The Topkapi Palace is the best example of the greatness that reached Constantinople. From there the sultans ruled the Ottoman Empire until the mid-nineteenth century. Topkapı is composed of small buildings and four courtyards or gardens, in a secular Turkish style, surrounded by Byzantine walls. The palace covers an area of 700 000 m².
The palace complex is in Sarayburnu, a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, with great views to Bosphorus. The site is hilly and one of the highest points near the sea. During the time of the Greeks and Byzantines, the acropolis of the ancient city of Byzantium was there.
After the Ottoman conquest in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II found much of the Great Palace of Constantinople in ruins so he settled in the Old Palace, the present Istanbul University, while selecting a new location to build the imperial dwelling. So, he chose the old Byzantine acropolis, ordering the construction of a new palace in 1459.
Unlike other royal residences that had strict master plans, Topkapi developed over the centuries in which the sultans added and transformed various structures. The resulting asymmetry is the result of an erratic growth and many changes, while trying to respect the main design from Mehmed II. Most of the changes occurred during the reign of Sultan Suleyman (1520-1560), which in full splendor of the empire, wanted to reflect his glory and greatness in his own residence, so that new buildings were built and expanded some of the existing ones.
From the seventeenth century, the Topkapi Palace gradually lost its glow and the sultans were spending more and more time in their palaces of the Bosphorus side. Thus, in 1856, Sultan Abdul Mecid decided to move the court to Dolmabahce Palace, recently built in a modern European style, although some features such as the imperial treasury, the library and the Mint, were kept in Topkapi.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1921, Topkapı Palace was transformed by a 1924 government decree in a museum of the imperial era. The palace complex has hundreds of rooms and chambers, but only the most important are publicly available.
Main structure of the palace and places to visit
Topkapi covers an area of 700 thousand square meters and consists of four courtyards and many interior buildings, such as kitchens, stables, the harem, the armory, the Treasury Room, among others.
The building where weapons and armor are exhibited now was originally one of the treasury of the palace. Although it contains no dated inscriptions, its construction technique and plan suggest that it was built in the late fifteenth century, during the reign of Suleyman I. It is a room of stone and brick with eight domes of 5 x 11.40 meters.
This treasure was used to fund the administration of the State. The caftans given as gifts to the viziers, ambassadors and residents of the palace by the financial department and the Sultan himself, together with some other objects of value were also stored here.
During the excavations of 1937 in front of this building archaeologists found the remains of a fifth century Byzantine church. As it haven’t been identified, today is known as “the Church of the Topkapi Palace“.
On the outskirts of the treasure building is the “Stone of Destiny” (Nisan Tasi), more than two meters high. This stone was erected in commemoration of a rifle shot record by Sultan Selim III in 1790.
The Topkapi Treasury owns objects that are considered among the most valuable in the world, like a diamond of 88 carats (“The Diamond of the Spoon Maker“) that belonged to the mother of Napoleon or the so-called Topkapi dagger, built in gold with emeralds and now ranks as the world’s most expensive weapon.
The Imperial Council
The building of the Imperial Council (Divan-i Humayun) was the meeting place for the Ministers of State, Ministers of the Council (Divan Heyeti), the Imperial Council, consisting of the Grand Vizier (PASA Kapisi), viziers and other senior state officials of the Ottoman Empire. This building was also called Kubbealti, which means “under the dome”, in reference to the dome of the main hall. It is located in the northwest corner of the yard, near the Gate of Felicity.
From the 18th century, the place began to lose its original importance and the state administration was gradually transferred to the Sublime Porte (Bab-ı ALI) of the grand viziers. The council hall has multiple entrances from both inside the palace and the courtyard. The porch and the pillars are ornate in marble, while the wooden ceiling is decorated in gold.
The Imperial Harem occupied one of the sections of the private apartments of the sultan. The harem was the home of the sultan’s mother, the concubines and wives, and the rest of his family, including children and servants. It was composed of a number of buildings and structures connected through hallways and courtyards. Many rooms and designs of the Harem were conceived by Mimar Sinan.
During your visit to the palace if you want to access the harem you must purchase separate tickets.
Undoubtedly, the Topkapi Palace is a must see in Istanbul. Next to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, you can walk around the area but we recommend an early visit because at rush hours the halls of the Treasury and the Harem, are crowded with tourists and visitors.
Sultanahmet, Eminönü, 34122
Everyday, from 9:00 to 17:00
Closes on Tuesdays.
Tram: Sultanahmet, T1 line.
Gülhane Park (259 m)
Haghia Sophia (602 m)
Blue Mosque (1000 m)