TopkapiPalace was built by Sultan Mehmed II who conquered Constantinople. Construction for Topkapi began in 1460 and was completed in 1478. The palace served as the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for around 400 years (1465-1856) of their phenomenal 624 year reign. While the palace has been altered and expanded upon many times, Topkapi retains its original layout and remains true to its original Ottoman baroque architectural style.
Topkapi is situated on Seraglio Point overlooking the Sea of Marmara and offers stunning views of the Bosporus from various points inside the compound. It is a hilly site and one of the highest elevations near the sea. The acropolis of the ancient Greek city of Byzantion once stood on the site. There is an underground cistern built by the Byzantines in one of the courtyards which was used throughout the Ottoman period. Of interest, also on the grounds are the remains of a small Christian Church which were recently excavated.
The builder, Sultan Mehmed II, was responsible for Topkapi’s basic layout. His private quarters were at the highest point of the hill on which the palace was built. The palace is made up of four main courtyards and several smaller buildings sweeping toward the Bosporus shore. The palace was home to 4,000 people at its height. The entire complex was surrounded by high walls, many of which go back to the time of the Byzantine Acropolis.
Topkapi, unlike Versailles in Paris and Schonbrunn in Vienna, was not built subject to a strict master plan. Topkapi evolved over the span of many centuries with Sultans adding and changing various elements to meet their needs and tastes. This resulted in an asymmetrical architectural arrangement, though the main layout designed by Mehmed II is preserved.
Most of the major changes to the TopkapiPalace can be attributed to the reign of Suleyman from 1520 to 1560. Under Suleyman, the Ottoman Empire expanded considerably and Suleyman wanted his residence to reflect this glory. Many new buildings were constructed and many existing ones enlarged during his reign.
Following a fire in the kitchen in 1574, Sultan Selim II rebuilt and expanded the palace rooms that were destroyed. This restoration led to the expansion also of the harem, baths, private rooms and many pavilions along the shoreline. By the end of the 16th century, Topkapi palace appeared very much like it does today.
The palace is not one single structure, but a compound of substantial size. There is a variety of low buildings built around courtyards all connected with galleries and walkways. There are trees, gardens and fountains throughout the grounds to form a serene, refreshing environment. Life in the palace revolved around the courtyard.
Topkapi was the primary residence of the sultan and his court. Originally it was also the seat of government and as such access was strictly monitored. The palace was a city unto itself containing mosques, hospitals, schools, bakeries and its own mint. Access and egress were of little consequence to the palace inhabitants as they had everything they needed within the confines of the palace.
Attached to the palace was a society of sultan-approved artists and craftsmen referred to as the Community of the Talented which produced some of the best work in the entire Ottoman Empire. Residents of Topkapi lacked for nothing. This lifestyle was typical of Sultan’s palaces throughout the Ottoman Empire.
Topkapi Palace Today
In the early 1850’s, the palace became unable to handle all the requirements of state ceremonials and protocols and the sultan moved his court to the DolmabahcePalace on the Bosporus.
Topkapi palace today is a museum. It became a museum by government decree in 1924. The palace museum is a vast complex of hundreds of rooms, but only a few of the most important are accessible to the public. Nonetheless, treasures abound and should not be missed. Besides fine examples of Ottoman architecture, there are large collections of porcelain, imperial robes, various weaponry, Ottoman miniatures, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts, murals, Ottoman treasures and jewelry. Needless to say Topkapi is heavily guarded.
TopkapiPalace is one of the wonders of Turkey because of these treasures and artifacts but also because of the light it shines on the life and times of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, one of the wealthiest empires the world has ever known.