Look closely at the ancient trees in the palace gardens: a fungal disease has left many of their trunks completely hollow, but they remarkably still survive, sometimes with new trees growing inside.
Topkapi, meaning ‘cannon gate’ after a now lost feature, is a massive complex of buildings surrounding four main courtyards. Its hundreds of rooms once housed around 4,000 people; it contained bakeries, a mint, mosques and its own hospital. This was the seat of the Ottoman sultanate from 1465 to 1856.
The Sultans gradually lost interest in Topkapi after the 17th century, moving to palaces along the Bosphorus; after Abdül Mecid I moved court to the European-style Dolmabahçe Palace in 1856, Topkapi retained only the functions of imperial mint, treasury and library. With the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, it was - like the Hagia Sophia - converted to a museum.
Today, Topkapi houses some of Islam’s most holy relics, including the sword and cloak of the Prophet. Visitors can admire vast collections of Ottoman miniatures, furniture, jewellery, armour and more; no less magnificent are its architectural features, including the crenellated Gate of Salutation with its two octagonal pointed towers, and the elaborate chamber of the Imperial Council.
The stunning Imperial Harem alone contains no less than 400 rooms. These private quarters housed the Sultan, his children, a staff of eunuchs, and his concubines: the concubines were not allowed to leave without the express permission of the Valide Sultan, the Sultan’s mother, who had the largest and most important apartments. Her dining room, reception room and bedroom are open to the public, as are the Harem’s courtyards, baths and Privy Chambers: you must pay extra to enter the Harem, but it is well worth it.
The Palace’s beautiful kiosks, mosques, libraries and gardens all add to an enchanting experience. Spend a full day here and be transported to the opulent centre of the mighty Ottoman Empire.
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