Step into the shoes of the sultans with a visit to Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, first built in 1453 as a private home and administrative centre for one of Turkey’s most iconic leaders, Mehmet the Conqueror. As notorious for his autocratic nature as his military skill, this stunning palace acted as Mehmet’s city-within-a-city, his own personal playground.
From within these walls, successive Ottoman sultans then continued to rule over their realms for hundreds of years. As they did, each added their own unique stamp to its structure - a new grand hall here, another gatehouse there. The result is a patchwork of styles, each grander than the last and yet not out of place, that seem to trace Turkey through time.
Built directly on top of the Byzantine acropolis that previously stood in its place, Topkapi Palace is surrounded by three bodies of water: the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. With the site once covering an incredible 700,000 square metres, the land side was also equipped with city walls stretching for over 5 kilometres.
The offices where the deals of the day would once have been done are strategically arranged around the palace’s perfectly primed courtyards and manicured gardens. Major renovations were carried out after an earthquake which devastated the city in 1509, and after a fire in 1665, and the royal court was eventually moved to the Dolmabahçe Palace in the mid 1800s. Nonetheless, Topkapi continued to function as the treasury and mint.
Following the collapse of the Ottoman empire in the early 1920s, the palace was transformed into the museum that you see today, although much like the structure itself this has been added to and updated over time. In addition to the incredible buildings, items on display include armour, weapons, precious manuscripts and clothing.
With spectacular sweeping views over the water, a rabbit-warren of rooms to explore and beautiful landscaped gardens to relax in, spending the best part of an entire day here will be no challenge at all. Keep an eye open for the palace’s unique trees, the trunks of which have been completely hollowed out over the course of centuries by a fungus.
Walking around, you can’t help but be in awe of the wealth and opulence on display; from spoons to swords, everything seems to be dripping in jewels and garnished in gold. Remember to look up too, because the religious relics, intricate architecture and famously elaborate tile work continue seamlessly onto the ceilings and arches above.
It’s worth paying a little extra to visit the Harem area, a vast complex spread over six floors, although only one of these can be visited at present. Here, the sultan would house hundreds of women at any one time - including his legal wives and many mistresses - few of whom would ever be allowed to leave again. More than just sleeping quarters, the Harem also features Turkish baths, private apartments for the queen mother, and even a dedicated circumcision room.
The palace itself is part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul group, a collection of attractions and areas within the city that have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
It is also within walking distance of many of Istanbul’s most famous sights, with the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (otherwise known as the Blue Mosque) and Hagia Sophia both less than a 15 minute stroll away.
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