Saturday, April 27, 2013

Istanbul's famous Topkapi palace

After a two-kilometre walk through the teeming streets of Istanbul, we finally arrived at Seraglio Point, home of the Topkapi Palace. Being a big fan of Jason Goodwin's books about the detective Yashim, the eunuch, I was very excited to be here where all the action in the books takes place. There are large grounds surrounding the palace with beautiful tulip gardens of every colour.

The palace was built in the fifteenth century as a series of pavilions that served as the seat of the government at one time. It was the Sultan's residence until 1853. We joined the crowds touring the Treasury, where there were many jewel encrusted daggers and swords. The third biggest diamond in the world, the Spoonmaker's diamond was on display. It was said to have been discovered in a rubbish heap in Istanbul in the seventeenth century and bought from a scrap merchant for three spoons. Alongside it was a necklace with a  giant emerald. In a cabinet near the throne in the fourth hall is a case containing bones said to be those of John the Baptist.

To recover from the crush in the Treasury we had a much needed coffee overlooking the busy Bosphorus. Next we visited the display of arms with many ornately embellished swords as well as the crude iron swords used by the European crusaders. The Ottoman chain mail must have been very heavy to wear.

We moved on to the huge collection of European clocks either given as gifts to the sultans or bought by them. Some of the clocks were quite simple while one contained a German organ that played tunes on the hour. The only male European eyewitness accounts of life in the Harem were written by mechanics who serviced the clocks.

The Circumcision Pavilion was where the 10-year-old boys were taken to be circumcised. Nearby were the Baghdad Pavilion and the Ifariye Pavilion, both built to commemorate battles but later turned into libraries. The Baghdad pavilion has exquisite blue and white tile work.

Now we visited the setting where much of Jason Goodwin's stories take place, the harem. The Imperial Harem occupied one of the sections of the private apartments of the sultan; it contained more than 400 rooms. The harem was home to the sultan's mother, the Valide Sultan, the concubines and wives of the sultan, and the rest of his family, including children, and their servants. The harem consists of a series of buildings and structures, connected through hallways and courtyards. Every group residing in the harem had its own living space clustered around a courtyard. The number of rooms is not determined, with probably over 100, of which only a few are open to the public. These apartments were occupied respectively by the harem eunuchs on the outside of the harem, the Chief Harem Eunuch, the concubines, the queen mother, the sultan's consorts, the princes and the favourites. The harem wing was only added at the end of the 16th century. The structures expanded over time towards the Golden Horn side and evolved into a huge complex. It was very interesting visiting the harem as well as the Sultan's private rooms and seeing the huge, what we would call a bed, where he received his visitors.

It was time for a well deserved salad for lunch, which we enjoyed sitting outside near the palace but in a tranquil park setting.

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