- What’s On
Paris has its Versailles, St Petersburg its Hermitage, but both palaces served for a mere twinkling of the eye compared with the Topkapı, residence of the Ottoman sultans for some 400 years. Dolmabahçe, the wedding-cake structure that replaced it in 1853, is the embodiment of imperial pretension, but the Topkapı still preserves the memory of a military encampment. It is not one grand edifice but a complex of buildings and kiosks arranged in a series of adjacent courtyards that appear designed to preserve the privacy and mystery of the royal household. But the palace is no Alhambra. The architecture is masculine, unadorned and lacking in vertical impact, and it takes time, and a knowledge of its working life, to absorb its immensity.
Only when you look back at the skyline on the ferry home do you realise how all the parts, built piecemeal over time, combine to form a majestic whole. Mehmet the Conqueror began building the palace, not directly after the conquest in 1453 but six years later. He had just finished a vast palace overlooking the Golden Horn, where Istanbul University now stands, when he started all over again with the Topkapı. What prompted him? Perhaps a campaign to Athens inspired him to build on the site, which had been the ancient acropolis in the centuries before Constantine. Or perhaps he recognised that the promontory the palace occupies was the most remarkable piece of real estate he owned. The building was finally turned into a museum in 1924 after Turkey became a republic.
Allow yourself time to wander through the carriage rooms, the gardens and the kitchens, which contain the priceless Chinese blue-and-white tableware. To see the famous Topkapı dagger, you have to buy a separate ticket, but the real shock is that its diamonds and emeralds seem as paste next to the rest of the collection. You need an extra ticket, too, for the harem – there used to be a half-hour guided tour but you can now wander at leisure. You get to see only the tip of the iceberg of the royal apartments, but it is essential viewing.
Not everyone is thrilled with changes at the Topkapı. Moves to jazz things up have led to too much gold leaf – especially on the stunning tiles of the façade of the Circumcision Chamber. The Treasury has been reduced to an incoherent display in spotlit cases worthy of Bond Street. It excites the eye but not the intellect. But the gardens are still the perfect place to take a siesta. To enjoy your visit, take your time, bring a book. The Konyalı restaurant has sadly gone down hill, and wine has recently been forbidden, but the Karakol Restaurant just outside the museum is perfectly decent. The best book on the palace, Architecture, Ceremonial and Power by Gülru Necipoğlu, is sadly out of print, but Claire Karaz’s slim volume Topkapı Palace: Inside and Out is a handy guide.
Mehmed II started building the Topkapı, on the site of the old Byzantine acropolis overlooking the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, in 1459, sixe years after his conquest of Constantinople. Known as the New Palace until the 19th century, when it acquired the name of Topkapı (Cannon Gate), it is not a palace in the traditional European sense but a complex of low buildings and pavilions, kiosks and courtyards, to which Mehmed II’s successors continued to add.
For almost 400 years it was the principal residence of the Ottoman sultans, as well as the seat of government and setting for state occasions and royal entertainments. It was a self-contained city that most of the inhabitants rarely left.