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This opulent palace is the subject of more colourful stories than most of the world’s museums put together. It was the home of Selim the Sot, who drowned in the bath after drinking too much champagne; Ibrahim the Crazy, who lost his reason after being locked up for four years in the infamous palace kafes; and Roxelana, beautiful and malevolent consort of Süleyman the Magnificent. No wonder it’s been the subject of a popular feature film (Jules Dassin’s 1963 Topkapı ), an opera (Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio ) and a blockbuster social history (John Freely’s wonderful Inside the Seraglio ).
There’s loads to see, so make sure you dedicate at least half a day to exploring. Mehmet the Conqueror built the first stage of the palace shortly after the Conquest in 1453, and lived here until his death in 1481. Subsequent sultans lived in this rarefied environment until the 19th century, when they moved to ostentatious European-style palaces such as Dolmabahçe, Çırağan and Yıldız that they built on the shores of the Bosphorus. Mahmut II (r 180839) was the last sultan to live in Topkapı. Buy your tickets to the palace at the main ticket office just outside the gate to the Second Court. Tickets to the Topkapı Harem are available at the ticket box outside the Harem itself.
Before you enter the Imperial Gate (Bab-ı Hümayun) of Topkapı, take a look at the ornate structure in the cobbled square near the gate. This is the Fountain of Sultan Ahmet III, built in 1728 by the sultan who so favoured tulips. It replaced a Byzantine fountain at the same spring. Typical of architecture during the Tulip Period, it features delicate Turkish rococo decorations (note the floral carvings). As you pass through the Imperial Gate, you enter the First Court, known as the Court of the Janissaries, also known as the Parade Court. On your left is Aya Irini, also known as Haghia Eirene or the Church of the Divine Peace. There was a Christian church here from earliest times and, before that, a pagan temple. The early church was replaced by the present one, commissioned by Justinian in the 540s. It is almost exactly as old as its close neighbour, Aya Sofya.
When Mehmet the Conqueror began building his palace, the church was within the grounds and was most fortunately retained. It was used as an arsenal for centuries, then as an artillery museum and now occasionally as a concert hall. Its serenely beautiful interior and superb acoustics mean that tickets to concerts here are usually the most sought-after in town. If you’re fortunate enough to be here during the festival, think about visiting the temporary box office, located outside Aya Irini, to see if any tickets are available; otherwise book online at Biletix. There is talk of the church being used as a museum of Byzantium in the future. Janissaries, merchants and tradespeople could circulate as they wished in the Court of the Janissaries, but the Second Court was restricted. The same is true today, as you must have a ticket to the palace to enter the Second Court.
The Second Court has a beautiful, park-like setting. Unlike typical European palaces, which feature one large building with outlying gardens, Topkapı is a series of pavilions, kitchens, barracks, audience chambers, ki osks and sleeping quarters built around a central enclosure.
Check out the absolutely gorgeous silk kaftan of Süleyman the Magnificent with its appliquéd tulip design. Next to the Dormitory of the Expeditionary Force is the Imperia l Treasury, which features an incredible collection of precious objects made from or decorated with gold, silver, rubies, emeralds, jade, pearls and diamonds. The building itself was constructed by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1460 and has always been used to store works of art and treasure. In the first room, look for the jewel-encrusted sword of Süleyman the Magnificent and the Throne of Ahmed I, inlaid with mother-of-pea rl and designed by Mehmet Ağa, architect of the Blue Mosque.
Other buildings in the Third Court include the Mosque of the Eunuchs and a small library. Pleasure pavilions occupy the northeastern corner of the palace, sometimes called the Tulip Gardens or Fourth Court. A late addition to Topkapı, the Mecidiye Köşkü, was built by Abdül Mecit (r 1839–61) according to 19th-century European models. Beneath this is the Konyalı restaurant, the palace’s only eatery, which serves cafeteria food at restaurant prices.