Topkapı Sarayı served as the Ottoman imperial palace from the late fifteenth/ninth century AH to the nineteenth/ thirteenth century AH. Sultan Mehmed II "the conqueror" (
r. 1444-1446, 1451-1481/848-850, 855-886 AH) ordered the palace to be built as a replacement for his first palace, which he had constructed on the site of a monastery and the 4th century Forum Tauri of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I. The first palace became known as the Old Palace (Eski Saray), and was eventually demolished to make way for the Süleymaniye complex. Mehmed II's second palace was originally called
The New Imperial Palace (Saray-i Cedid-i Amire), but eventually took the name Topkapı Sarayı, meaning "Palace of the Canon-Gate." Construction began on Topkapı in 1459/863 AH and ended in 1473/878. Several significant renovations took place, first in the sixteenth/tenth century AH, and then again after the complex was damaged in two fires. The palace remained the residence of the Ottomans and the main stage upon which their imperial pomp was displayed until Abdülmecid I abandoned the palace in 1853 for the newly constructed Dolmabahçe Palace
Palace was restored in the 1950s by the Palace Museum Administration and is open to visitors.
The palace sits atop Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu), a hill at the tip of the historic peninsula of Istanbul and the site of the city's most ancient acropolis. The site affords sweeping views to the east and south, where the waters of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus Strait, and the Golden Horn come together. The hillside, sloping down toward the waters, was terraced in three levels incorporating the Byzantine retaining walls.
As it was first constructed, the core of the palace consisted of an agglomeration of buildings arranged around two courtyards, built on the plateau at the top of the hill along an axis running southwest to northeast. The first of the two courtyards housed government and judiciary buildings, and the second was reserved for the royal residence and palace school. A land wall or fortress, two and a half kilometers in length, was built around this agglomeration, forming a vast garden zone around the palace core where kiosks were built with views of the city and waters. A section of this garden zone on the southwest side of the grounds, lying between the "front" walls (located directly behind Hagia Sophia) and the gate to the courtyard housing government and judiciary buildings was enclosed to form a forecourt to the administrative core. This became known as the "first court," while the government and judiciary courtyard became known as the "second court," and the residential courtyard, furthest northeast, became known as the "third court." The area behind (to the northeast) of the third court, which included terraced gardens and kiosks overlooking the water, became known as the "fourth court." The Harem, the living quarters of the palace women that extends along the western walls of the second and third courts, was expanded through the centuries as the Sultans added their own apartment to the complex.
The First Court:
The First Court
is entered through the Imperial Gate
(Bab-i Humayun), which is located in the enclosure walls on the southwestern end of the grounds, directly behind Hagia Sophia. The gate remained open at all times when the court was not in use for a hunting party and was guarded by soldiers who resided in barracks inside the gate. This court consists of a large tree-filled green space with a few service buildings. One of these is the Byzantine Church of Hagia Irene, which the Ottomans used as an armory. Another was the Royal Mint (Dar'ül-Zarb-i Enderuni or Darphane-i Amire). Both of these buildings remain today. Aside from these, the First Court had barracks of employees in outer palace services (birun
), the Hospital of the Pages and Janissaries, stables, warehouses, workshops, a woodyard and a market where produce from palace gardens were on sale for all. Used also by those who desired to hand petitions to the Divan, the first court was the site of most royal ceremonies.
The Second Court
Entrance to the Second Court
is through the Middle Gate (also called the Gate of Salutation or Bab-ül-Salaam) constructed at the beginning of the palace's life during the reign of Mehmed II. The gate was refurbished by Murad III in the late 16th century and no longer has its original gilded doors or portico. The court, enclosed on all four sides by halls with porticoes, has had little altered since the sixteenth/tenth century AH. To the left, the Stable Court (Has Ahır Meydanı) and the Barracks of the Halberdiers with Tresses (Zülüflü Baltacılar Koğuşu) - who, among other things, supplied burning wood for the Harem - are located next to the Carriage Gate (Araba Kapısı) of the Harem flanked by the Divan Hall and the Outer Treasury (Dış
Hazine). The Imperial Kitchens (Mutfaklar) occupy the right side of the courtyard. The courtyard was once arranged as a miniature wood where gazelles, peacocks and ostriches were allowed to roam free.
The Third Court:
The Third Court
houses the palace school for pages (enderun), the sultan's headquarters and his treasury. It is entered through the Gate of Felicity (Bab'üs Saadet) that was guarded by the White Eunuchs. Their barracks and the dormitories of the new students used to flank the gate prior to a fire in 1856; they have since been rebuilt as offices. The Sultan met the members of the Divan every day in the Chamber of Petitions (Arz Odası), a large hall with a portico located immediately behind the gate. To the left are the Aviary Gate of the Harem and the exclusive kitchen of the Sultan next to the Mosque of the Aghas, which had separate sections for the pages and the harem women. Preceding the Royal Pavilion of Mehmed II (Has Oda) on the corner is the Dormitory of the 39 Senior Pages (Has Odalılar Koğuşu) who performed personal services for the Sultan. The Royal Pavilion was used for the safeguarding of the Holy Mantle and other relics of the prophet brought from Cairo by Selim I (1512-1520) after sultans moved their apartments from here into the harem following the second half of the 16th century. Across the courtyard from the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle is the Inner Treasury (Iç Hazine) or the Kiosk of Mehmed II. Royal treasures were stored here and in an adjoining room that previously belonged to the Pages' Hamam that Ahmed I (1603-1617) had replaced by a dormitory for the expeditionary force, known as Campaign Hall (Seferli Koğuşu). The three-story Library of Ahmed III occupies the center of the courtyard where the Pool Pavilion (Havuzlu Kösk) once stood. Dormitories of senior students in charge of the treasury and the cellars, The Hall of the Treasury (Hazine-i Hümayun Hademeleri Koğuşu) and the Department of the Pantry and Stores (Kilerli Koğuşu), separate the third court from the fourth. The halls of the third court are united by a portico that runs around the courtyard.
The Fourth Court:
Small passages between the Hall of the Treasury and the Department of the Pantry lead into the Fourth Court, a loose collection of kiosks built on three levels. To the right is the Terrace of Ibrahim I, that looks onto the Golden Horn and the Bosporus. The Pavilion of the Holy Mantle (Hirka-i Serif Dairesi) of the Third Court opens onto this terrace with an L-shaped colonnade that follows its walls and of which we find the Circumcision Kiosk (Sünnet Köskü) of Selim I and the Revan Kiosk (Revan Köskü) of Murad IV. The colonnade ends at the rear entrance of the Harem to the southwest. Baghdad Kiosk, built in 1639 to celebrate the capture of Baghdad, rises at the other end of the terrace. Descending to the upper-level of gardens, the Sofa or Terrace Kiosk (Sofa Köskü) and the Tower of the Chief Physician (Hekimbaşı Kulesi) are built on the retaining wall between the two levels. The newest structure here is the Mecidiye Kiosk (Mecidiye Köskü) that was built by Abdülmecid I at the eastern edge of the forth court where two older kiosks had stood. Nearby are the small Sofa or Terrace Mosque (Sofa Camii) and the Room of the Wardrobe (Esvap Odası). A gate adjacent to the Mecidiye Kiosk leads down into the outer gardens and to Seraglio Point. Sources
Ayverdi, Ekrem Hakki. Osmanli mimarisinde Fatih devri, 855-886 (1451-1481) IV,
682-755. Istanbul: Baha Matbaasi, 1973-1974.
Davis, Fanny. The Palace of Topkapi in Istanbul. New York: Scribner, 1970.
Goodwin, Godfrey. Topkapi Palace: an illustrated guide to its life & personalities. London: Saqi Books, 1999.
Necipoglu, Gülru. Architecture, ceremonial, and power: the Topkapi Palace in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. New York: Architectural History Foundation and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991.