he accepted in this room. Its walls are covered with very valuable Iznik and Kutahya tiles. 38th – 44th verses of chapter al-Ahzab (33) are written around the dome:
“[Hence,] no blame whatever attaches to the Prophet for [having done] what Allah has ordained for him. [Indeed, such was] Allah’s way with those that have passed away aforetime and [remember that] Allah’s will is always destiny absolute; [and such will always be His way with] those who convey Allah’s messages [to the world], and stand in awe of Him, and hold none but Allah in awe: for none can take count [of man’s doings] as Allah does! [And know, O believers, that] Muhammad is not the father of any one of your men, but is Allah’s Apostle and the Seal of all Prophets. And Allah has indeed full knowledge of everything. And ever is Allah all-Knowing. O you who have attained to faith! Remember Allah with unceasing remembrance. and extol His limitless glory from morn to evening. He it is who bestows His blessings upon you, with His angels [echoing Him], so that He might take you out of the depths of darkness into the light. And, indeed, a dispenser of grace is He unto the believers.”
The gate in Arzhane on which “Assalamu alaika ya Habiballah (peace be upon you o Beloved of Allah!)” is written opens to the most important room of the palace: Has Oda which is at the same time throne room. 45th – 47th verses of Chapter al-Ahzab (33) are written on its dome:
“[And as for thee,] O Prophet – behold, We have sent thee as a witness [to the truth], and as a herald of glad tidings and a warner, and as one who summons [all men] to Allah by His leave, and as a light-giving beacon. And [so,] convey to the believers the glad tiding that a great bounty from Allah awaits them.”
Its walls are covered with the most beautiful Iznik tiles. Qasida al-Burdah written by Imam al-Busiri to praise the Prophet (pbuh) is written on tile boards.
Sultan would spend the most important part of his daytime in this room of the palace. A team of forty people selected from Enderun students was appointed as special servants of the sultan him. Servants of Has Oda were at the same time the highest class students at Enderun and known as Agha (master) of Has Oda in the palace. The masters of Has Oda were known to be the closest people to sultan.
With the conquest of Egypt by Yavuz Sultan Selim, the office of the caliphate passed to Ottomans. The sacred relics found in Egypt, Mecca, and Medina were brought to Istanbul and taken under preservation in this room.
There is a covered throne on the left side of Has Oda. This throne was ordered to the palace head jeweler Derviş Zılli Mehmed Effendi by Sultan Murad IV. Derviş Mehmed was the father of worldwide known traveler Evliya Çelebi.
Sultan’s son who were to ascend to the throne and be the sultan used to perform two rak’ah (cycles) prayer, say invocations, and sit on the throne in Has Oda before cülus ceremony (the ceremony of ascending to throne). Şeyhülislam and Sadrazam (Grand Vizier) used to pledge loyalty (bay’ah) to him in this room. This custom continued until Sultan Mahmud II. During the time of Sultan Mahmud II, two sides of this throne were covered with silver grids and started to be used for preservation of Hirka-i Şerif (the Honorable Mantle of the Prophet) and Sacred Relics. For this reason, Has Oda is also known as Hirka-i Saadet Dairesi (the Department of the Mantle of Happiness).
Has Oda and the Department of Sacred Relics is the home of the most precious treasures of the world. These priceless pieces that we will cite some of them below are treasures of paradise kept in Topkapı Palace:
Our Beloved Prophet’s (pbuh) sword and bow.
Blessed beard of the Prophet (pbuh), his sandals and blessed footprint.
The letters written by the command of our Beloved Prophet (pbuh) to invite the rulers of the time to Islam, and his seal.
The blessed mantle of our Beloved Prophet (pbuh) which was preserved in the Department of Hirka-i Saadet.
The Noble Qur’an that Caliph Uthman was reading at the time that he was martyred.
Swords of the four caliphs and some other prominent Companions of the Prophet (pbuh).
Cover of the Ka’bah, its keys and golden gutters.
Forty students of Has Oda were responsible for all kinds of services of this room like maintenance and cleaning. These servants who at the same time knew the whole Qur’an by heart did not only take care of cleaning, but also would recite chapters from the Qur’an alternately for twenty-four hours in the Department of Sacred Relics. When it was his turn, Yavuz Sultan Selim Khan also recited the Qur’an in this room as one of these forty people throughout his life.
The Department of Hirka-i Saadet would be specially cleaned in the month of Ramadan and opened to public visits. It was visited by all high-ranking officials of the palace and notable scholars of the time. It would also be visited by the sultan himself during the last ten days of Ramadan and at the Night of Qadr.
The high floor covered with marble and found on the left side of the entrance of Has Oda attracts attention. This area was the place where the final preparations for the funeral of the deceased sultans were made.
Before his ascension to throne, the last Ottoman Sultan Mehmed Vahdeddin VI saw the body of his elder brother Sultan Mehmed Reşad V lying in his coffin in this place and said the following noteworthy words:
– (I have learned that) how short the distance between throne and teneshir (the bench on which the body of the deceased is washed) is … (Hilmi AYDIN, Hirka-i Saadet Dairesi ve Mukaddes Emanetler, p. 49)
There is a well with marble collet near this platform which served as the teneshir for sultans. The dust swept from the Department of Sacred Relics during its cleaning used to be thrown in this well in order to protect it not to be stepped on it.
In Topkapı Palace
While taking a walk in Revan Köşkü (Revan Mansion), I heard the sound of recitation of the Qur’an coming from the depths. Islamic architecture was lying in front of me. Because, the sound of recitation of the Qur’an at the reading desk is certainly necessary to add Islamic architecture a spirit. Without the sound of the Qur’an, this architecture appears weak. I expressed my opinion to my guide Lutfi Bey and asked from where this sound of Qur’an was coming. He said that it was from the Department of Hirka-i Saadet. I slowly approached to the window of the room where the sound was coming. I looked and saw a hafiz of the Qur’an in a green, very green, spiritual room turned his back to the window and was reciting the Qur’an like a resting spirit engrossed in the other world; the other hafiz closed his eyes and was waiting on a corner by chanting the names of Allah with beads.
I asked my guide Lutfi Bey when the recitation of the whole Qur’an was completed (khatim) in Hirka-i Saadet? Lutfi Bey said smiling: “Every day! Every hour! For the last four hundred years, during days and nights without any break…”
Being amazed, I was listening with my eyes closed. Lutfi Bey gave some information:
“Yavuz Sultan Selim brought Hirka-i Serif, Sened-i Serif and other Sacred Relics which are the signs of the office of the caliphate to Istanbul along with the recitations of the Qur’an. In the night that he came to Istanbul, he placed them on a high place. He waited standing until morning regardless of his campaign fatigue while the head architect and workers were continuously building the place for the sacred relics. That night, he established the task of recitation of the Qur’an during nights and days and designated forty hafizes of the Qur’an being himself the forth one. From that day on, the Qur’an was recited without any break in this department. Now, the number of hafizes is forty. They fulfill their duty alternately in twos. Today is the turn of the two hafizes you saw.”
Tonight, at this hour, while I am writing these lines the Qur’an is being recited, in the Department of Hirka-i Saadet! For four hundred years, it has been recited in this way without any break.
From that day on, this thought has been swinging like a pendulum in my memory. From that day on, I came to know what a strong ground the caliphate has in Turkish heart. I did not know the sound of the Qur’an continuing for four centuries such a near place in Istanbul. Many Turks, even many people of Istanbul do not know. None of the revolutions, incidents, or fights that took place in this palace could stop the sound of the Qur’an, not even a moment. After realizing this event, I got closer to understand why our enemies could not drive us out of Istanbul. (Yahya Kemal BEYATLI, Aziz İstanbul, p. 116-177.)
Baghdad and Revan Mansions
One can pass from the third courtyard of the palace to the fourth one through a beautiful hallway. This hallway is very beautiful yard. The two mansions located in this yard were built by Sultan Murad IV.
Revan Mansion was built in 1636 in memory of Sultan Murad’s victory in Revan (Erivan) expedition. The Sacred Relics in Has Oda and the Department of Hirka-i Saadet were temporarily kept in Revan Mansion during the annual cleaning of these places in Ramadan. Huzur classes (the classes held in the presence of the sultan) during winter months were held in Revan Mansion. The mansion was also used as the library of Has Oda for a while.
Likewise, Baghdad Mansion was built in 1639 in memory of the second conquest of Baghdad during the period of Sultan Murad IV. Baghdad Mansion is considered the best example of Turkish mansion (köşk) architecture. The silver brazier in the mansion was given as a gift by French king Louis XIV.
As understood from its name, Iftariye Mansion, which overlooks one of the best views of Bosporus, was a place where sultan’s iftar tables (tables to break fasting) of used to be set in some evenings of the month of Ramadan. It was built by Sultan Ibrahim I in 1640. Sultan used to celebrate feast that coincided with summer months with Enderun students in this mansion.
Enderun Ağalar Mosque and Sofa Mosque
There are two mosques in the palace. One of them is Ağalar Mosque in Enderun. It was built by Sultan Mehmed II. It serves as the palace library today. Topkapı Palace Library in which many books are kept today is one of the most precious manuscript libraries in the world.
The other mosque in the palace is Sofa Mosque which is located in the fourth courtyard. This mosque built by Sultan Mahmud II is among the best places in the palace. It is also a nice thing that it is open for visits and worship.
Sofa Mansion and Hekimbaşı (Head Physician’s) Room
It is also known as Kara Mustafa Pasha Mansion since it was built during the period of grand vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha in 1676-1683. It is known that Sultan Ahmed III liked this mansion very much. The sultan sometimes had his meals in this mansion. This mansion also became the place for meetings of poem recitation and halwa (dessert) during the Tulip Age.
The bronze brazier found in the mansion was given as a gift to Sultan Mahmud I by French king Louis XV.
Even if it was undergone some changes from time to time, the original form of Hekimbaşı Room goes back to the time of Sultan Mehmed II. Because the building is also called Baş Lala Kulesi (Head Lala (Tutor) Tower), it is known that it was in the shape of a tower at first.
This place was used by the head doctor responsible for healthcare of sultan and his family. The drugs and medicine needed for treatment used to be produced in this room by the head doctor.
Harem is the third section of Topkapı Palace that comes after Birun and Enderun (parts). We can say that harem is the most misinterpreted section of Topkapı Palace because of groundless and false information about it. During the early periods when Topkapı Palace was built, there was no Harem section in it. The sultan’s family was living in the palace known “the Old Palace” in Beyazıt. In the period of Kanuni Sultan Suleyman (the Magnificent), harem section was started to be established.
When an Ottoman Sultan was in the palace, as he spent his daytime in Enderun, he spent the rest of day in Harem after a tiring day. Harem was the part of the palace where the sultan’s family lived. Sultan’s mother, his sisters, daughters, sons, and female servants in service of his family resided in harem.
In the shortest sense, we can describe Harem as Enderun built for the women of the palace. Because every female servant in the palace was also a student of Harem which can be considered the female section of the palace school as Enderun was the male section. Women would take lessons of reading, writing, music, and other subjects in various branches of art in harem.
Harem was a school in which families of prospective statesmen, who were educated in Enderun, were raised. Just as in Enderun, the students of Harem used to be selected among prominent young women known with their intelligence and beauty. 5 to 16 year-old students taken to harem used to be educated in much disciplined manner and trained in accordance with palace manners.
Harem used to be managed by the sultan’s mother or Valide (Mother) Sultan.
When the ruling sultan died, his wife and daughters used to be sent to the Old Palace in Beyazıt. A Valide Sultan who was sent to the Old Palace used to turn back to harem of Topkapı Palace with a great ceremony when his other son ascended to throne.
Harem section of the palace is composed of more than 300 rooms linked to each other with hallways and placed around small inner courts. It has 46 toilets, 12 chest rooms, 9 bathrooms, 4 kitchens, 6 storerooms and a pool.
Harem was completely closed to outside. Strangers were not allowed to enter there. For this reason, it was given the name of “harem,” which means in Arabic “prohibited area.”
Harem just a section of which is open to visits today consists of two parts; downstairs and upstairs. Gözdes and ikbals (favorite) women stayed upstairs. This place is entered through the gate called “kuşhane (aviary) gate” found in the second courtyard of the palace. Above the road called “golden road,” there are the rooms of “the master of Dar al-Sa’adah” and other harem masters who were under his command. Likewise, one may see upstairs the rooms of Sultan Abdulhamit I, Sultan Osman III and Sultan Ahmed III. “Veliaht Dairesi (Crown Prince Apartment)” which is found in this part is famous for its tiles.
Downstairs, there is “Cariyeler Avlusu (the Courtyard of Female Servants)” descended through “Kırk Merdiven (the Forty Stairs).” On the two sides of this yard there are the rooms of the female servants. In the farthest hall, there are “Cariyeler Hastanesi (the Hospital of Female Servants)”, gasilhane (the room in which the bodies of the deceased are washed) and meyyid gate (the gate of the deceased) through which the bodies were taken out of the palace.
The part allocated to mother of the sultan in the harem consists of many rooms. Allocating the largest and the most beautiful part of harem to sultan’s mother is a sign of how much sultan loved and respected his mother.
The large bathroom and wide “Hünkar Sofası (the Sultan Hall)” with dome found in harem were presumably built during the ruling of Sultan Murad III. It was heavily damaged in a fire in 1665 and then repaired. The building today is the restored one built during the time of Sultan Osman III. Its walls are adorned with gorgeous fountains. Tiles of the walls are 18th century Netherland tiles.
Sultan Murad III’s Has Oda is another one of the most beautiful rooms of Harem. It was built by Mimar (Architect) Sinan in 1579. Walls of the room are covered with 16th century Iznik (Nicene) tiles. On one of the walls, a fountain is found which is one of the most beautiful examples of its kind. There is a very beautiful pool under this room. The rooms of Sultan Ahmed I and Sultan Ahmed III come after this hall.
The room of Sultan Ahmed III (1703-1730), or the sultan of Tulip Age, was also called “Yemiş Odası (the Fruit Room)” since it was decorated with flower patterns.
Şehzade Dairesi (the Prince Department) and Veliahd Dairesi (the Crown Prince Room) found in Harem are the monuments of 17th century.
The part which is called the Golden Road occupies an important place in Harem’s plan. This part goes back to the time of Sultan Mehmed II. Harem was built with expansions around this hallway. This was called “the Golden Road” because the sultan used to scatter gold money to the people of harem while passing through it during the special occasions.
The following words of İlber Ortaylı one of the well-known Turkish historians about Harem are very meaningful:
“Life in Harem was not that much easy. It is very obvious that those people, who carelessly speak about Harem among the community, do not know and understand the difficult life in Harem and also the cultural environment created by talented and intelligent women in harem. They inconsiderately and ignorantly disrespect a community in history.
Harem was not a place of amusement. It was a house before anything else. It should be respected at least as the house of any family. Harem Department of Topkapı Palace should be a place studied beforehand and then visited in a silent and respectful manner.” (İlber ORTAYLI, Son İmparatorluk Osmanlı, p. 79)