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Topkapı palace is so much more than just an architectural wonder of Turkey, and I could feel that as soon as I stepped into its grounds and courtyards. The rich history, culture and heritage are evident in every vista of the palace. Nestled along the sea shore, this palace was the home for sultans of the Ottoman Empire for over four centuries. The name ‘Topkapı’ (cannon gate); however, was coined as late as the 18th century. Before that the palace was called “Saray-ı Cedid-i Amire” (Imperial New Palace).
The various architectural wonders of the palace are a culmination of the influences of various sultans who ruled from here. Each one added their piece to the palace, making it the rambling and whimsical place it now is. It was hence rightly included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. So if you plan a visit to Topkapı, give yourself enough time to properly appreciate the art and history of the palace.Despite the fact that many rooms today are not open for public viewing, a thorough inspection of one courtyard alone merits one visit to properly appreciate the art and associated history.
So to get a general idea of how the palace is designed, I’ll give you a brief preview of the layout. But in order to truly experience Topkapı, you definitely need to visit it! The palace is basically divided into four courtyards. You enter into the first courtyard through the imperial gate. This court is home to Hagia Irene. An interesting fact about Hagia Irene is that the conquering Ottomans could never destroy it. It survived the test of time and became the storehouse and imperial armoury during the reign of Sultans. From here, the gate of Salutation leads to the second courtyard of the palace. This was the administrative centre for the palace and also the place where the kitchens and sleeping barracks were located. As many as 6000 meals daily were prepared in these kitchens when the ottomans resided here! This place was definitely busier than any of the restaurants today.
The gate of felicity then marks the entrance to the third court. This was often referred to as the inner palace, and was the part of the palace where the sultan spent most of his time when not in the harem. In addition to being the ruling ground for the sultan, this courtyard also has the imperial treasury. The art, jewellery, heirlooms, the robes and caftans, all give you a preview into the lives of the people who lived here. This was a part of the palace that truly transported me back into history. I could envision the courtiers with their bejewelled clothes sweeping down the hallways amongst the opulent setting of the palace.
This courtyard also houses the infamous harem. Now I know we all have our misconception about the harem. We often consider this the place for sin and debauchery and a pleasure palace for the sultan. This; however, is not true. These were actually the family quarters of the palace. The women who entered the harem were educated in the fine arts of painting, music and writing. The wives of the sultan would raise their children here and lived here along with the mother of the ruling sultan.
The beautiful fountains, pavilions and gardens in the fourth courtyard are definitely worth viewing. But something even more tempting about this part of the palace today is the cafés and restaurants built within this beautiful setting. You can kick back and relax after your visit of the palace and reflect on the beauty of the place with a refreshing cup of coffee. Trust me; you will need it if you plan to thoroughly visit Topkapı.
Finally, take some time to look around and appreciate the view. There is Europe to your left and Asia to the right, with the Bosphorus leading to Russia. Look behind you and beyond the shores of Marmara is the western world. And here, on some balcony of Topkapı you are standing in the middle of the world.