Topkapı Palace, the administrative and residential palace of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul, was completed by AH 882 / AD 1478 after the city had been conquered by Mehmed II. It was used continuously by the Ottoman rulers until they moved to the palaces built along the Bosphorus in the 13th / 19th century. After the declaration of the Republic of Turkey, the palace became a museum on 1924 by order of Atatürk.
The palace became a grandiose, multi-functional structure through continual development and additional construction by different sultans, which also reflects the institutional structure of the Ottoman Empire. The splendour and multi-level structure of Ottoman protocol and hierarchy can clearly be seen in the architecture. Even the rise and the fall of the empire found its artistic expression in the palace. As well as being a stage for the dramatic events of the past, this palace is one of the few examples of its kind that survived along with its historical lifestyle.
Topkapı Palace, which is one of the oldest palaces in the world, served as the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire for some 400 years. Built on the tip of the Istanbul peninsula, the palace stands on an exclusive point overlooking the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. The palace is surrounded by 5 km city walls and has 700.000 m2 private property. Unlike European palaces, Topkapı Palace comprises numerous structures and its various pavilions and apartments, each of which is an exquisite example of Ottoman civic architecture, give it the appearnace of a small city. The palace has been serving as a museum since 1924 and its exhibits are among the world's masterpieces.
The wooden palace built by Sultan Mahmud II behind the Top Kapı (literally the 'Cannon Gate'), the oldest sea gate of the palace, burned down and its name was given to the 'New Palace'. The palace is surrounded by the Sur-ı Sultani (Sultan's Walls), whose main entrance is the Bâb-ı Hümayun (Imperial Gate) on the side facing Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia).
The plan of the palace is generally similar to that of the Edirne Palace, occupying an area of approximately 700,000 sq m. Construction began under Sultan Mehmed II and successive rulers added to it, until it took the form of a large complex of buildings.
The Topkapı Palace lacks the axial organisation seen in many palaces. This group of buildings, rather than comprising an architectural unity, developed like a small city whose elements underwent changes over time. The palace's plan of three main courtyards was developed, and the monumental gates built, under Sultan Mehmed II. The first courtyard, known as the Alay Meydanı (Parade Ground), is entered through the Bâb-ı Hümayun (Imperial Gate), the main gate of the palace, where the church of Aya Irini (Hagia Irene) is also found. Many buildings were built here for various purposes, but none of them survive.
The first courtyard opens onto the second courtyard, known as the Divan Meydanı (Divan Ground), through the Bâbüsselam (Gate of Salutations), also called the Orta Kapı (Middle Gate).
The principal buildings here are the palace kitchens, the royal stables, the Kubbealtı (apartments for councils of state) and the Tower of Justice. Finally, the Enderun (Inner Palace) area is entered through the Bâbüssaade (Gate of Felicity) or Akağalar Kapısı (Gate of the White Eunuchs). Among the important buildings in this, the third courtyard are the Arz Odası (Audience Hall), used by the sultan to receive ambassadors and viziers; the sultan's privy chamber, later used to house the Hırka-i Saadet (the Mantle of the Prophet); the Pavilion of Mehmed II and The Library of Ahmed III.
A gently sloping path leads to the fourth courtyard that contains free-standing pavilions. These include outstanding examples of Ottoman civil architecture such as the Baghdad and Revan Pavilions, built by Murad IV (r. AH 1032–49 / AD 1623–40), and the Sünnet Odası (Circumcision Chamber) built by Ibrahim I (r. AH 1049–58 / AD 1640–48).
The last building added to the Topkapı Palace was the Mecidiye Pavilion, built under Sultan Abdülmecid (AH 1255–78 / AD 1839–61). The harem, where the sultan and his family lived, looks like a separate city within the palace.
The oldest section of the harem extant dates to the period of Murad III (r.AH 982–1003 / AD 1574–95). An inscription above one of the entrances to the harem, the Araba (Carriages) Gate, opens onto the second courtyard next to the Kubbealtı; it bears the date AH 995 / AD 1588.
The changes and additions made to the Topkapı Palace over time reflect on one hand the decorative styles of the various periods to which they belong, while, on the other hand, they provide a record of the different phases of building that the palace underwent. The Topkapı Palace shows the characteristics of Ottoman court and residential architecture for a period lasting up until the construction of the Dolmabahçe Palace in the AH mid-13th / AD 19th century, and was the official residence of the Ottoman sultans from Mehmed II until Abdülmecid. It became a museum in 1924.
Among the items exhibited in the museum are portraits and costumes of the sultans, Chinese and Japanese porcelains used in the palace, metal kitchenware, Yıldız porcelain and glassware, European porcelain and silver items, Islamic and Turkish weapons. Holy relics of Prophet Mohammed and the first caliphs that were brought from Medina in the early 10th / 16th century by Selim I are exhibited in the Holy Relics section. Among those relics are the mantle of the Prophet Mohammed, his swords and his foot print.
Four thrones, aigrette-holders, the Topkapı dagger and the diamond of Kaşıkçı are the most famous examples of the items from the treasury of the Ottomans.
The museum's archive holds important documents of correspondence of the Ottoman Sultans and its library contains famous manuscripts from the Byzantine, Islamic and Ottoman periods.
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Photograph: Ali Konyalı, Kemal Nuraydın