Topkapı is the subject of more colourful stories than most of the world's museums put together. Libidinous sultans, ambitious courtiers, beautiful concubines and scheming eunuchs lived and worked here between the 15th and 19th centuries when it was the court of the Ottoman empire. A visit to the palace's opulent pavilions, jewel-filled Treasury and sprawling Harem gives a fascinating glimpse into their lives.
Mehmet the Conqueror built the first stage of the palace shortly after the Conquest in 1453, and lived here until his death in 1481. Subsequent sultans lived in this rarefied environment until the 19th century, when they moved to the ostentatious European-style palaces they built on the shores of the Bosphorus.
Before you enter the palace's Imperial Gate (Bab-ı Hümayun), take a look at the ornate structure in the cobbled square just outside. This is the rococo-style Fountain of Sultan Ahmet III, built in 1728 by the sultan who so favoured tulips.
The main ticket office is in the First Court, just before the gate to the Second Court.
Pass through the Imperial Gate into the First Court, which is known as the Court of the Janissaries or the Parade Court. On your left is the Byzantine church of Hagia Eirene, more commonly known as Aya İrini.
The Middle Gate (Ortakapı or Bab-üs Selâm) led to the palace’s Second Court, used for the business of running the empire. In Ottoman times, only the sultan and the valide sultan (mother of the sultan) were allowed through the Middle Gate on horseback. Everyone else, including the grand vizier, had to dismount.
The Second Court has a beautiful park-like setting. Unlike typical European palaces, which feature one large building with outlying gardens, Topkapı is a series of pavilions, kitchens, barracks, audience chambers, kiosks and sleeping quarters built around a central enclosure.
The great Palace Kitchens on the right (east) as you enter incorporate a dedicated Helvahane (confectionery kitchen). They hold a small portion of Topkapı’s vast collection of Chinese celadon porcelain, valued by the sultans for its beauty but also because it was reputed to change colour if touched by poisoned food.
On the left (west) side of the Second Court is the ornate Imperial Council Chamber (Dîvân-ı Hümâyûn). The council met here to discuss matters of state, and the sultan sometimes eavesdropped through the gold grille high in the wall. The room to the right showcases clocks from the palace collection.
North of the Imperial Council Chamber is the Outer Treasury, where an impressive collection of Ottoman and European arms and armour is displayed.
The entrance to the Harem is beneath the Tower of Justice on the western side of the Second Court. If you decide to visit – and we highly recommend that you do – you'll need to buy a dedicated ticket. The visitor route through the Harem changes when rooms are closed for restoration or stabilisation, so some of the areas mentioned here may not be open during your visit.
As popular belief would have it, the Harem was a place where the sultan could engage in debauchery at will. In more prosaic reality, these were the imperial family quarters, and every detail of Harem life was governed by tradition, obligation and ceremony. The word 'harem' literally means 'forbidden' or 'private'.
The sultans supported as many as 300 concubines in the Harem, although numbers were usually lower than this. Upon entering the Harem, the girls would be schooled in Islam and in Turkish culture and language, as well as the arts of make-up, dress, comportment, music, reading, writing, embroidery and dancing. They then entered a meritocracy, first as ladies-in-waiting to the sultan's concubines and children, then to the valide sultan and finally – if they were particularly attractive and talented – to the sultan himself.