Topkapı Sarayı (Topkapi Palace) Private Tour

Topkapı Sarayı (Topkapi Palace) Private Tour

The Topkapi Sarayi was the second palace in Istanbul after the conquest. The first was in the Bayezit area and it was called the Old Palace after the construction of Topkapi. Called the New Palace initially it was named as the Topkapi Palace after a summer palace near the sea at Sarayburnu in the 19C.

The construction of the Topkapi Palace, including the walls, was completed between 1465 and 1478. However, different sultans having ascended to the throne added parts to the palace which now gives the appearance of a lack of unity and style. The changes were made for reasons of practicality, to commemorate victorious campaigns or to repair damage caused by earthquakes and fire.

The Topkapi Palace had never been static but was always in the process of organic development with the influences of the time. The first of these influences was the parallelism between the palace and the empire. As the empire became larger, the palace was likewise enlarged. The second is that as the sultans felt insecure and withdrew themselves behind the walls removed from nature, there was an attempt to bring nature inside the walls in the form of miniatures, tiles and suchlike.

If late Ottoman period palaces are excluded, only the Topkapi Palace survived from the glory days of the great Ottoman Empire, which implies that palaces for the Ottomans were something different than the ones we know today. There is a kind of humble simplicity and practicality in the Ottoman palaces.

The Topkapi Sarayi was a city-palace with a population of approximately 4,000 people. It covers an area of 70 hectares / 173 acres. It housed all the Ottoman sultans from Sultan Mehmet II to Abdulmecit, nearly 400 years and 25 sultans. In 1924 it was made into a museum.

The palace was mainly divided into two sections, Birun and Enderun. Birun was the outer palace and Enderun the inner. Out of four consecutive courtyards of the palace the first two are Birun. Enderun, the inner palace, consisted of the third and fourth courtyards with the harem.

The first courtyard which was open to the public started after the Bab-i Humayun (Imperial Gate). This was the service area of the palace consisting of a hospital (with a capacity of 120 beds), a bakery, an arsenal, the mint, storage places for various things and some dormitories. This courtyard acted something like a city center.

Topkapi Palace, as well as being the imperial residence of the sultan, his court and harem, was also the seat of government for the Ottoman Empire, Divan. The second courtyard, also called Alay Meydani (Procession Square), which started after the Babusselam (Gate of Peace), was the seat of the Divan and open to anyone who had business with the Divan. This was the administration center. The Divan met four times a week. In the earlier years the sultan would be present at these council meetings, but later on, he would sit behind a latticed grille placed in the wall and listen to the proceedings from there. The Council never knew whether or not the sultan was actually present and listening to them unless he decided to speak himself. The Divan consisted of two rooms: the Office of the Grand Vizier and the Public Records Office, the Tower of Justice.

In addition to the Divan there were also the privy stables and kitchens. The kitchens consist of a series of ten large rooms with domes and dome-like chimneys. In these kitchens in those times they cooked for about 4,000 people. The kitchens were used separately for different people, because different dishes for different classes had to be prepared.

In the kitchens today, a collection of Chinese Porcelain which are accepted as the third most valuable in the world, are on display together with authentic kitchen utensils as well as both Turkish and Japanese Porcelain.

Just before entering the third courtyard, in front of the third gate, the Babussaade (Gate of Felicity) or the Akagalar (White Eunuchs) Gate is the place where the throne was placed for all kinds of occasions, such as religious holidays, welcoming foreign ambassadors and funerals. Payment of the Yeniceri salaries took place there too as well as the handing over of the sancak, the standard or the flag of the Caliph by the sultan.

The Enderun, inner palace, started after the Babussaade and was surrounded by the quarters of the inner palace boys who were in service to the sultan and the palace. The first building after entering into the third courtyard is Arz Odasi, the Audience Hall. Many important ceremonies also took place there. Foreign ambassadors and results of Divan meetings were presented to the sultan in this chamber.

In the middle of the courtyard is the library of Sultan Ahmet III. On the right is a section in which sultans’ costumes are shown. Next to this is the treasury section where many precious objects are displayed. Among these the Kasikci Diamond (the Spoonmaker’s Diamond) and the Topkapi Hanceri (the Topkapi Dagger) are the most precious. The Kasikci Diamond is 86 carats, “drop-shaped”, faceted and surrounded by 49 large diamonds. The Topkapi Dagger, a beautiful dagger ornamented with valuable emerald pieces was planned to be sent to Nadir Shah of Iran as a present, but when it was on the way it was heard that Nadir had been assassinated and so it was taken back to the palace treasury. Relics including a hand, arm and skull bones belonging to John the Baptist are also on display in the treasury section.

From the right-hand corner to the left in this courtyard are the sections of miniatures, calligraphy, portraits of sultans, clocks and holy relics of Islam. The holy relics are personal belongings of the Prophet Mohammed (a mantle, sword, seal, tooth, beard and footprints) and Caliphs, Koran scripts, religious books and framed inscriptions.

In the fourth courtyard there are pavilions some facing the Marmara Sea and others facing the Golden Horn.

Life at the Court

The focal point of the court was the sultan, of course. The sultan’s daily life was very simple. In addition to daily regular activities, sultans, in order to broaden their perspectives, gathered scholars, poets, artists and historians at the palace. Most of the sultans in the Ottoman Empire united many skills in themselves. They commissioned new works, manuscripts and bindings, were ardent readers, competent calligraphers, poets, archers, riders, cirit (javelin) players, hunters, composers, etc.

In daily life at the palace, silence was dominant. Hundreds of people tried not to meet the sultan unless they needed to and in keeping voices down, it was even said that, people of the court sometimes developed a body language system among themselves.

The Harem

The concept of the harem has provoked much speculation. Curiosity about the unknown and inaccessible inspired highly imaginative literature among the people of the western world. People always basically thought that in a harem there were hundreds of beautiful girls and a sultan who had fun with all of them. This is generally not correct as the sultan could not, perhaps unfortunately for him, just leap into a roomful of beauties and have his way. There were certain rules with life in the Harem.

The word harem which in Arabic means “forbidden” refers to the private sector of a Moslem household in which women live and work; the term is also used for women dwelling there. In traditional Moslem society the privacy of the household was universally observed and respectable women did not socialize with men to whom they were not married or related. Because the establishment of a formal harem was an expense beyond the means of the poor, the practice was limited to elite groups, usually in urban settings. Since Islamic law allowed Moslems to have a maximum of four wives, in a harem there would be up to four wives and numerous concubines and servants. Having a harem, in general, was traditionally a mark of wealth and power. Though the women of the harems might never leave its confines, their influence was frequently of key importance to political and economic affairs of the household, with each woman seeking to promote the interests of her own children.

The most famous harems were those of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. The harems of the Ottoman Turkish rulers were elaborate structures concealed behind palace walls, in which lived hundreds of women who were married, related to, or owned by the head of the household.

The Harem of the Sultan

The idea of the harem came to the Ottoman sultans from the Byzantines. Before coming to Anatolia, Turks did not have harems. After the conquest of Istanbul, sultans built the Topkapi Palace step by step. Parallel to it, a harem was also begun. Eventually it became a big complex consisting of a few hundred rooms. The harem was not just a prison full of women kept for the sultan’s pleasure. It was his family quarters. Security in the harem was provided by black eunuchs. Valide Sultan (Queen Mother) was the head of the harem. She had enormous influence on everything that took place there and frequently on her son too.

Young and beautiful girls of the harem were either purchased by the palace or presented to the sultan as gifts from dignitaries or sultan’s family. When these girls entered the harem, they were thoroughly assessed.

Among the girls there were mainly four different classes: Odalik (servant), Gedikli (sultan’s personal servants; there were only twelve of them), Ikbal or Gozde (those were Favorites who are said to have had affairs with the sultan), Kadin or Haseki Sultan (wives giving children to the sultan). When the Haseki Sultan’s son ascended to the throne, she was promoted to Valide Sultan. She was the most important woman. After her, in order of importance came the sultan’s daughters. Then came the first four wives of the sultan who gave birth to children. Their degree of importance was in the order in which their sons were born. They had conjugal rights and if the sultan did not sleep with them on two consecutive Friday nights, they could consider themselves divorced. They had their own apartments. The Favorites also had their own apartments. But others slept in dormitories.

Girls were trained according to their talents in playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, writing, embroidery and sewing. Many parents longed for their daughters to be chosen for the Harem.

It should not be thought that women never went out. They could visit their families or just go for drives in covered carriages from which they could see out behind the veils and curtained windows. They could also organize parties up on the Bosphorus or along the Golden Horn.

Kizlar Agasi (Chief Black Eunuch) had the biggest responsibility and was the only one who knew all the secret desires of the sultan. Eunuchs, owing to different methods used for castration, were checked regularly by doctors to make sure they remained eunuchs.

When a sultan died, the new sultan would bring his new harem which meant that the former harem was dispersed. Some were sent to the old palace, some stayed as teachers or some older ones were pensioned off.

Yeniceriler (Janissaries)

Janissaries (Turkish yeni is new and ceri is a soldier), standing Ottoman Turkish army, were organized by Murat I. Ottoman armies had previously been composed of Turkoman tribal levies, who were loyal to their clan leaders, but as the Ottoman polity acquired the characteristics of a state, it became necessary to have paid troops loyal only to the sultan. Therefore, the system of impressing Christian youths (devsirme) was instituted and having been converted to Islam and given the finest training, they became the elite of the army. Special laws regulated their daily life cutting them off from civil society such as being forbidden to marry. Devotion to such discipline made the Janissaries the scourge of Europe. These standards, however, changed with time; recruitment became lax (Moslems were admitted, too) and because of the privileges Janissaries enjoyed, their numbers swelled from about 20,000 in 1574 to some 135,000 in 1826. To supplement their salaries, the Janissaries began to pursue various trades and established strong links with civil society, thus undermining their loyalty to the ruler. In time they became kingmakers and the allies of conservative forces, opposing all reform and refusing to allow the army to be modernized. When they revolted in 1826, Sultan Mahmut II dissolved the corps by proclamation, putting all opposition down by force. Thousands were killed and others banished, but most were simply absorbed into the general population.

Tugra (Monogram of a sultan)

Each sultan had a personal emblem called a tugra, a calligraphic arrangement of the letters of his name and titles. They were used at the top of imperial decrees or in the inscriptions of buildings (gates, mosques, palaces, fountains etc.).

Sultans and the Caliphate

The Caliphate is the office and realm of the caliph as supreme leader of the Moslem community as successor of the Prophet Mohammed. Under Mohammed the Moslem state was a theocracy, with the Seriat, the religious and moral principles of Islam, as the law of the land. The Caliphs, Mohammed’s successors, were both secular and religious leaders. They were not empowered, however, to promulgate dogma, because it was considered that the revelation of the faith had been completed by Mohammed.

In 1517, when Sultan Selim I captured Cairo, he also added the title of caliph to that of sultan. After that, all Ottoman sultans automatically became caliphs when they ascended to the throne.

The title held little significance for the Ottoman sultans until their empire began to decline. In the 19C, with the advent of Christian powers in the Near East, the sultan began to emphasize his role as caliph in an effort to gain the support of Moslems living outside his realm. The Ottoman Empire collapsed during World War I. After the war, Turkish nationalists deposed the sultan and the Caliphate was finally abolished in 1924 by the Turkish Grand National Assembly.

Read more

Hippodrome Private Tour

Hippodrome Private Tour

The original building of the Hippodrome was built by the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus in 203 AD when he rebuilt Byzantium. Constantine the Great reconstructed, enlarged and adorned it with beautiful works which were brought from different places of the Roman Empire when he chose Byzantium as his new capital.
Although there is not much left from the original building except the Egyptian Obelisk, Serpentine and Constantine Columns, according to the excavations carried out, the hippodrome was 117 m / 384 ft wide and 480 m / 1575 ft long with a capacity of 100,000 spectators. It is said that one quarter of the population could fit into the hippodrome at one time.

During the Byzantine period, the Hagia Sophia was the religious center, a place which belonged to God; the palace belonged to the emperor; and the hippodrome was the civil center for the people.

Request banner8

Chariots drawn by either 2 or 4 horses raced here representing one of the four factions divided among the people. Each faction was represented by a color. Later on these four colors were united in two colors; the Blues and the Greens. The Blues were the upper and middle classes, orthodox in religion and conservative in politics. The Greens were the lower class and radical both in religion and politics. One of these political divisions ended with a revolt which caused the death of 30,000 people. This revolt was named after people’s cries of “nika” which meant “win” and this Nika Revolt took place in 531 AD.

The central axis of the hippodrome was called spina and the races took place around the spina. The races used to start by the order of the emperor and the contestants had to complete seven laps around the spina. The winner was awarded a wreath and some gold by the emperor.

The hippodrome was destroyed and plundered in 1204 by the Crusaders. After the Turks it lost its popularity and especially with the construction of the Blue Mosque, the ancient hippodrome changed its name and became At Meydani (Horse Square) a place where Ottomans trained their horses. The only three remaining monuments from the original building are the Egyptian Obelisk, the Serpentine Column and the Constantine Column.

Dikilitas (The Egyptian Obelisk)

It was originally one of the two obelisks which were erected in the name of Thutmose III in front of Amon-Ra Temple in Karnak in the 15C BC. It is a monolith made of granite and the words on it are in Egyptian hieroglyphs which praise Thutmose III. The original piece was longer than today’s measurement of 19.60 m / 64.30 ft which is thought to be two thirds of the original. It was broken either during shipment or intentionally to make it lighter to transport.

The Roman governor of Alexandria, sent it to Theodosius I in 390 AD.

The obelisk is situated on a Byzantine marble base with bas-reliefs. These reliefs give some details about the emperor from the Kathisma and races of the time. The Emperor Theodosius I, on four sides of the obelisk, is watching the erection of it, or a chariot race, receiving homage from slaves or preparing a wreath for the winner of the race.

Burma Sutun (The Serpentine Column)

After defeating the Persians at the battles of Salamis (480 BC) and Plataea (479 BC), the 31 Greek cities, by melting all the spoils that they obtained, made a huge bronze incense burner with three entwined serpents to be erected in front of the Apollo Temple in Delphi. Originally it was 8 m / 26.3 ft high, but today it is only 5.30 m / 17.4 ft.

This column was brought here from Delphi by Constantine I in 4C AD. By looking at the records, it is possible to understand that it was standing at its place until the 16C. However it is not known what happened to the serpent heads after the 16C.

Orme Sutun (The Constantine Column)

Unlike the Egyptian Obelisk, this is not a monolith but a column built of stones. Who erected it and when it was built are not known. According to the inscriptions, it was renovated and restored to have a more beautiful appearance by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus and his son Romanus II in the 10C AD. The original column should have been from the 4C or 5C AD.

It is 32 m / 105 ft high and after three steps comes the marble base at the bottom. It is also thought that all the surfaces of the column were covered with bronze relief pieces which probably were plundered during the 4th Crusade in 1204, and today it is possible to find some of these pieces used in the decoration of St. Mark Square in Venice.

Read more