Topkapi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı) is undoubtedly one of Istanbul’s top tourist attractions. Strategically located on Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu) in the historical part of Istanbul, it has been the heart of the Ottoman Empire and the residence of the sultans and their women of the Harem for over three centuries, until Sultan Abdülmecid in 1853 decided to move the court to the Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı).
Topkapi Palace, directly translated as Cannongate Palace, is located on Seraglio Point, a promontory overlooking the Marmara Sea, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus and therefore a natural strategic location. The palace is located directly behind the Hagia Sophia, and was built on the same spot where the acropolis of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium stood. Some of its remains are still visible inside the palace.
Initial construction and layout
Mehmet the Conqueror (Fatih Sultan Mehmet) ordered the construction of the palace in 1459, shortly after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Mehmet the Conqueror established the basic layout of the palace. He summoned experienced artisans and used the most expensive and rare materials of that time in an attempt to restore the city’s former glory.
Rather than a single building, it consisted of a series of pavilions contained by four immense courtyards. (see ground plan in part 2). It was a stone version of the tented encampments from which the nomadic Ottomans had emerged. Contrary to other royal residences that had strict master plans, Topkapi Palace developed over the course of centuries, with various sultans adding and changing various parts.
Renovations were also carried out after the 1509 earthquake and the 1665 fire. The final version of the palace covered an area of 700.000 m² and was home to as many as 4.000 people.
Topkapi Palace was the official residence of the Ottoman sultans since Mehmet the Conqueror until the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid (Sultan Abdulmajid) in 1853. For a 400-year period, the palace was the administrative, educational and cultural center of the Ottoman Empire. Initially, the palace served as the seat of government and imperial residence. It contained a school in which civil servants and soldiers were trained, dormitories, gardens, libraries and even mosques. Access was strictly regulated and inhabitants of the palace rarely had to venture out since the palace functioned as an autonomous entity, a city within the city.
In 1853 Sultan Abdülmecid abandoned Topkapi Palace in favor of Dolmahbahçe Palace (Dolmahbahçe Sarayı). From that moment on, the sultans no longer resided in Topkapi Palace. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the foundation of the Turkish Republic, upon the order of Atatürk, the palace started to serve as a museum on 3 April 1924, consisting of an area of 100.000 m², 200.000 archived documents, 86.000 antics and 20 exhibition halls.
You need at least half a day to explore the palace, but you can easily wander around in it for a whole day and get your money’s worth.
The entrance to the palace is via the Imperial Gate (Bab-ı Hümayun), erected by Sultan Fatih in 1478. This massive gate is now covered in 19th century marble and decorated with verses from the Holy Koran and with niches that were used to display the severed heads of rebels and criminals.
The gate leads to the first of a series of four courts that become more private the deeper you penetrate into the complex. The First Courtyard, also known as the Court of the Janissaries or Parade Court, functioned as an outer precinct or park.
Off to the left there is the church of Haghia Irene (Aya İrini Kilisesi), the city’s only church of the pre-Ottoman era that was never turned into a mosque. Furthermore, the First Courtyard contains the former Imperial Mint (Darphane-i Amire), the magnificent Istanbul Archaeological Museums (Arkeologi Müzeleri) and various pavilions and fountains, such as the Fountain of the Executioner, next to the ticket windows. Here the executioner washed his hands and sword after a decapitation.
Janissaries (infantry units that formed the Ottoman sultans’ household troops and bodyguard) and merchants could circulate freely in the Court of the Janissaries, but the Second Courtyard was restricted. Today this is still very much the case, since you must buy a ticket to enter the palace and its other three courtyards.
Tickets can be purchased online or directly before entering the museum. Entrance to the museum is also included in the Museum Pass and the Istanbul Tourist Pass (with guide). To enter the Harem and the Hagia Irene church you must purchase separate tickets (not available online).
There is no guide in the museum but the visitors may rent an audio guide. It is available in 14 languages including Turkish, German, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. You should know that taking photos in the display halls is forbidden and baby strollers are not allowed in the museum. Have this in mind while planning your trip.
Take my advice and come early! Queues can be lengthy, certainly if cruise-ships entered Istanbul’s harbor. I always go 15 minutes before opening, buy my ticket upfront, and head straightaway to the Harem ticket box. This way I’m sure I’ll be able to visit the Harem (the amount of visitors per day is restricted) and I don’t have to stand in line with the sun scorching my head.