The Topkapı Palace (Turkish: Topkapı Sarayı or in Ottoman Turkish: طوپقپو سرايى) is a large palace in Istanbul, Turkey, that was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years (1465-1856) of their 624-year reign.
As well as a royal residence, the palace was a setting for state occasions and royal entertainments. It is now a major tourist attraction and contains important holy relics of the Muslim world, including Muhammed's cloak and sword. The Topkapı Palace is among the monuments contained within the "Historic Areas of Istanbul", which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, and is described under UNESCO's criterion iv as "the best example[s] of ensembles of palaces [...] of the Ottoman period."
The palace complex consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. At its peak, the palace was home to as many as 4,000 people, and covered a large area with a long shoreline. It contained mosques, a hospital, bakeries, and a mint. Construction began in 1459, ordered by Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople. It was originally called the New Palace (Yeni Sarayı) to distinguish it from the previous residence. It received the name "Topkapı" (Cannon Gate) in the 19th century, after a (now lost) gate and shore pavilion. The complex was expanded over the centuries, with major renovations after the 1509 earthquake and the 1665 fire.
After the 17th century the Topkapı Palace gradually lost its importance as the sultans preferred to spend more time in their new palaces along the Bosphorus. In 1856, Sultan Abdül Mecid I decided to move the court to the newly built Dolmabahçe Palace, the first European-style palace in the city. Some functions, such as the imperial treasury, the library, and the mint, were retained in the Topkapı Palace.
Following the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Topkapı Palace was transformed by a government decree dated April 3, 1924 into a museum of the imperial era. The Topkapı Palace Museum is administered by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The palace complex has hundreds of rooms and chambers, but only the most important are accessible to the public today. The complex is guarded by officials of the ministry as well as armed guards of the Turkish military. The palace includes many fine examples of Ottoman architecture. It contains large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, shields, armor, Ottoman miniatures, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts and murals, as well as a display of Ottoman treasures and jewelry.
Byzantine remains in the Second Courtyard.
The palace complex is located on the Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu), a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, with a good view of the Bosphorus from many points of the palace. The site is hilly and one of the highest points close to the sea. During Greek and Byzantine times, the acropolis of the ancient Greek city of Byzantion stood here. There is an underground Byzantine cistern located in the Second Courtyard, which was used throughout Ottoman times, as well as remains of a small church, the so-called Palace Basilica on the acropolis, which have been excavated in modern times. The nearby Church of Hagia Eirene, though located in the First Courtyard, is not considered a part of the old Byzantine acropolis.
Sultan Mehmed II ordered the initial construction around the 1460s
After the Ottoman conquest in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II found the imperial Byzantine Great Palace of Constantinople largely in ruins. The Ottoman court initially set itself up in the Old Palace (Eski Sarayı), today the site of Istanbul University. The Sultan then searched for a better location and chose the old Byzantine acropolis, ordering the construction of a new palace in 1459.
Scale model of Seraglio Point with the Topkapı Palace complex
Scale model of the inner part of the palace (2nd-4th courtyards)
Layout of the 2nd-4th courtyards (plan of the harem appears separately later in the article)
Sultan Mehmed II established the basic layout of the palace. He used the highest point of the promontory for his private quarters and innermost buildings. Various buildings and pavilions surrounded the innermost core and grew down the promontory towards the shores of the Bosphorus. The whole complex was surrounded by high walls, some of which date back to the Byzantine acropolis. This basic layout governed the pattern of future renovations and extensions. According to an account of the contemporary historian Critobulus of Imbros the sultan also
"... took care to summon the very best workmen from everywhere - masons and stonecutters and carpenters ... For he was constructing great edifices which were to be worth seeing and should in every respect vie with the greatest and best of the past. For this reason he needed to give them the most careful oversight as to workmen and materials of many kinds and the best quality, and he also was concerned with the very many and great expenses and outlays."
Accounts differ as to when construction of the inner core of the palace started and was finished. Kritovolous gives the dates 1459-1465; other sources suggest a finishing date in the late 1460s.
Unlike some other royal residences that had strict master plans, such as Schönbrunn Palace or the Palace of Versailles, Topkapı Palace developed over the course of centuries, with sultans adding and changing various structures and elements. The resulting asymmetry is the result of this erratic growth and change over time, although the main layout by Mehmed II was preserved. Most of the changes occurred during the reign of Sultan Suleyman from 1520 to 1560. With the rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman wanted its growing power and glory to be reflected in his residence, and new buildings were constructed or enlarged. The chief architect in this period was the Persian Alaüddin, also known as Acem Ali. He was also responsible for the expansion of the Harem.
In 1574, a great fire destroyed the kitchens. Sinan was entrusted by Sultan Selim II to rebuild the destroyed parts, which he did, expanding them, as well as the Harem, baths, the Privy Chamber and various shoreline pavilions. By the end of the 16th century, the palace had acquired its present appearance.
The palace is an extensive complex rather than a single monolithic structure, with an assortment of low buildings constructed around courtyards, interconnected with galleries and passages. Few of the buildings exceed two stories. Interspersed are trees, gardens and water fountains, to give a refreshing feeling to the inhabitants and to provide places to rest. The buildings enclosed the courtyards, and life revolved around them. Doors and windows face the courtyard to create an open atmosphere and provide cool air during hot summers.
The palace compound, seen from above, is a rough rectangle, divided into four main courtyards and the harem. The main axis is from south to north, the outermost (first) courtyard starting at the south, with each successive courtyard leading north. The first courtyard was the most accessible one, while the innermost (fourth) courtyard and the harem were the most inaccessible, being the sole private domain of the sultan. The fifth courtyard was in reality the outermost rim of the palace grounds bordering the sea. Access to these courtyards was restricted by high walls and controlled with gates. Apart from the four to five main courtyards, various other small to mid-sized courtyards exist throughout the complex. The total size of the complex varies from around 592,600 square meters to 700,000 square meters, depending on which parts are counted.
Basketmakers' Kiosk (foreground), Topkapı Palace in the back.
The southern and western sides border the large former imperial flower park, today Gülhane Park. Surrounding the palace compound on the southern and eastern side is the Sea of Marmara. Various related buildings such as small summer palaces (kasrı), pavilions, kiosks (köşkü) and other structures for royal pleasures and functions formerly existed at the shore in an area known as the Fifth Place, but have disappeared over time due to neglect and the construction of the shoreline railroad in the 19th century. The last remaining seashore structure that still exists today is the Basketmakers' Kiosk, constructed in 1592 by Sultan Murad III. The total area of Topkapı Palace was in fact much larger than what it is today.