The Topkapi Palace situated in the heart of Istanbul was the official and primary residence of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire from 1465 to 1856. Construction began on the palace in 1459 by the Sultan Mehmed II, who defeated and captured the Byzantine city of Constantinople in 1453 and renamed the city Istanbul. The Palace was originally known as the New Palace to distinguish it from the previous residence it replaced as the main residence. It received the name ‘Topkapý’ (Cannon Gate) in the 19th century, after the Topkapý Gate and shore pavilion, although these no longer exist.
Towards the end of the 17th century the Palace lost its importance when the Sultans spent more time in the Bosporus and in 1856 Sultan Mecid I moved the court to the newly constructed European style Palace in the city. The functions of the imperial treasury, the library, mosque and mint were to remain in the Topkapi Palace. 1921 saw the end of the Ottoman Empire and after the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 the Topkapý Palace was transformed into a museum dedicated to the imperial era. It contains a collection of porcelain, robes, weapons, jewelry, armor and Islamic calligraphic manuscripts and murals.
Unlike many palaces the Topkapi developed over a period of four centuries, with subsequent sultans making alterations and additions. A significant amount of development occurred during the reign of Sultan Suleiman (the Magnificent) between the years of 1520 to1560. Suleiman oversaw a rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire and wanted this to be reflected in his Palace.
In 1574, parts of the palace were destroyed by fire so a major renovation programme was instigated by Sultan Selim II which included the rebuilding of the kitchens and the expansion of the Harem, baths, the Privy Chamber and a number of the pavilions along the shoreline. The current appearance and design dates from the end of the 16th century.
The palace complex consists of four main courtyards which hold dormitories, libraries, schools, mosques, a hospital, bakeries, and a mint and many smaller buildings; although only a limited number are currently open to the public. It consists of a variety of mainly single story buildings enclosing the courtyards, with doors and windows facing the courtyard. These courtyards are interconnected with galleries and passages. Around the Palace are gardens with trees and fountains making it a pleasant place to live, at its height, the palace was home to as many as 4,000 people and contained all the requisites required so that there was no need to venture out of the complex. The palace even had its own water supply provided through a series of underground cisterns.
The courtyards are arranged on the south – north axis becoming more private as one progress’s to the north. The outer one, with greater accessibility, leading to the innermost reserved for the Sultan and his harem. Each courtyard was surrounded by high walls and access was strictly controlled with gates. In the outer courtyards the areas served for the government and political workings of the empire.
The main entrance into the First Courtyard is through the Imperial Gate which originally dates from 1478, although it was covered in marble in the 19th century and is adorned by Gilded Ottoman calligraphy with verses from the Qur'an and the tughras (the seal or monogramme of the sultans) of Sultan Mehmed II and Abdül Aziz I, who renovated the gate. On either side are rooms for the guard and apartments were located above the gate area until the second half of the 19th century.
The First Courtyard contained a number of structures which no longer exist today. The structures that do remain are the former Imperial Mint dating back to 1727, the Byzantine church of Hagia Irene used as a storehouse and imperial armoury and a number of fountains. This courtyard was known as the Parade Court and lead towards the Gate of Salutation.
The Gate of Salutation with its two large octagonal pointed towers leads into the Second Courtyard. Richly decorated in the upper part with religious inscriptions and monograms of sultans the gate dates at least to the 1540’s. Entrance through the gate was for officials and foreign dignitaries only. Through the gate is the Second Courtyard or Divan Square which is surrounded by the former palace hospital, bakery, stables, the imperial harem and Divan (council of state) and the kitchens. The Second Courtyard was where the sultan would dispense justice and hold audiences.
The Imperial Council building is the chamber in which the ministers of state and leading officials of the state, held their meetings. It is situated in the northwestern corner of the courtyard next to the Gate of Felicity which provides the entrance to the Third Courtyard and a continuous marble colonnade. The council hall has a number of entrances from inside the palace and from the courtyard. The porch consists of multiple marble pillars and has an ornate green and white wooden ceiling decorated with gold. The floor is covered in marble.
The palace kitchens with their tall chimneys consist of 10 domed buildings and are a prominent feature of the palace. The kitchen consisted of more than 800 staff preparing as many as 6,000 meals a day. Today the buildings exhibiting a selection of kitchen utensils, silver gifts as well as large collections of Chinese porcelain.
The Third Courtyard - also called the Inner Palace - is the private and residential areas of the palace. The gate has a dome supported by marble pillars and was constructed in the 15th century with later work being carried out in the 18thcentury. The ceiling is painted and contains gold-leafed and has a golden ball hanging from the centre. On either side of this colonnaded passage, was the Sultan’s Harem and the quarters of the eunuchs as well as the rooms of the palace school. It also contained lush gardens surrounded by the Hall of the Privy Chamber, the treasury (which today holds the armoury collection) and some pavilions.
The Fourth Courtyard is the innermost private sanctuary of the sultan and his family, and consists of a number of pavilions, kiosks (a small garden pavilion open at the sides) gardens and terraces. It contains many interesting and beautiful buildings including the gilded Iftar Pavilion, with its ridged cradle vault with the gilded roof; fountains and the Circumcision Room.
Topkapý Palace is one of the monuments which make up the ‘Historic Areas of Istanbul’, which include the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque) and theHagia Sophia which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.