The Topkapi Palace sits where forts have sat for millennia, on the point of land guarding the entrance to the Bosphorus from the Sea of Marmara. The first palace buildings here were built by Mehmet the Conqueror, shortly after his conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Over the centuries it was expanded by the various Sultans, who lived in it with their families and courtiers until the 2nd half of the 19th century.
Topkapi is organized into 4 courtyards that go from most public to most private, which was the suite of the Sultan himself. Only the 1st and 2nd courtyards were accessible to the public, and the Sultan used to receive visiting dignitaries at the Gate of Felicity, where you pass from the 2nd to the 3rd courtyard. The family lived in the Harem, which was not part of the 4 courtyards, but was a completely separate part of the palace, where only the Sultan, his mother (who ran the Harem), his wives and concubines and the eunuchs who guarded and served them were allowed. Harem, we were informed repeatedly, does not mean what we have grown up thinking it means: traditionally, all Turkish homes were divided into public quarters and private family quarters, which are all called harem. We spend hours today walking around the Topkapi, no longer a royal palace but now a museum. We run out of time and energy before we can visit either the Harem or the Treasury, where the fabled wealth of the Sultans is on display.
Inside the Sultan’s Private Quarters
The palace is quite stunning – the quality of the design and the workmanship is really amazing. Although built over many years, by many Sultans using many architects, there is a harmonious feeling; it does not have the topsy-turvy aspect that one might expect in the circumstances. My favorite place in the entire palace is in the Sultan’s private quarters, where on a terrace there is a beautiful covered veranda, with a spectacular view up the Golden Horn, where the Sultan took his breakfast during the summer months.
Last Day, Last Hamam
Our last day today in Istanbul and Turkey, we spend the rest of the day doing some last-minute shopping along Istiklal, the pedestrian-only street in Taksim where the more trendy and fashionable stores are. The streets are teeming even at 3 pm on a Thursday. We end up back at the hotel for a quick drop of goods and grab our second Turkish Bath, again in a very historic hamam that has been operating for centuries, before we indulge in our last meal in Turkey. We are heading back to a restaurant called Amedros in our neighbourhood where we had stopped for a beer two nights earlier. It is warm and inviting and serves wonderful traditional Turkish food with a flare and we enjoy great food and conversation with staff and in particular with Istiklal.
Istanbul has wonderful cafés and restaurants both in Sultanahmet and the newer and trendier Taksim. There is lots of choice if you have time to linger and savour all of the café culture in Istanbul, and I could happily spend another week exploring it all.