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Topkapi's Second Courtyard and Harem

This past Wednesday, I introduced Topkapi Palace as the home of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire from the 1460s until 1856, when a new palace was completed. Today, I'll provide a look into the palace's second courtyard and harem. Ultimately, I will extend this series to one or two more parts.

Location. Topkapi Palace, directly translated as "Cannongate Palace," is located on Seraglio Point, a promontory overlooking the Marmara Sea, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. The palace is located directly behind the Hagia Sophia in the same spot where the city of Byzantium stood.

Function. Topkapi Palace was the official residence of the Ottoman sultans from the 1460s until the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid in 1853. For a 400-year period, the palace was the administrative, educational, and cultural center of the Ottoman Empire. It contained a school for civil servants and soldiers, dormitories, gardens, libraries, and even mosques. Access was strictly regulated, and inhabitants of the palace rarely (if ever) ventured outside.

From left to right, top to bottom: The "Imperial Gate" (entrance to the first courtyard), the "Gate of Salutation" (entrance to second courtyard), overview of the palace (image found here), and view from the Golden Horn.

First Courtyard. The first and outermost court of the palace is entered through the Imperial Gate. The courtyard is full of beautiful sidewalks and large trees, and also contains Hagia Irene. As I mentioned previously, Hagia Irene (6th century) is the only Byzantine church that was never converted into a mosque.

Images from the first courtyard: Leaving Hagia Irene to walk to the second gate.

Second Courtyard. Upon entering the second courtyard, my tour guide and I first looked at the palace kitchens, which cover the entire right-hand side of the second courtyard. They are huge and include twenty wide chimneys. A kitchen staff of more than 8,000 people prepared meals for up to 5,000 inhabitants of the palace here.

Today, the kitchens exhibit one of the world's best collections of Chinese blue-and-white, white, and celadon porcelain, most of which was imported from China and Japan and transported via camels over the legendary Silk Route.

The palace kitchens and one example of the fine porcelain china on display here.

The Tower of Justice. We also briefly viewed the Tower of Justice. We could not go up into the tower, but this is where sultan could sit and observe on-goings of the palace. At one point, this is also where the grand vizier and councilmen made all of the empire's critical decisions. Interestingly, the grand vizier and councilmen did not always know if the sultan was present. The sultan sat behind a dividing wall and, if he intended to watch the meeting and wanted them to know, he drew the curtains. If not, the council members were left to wonder.

Inside the second courtyard, we also visited the Weapons Room and Imperial Treasury display. The room was quite crowded, so we didn't stay long, but it did contain some pretty cool stuff.

The Weapons Room. The Weapons Room contains a large collection of European and Ottoman weapons and armor. The collection spans 1,300 years from the 7th to 20th centuries and is made up of more than 33,000 pieces.

The Imperial Treasury. The Imperial Treasury boasts many treasures, including the 18th-century Topkapi Emerald Dagger. The dagger was one of several valuable gifts from Sultan Mahmud I (1730–54) to the Shah of Iran, but was returned when the shah was assassinated before it could be delivered. Also pictured below is the Spoonmaker's Diamond, which I discussed in my last post, as well as a gold and diamond-encrusted cup holder from the kitchen display.

The Harem. From here, my tour guide and I visited the Harem. The word "harem" comes from Arabic and originally means forbidden. The Harem is not, however, the place where the sultan's thousands of concubines lived. On the contrary, it was the private quarters of the sultan and his mother, brothers, sisters, wives, and other family members. It was also home to the female slaves and black eunuchs who guarded the Harem.

That's not to say there isn't some truth to the stories associated with "harem." At its height, the Harem contained more than 1,000 women. Most of these women were mere servants, but it was the valide sultan, the mother of the sultan, who had control over whether or not a woman became more than a servant to her son. If chosen to become one of the sultan’s wives or concubines, a woman's goal was to bear the sultan a son and become the future valide sultan.

Only a few rooms of hundreds are available for the public's viewing today. Below are a few of my better pictures in (somewhat) chronological order.

Interestingly, even the valide sultan did not have a lot of freedom. My tour guide explained that she was not often allowed outside; thus, they painted images of trees and sunlight, etc. on her bedroom walls. The sultan and his mother had access to beautiful marble and gold bathrooms, and the sultan had an outdoor patio all to himself. The next to last picture shows a now empty pool where concubines were allowed to bathe (while the sultan watched), and beyond it, a grassy area and cages where the sultan kept exotic animals. My guide explained that many of these animals were gifts to the sultan from other nations.

The Imperial Hall. The last room I will explore today is the Imperial Hall. Also known as the "Throne Room" or the "Hall of Diversions," the Imperial Hall served as an official reception and ceremonial hall. The sultan would use it receive guests such as his confidants, consorts, mother, and children. It was also used for wedding and religious ceremonies, as well as the entertainment of the sultan and residents of the Harem.

Don't forget to click on the images to see them enlarged!

Fancy, huh? :D

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4 comentários

Hi Jessica,

Thanks for this terrific post. I like that I've learnt more about the word and meaning of Harem. It sounds like everything was strictly controlled. I suppose if you wanted to govern "effectively" in the days of the Ottoman Empire, regulatory control needed to be tight.

I'm looking forward to further instalments.

Jessica Cyphers
Jessica Cyphers
04 de abr. de 2023
Respondendo a

Lol, you and me both, Gary!

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