No stranger to the corridors of power, the Monkey felt right at home in the lavish surroundings of Topkapi Palace, once the heart of Ottoman imperial power. These shots are from the Monkey’s September 2002 visit to Istanbul.
The Monkey visited the massive campus of the Topkapi Palace, the imperial center of the Ottoman Empire, home to the Sultans, the Harem, and many architectural treasures. The complex is a colossal set of buildings on the highest ground in Sultanahmet, with views over the Bosphorus to Asia and over the Golden Horn toward Galata and beyond. Construction began under Mehmet the Conqueror shortly after the fall of Constantinople in the 1453 and was continued by subsequent sultans until 1853, when the Sultan moved the court to the Dolmabahce Palace up the Bosphorus. Interestingly, the common nickname assigned to the Ottoman imperial power, the Sublime Porte, referred to the massive gate through which one entered the first of Topkapi’s four courtyards.
Here the Monkey rests on a railing by the Baghdad Kiosk (not visible), built to celebrate the Ottoman conquest of Baghdad in 1638. The domed building to the left contains relics of the Prophet Mohammed, including hair from his beard, a tooth, and strangely, a footprint. There are also swords and possessions of his and members of his entourage; all the relics were reserved for the Sultan’s immediate circles, but in the 1960s they went on public display. The shiny canopy is the centerpiece of a terrace with stellar views over the Golden Horn.
The Monkey takes in the view from the Topkapi Palace. Even a wide angle lens fails to capture the breadth of the vista here. The waters of the Bosphorus , busy with ferry traffic and commercial shipping, divide the city into its European and Asian sectors. On the left is the European shore, and at right is the Asian one. In the distance you can just make out the legs of the Bosphorus suspension bridge at Ortaköy. Its 1074 meter span make it one of the longest bridges in the world, and connected the two sides of the city for the first time in 1973. As far as the Monkey can tell, this is the first bridge that ever connected two continents!
Water and cleanliness are crucial elements of the Islamic faith, which helps explain why cities in the Ottoman Empire boasted neighborhood hammams (public Turkish baths) centuries before Queen Victoria quipped that she took a bath once a year whether she needed it or not. Islamic faithful perform their ritual ablutions (cleansing) before prayer at least every Friday in fountains outside the mosques. Here, the Monkey inspects the intricate designs of a faucet at Topkapi Palace. He wants to emphasize that this fountain was not used for ritual ablutions! It was one of the decorative aspects of one of Topkapi’s many garden courtyards.
The Harem is one of the most notorious institutions of the Ottoman Empire. The word “harem” is Arabic for “forbidden” and refers to the part of the palace where the women lived and worked. Despite popular conceptions, not all the women of the Harem were sex slaves. The Sultan’s own mother (referred to as the Valide Sultan) resided in the Harem, and exercised considerable influence there. The Sultan’s daughters, too, lived in the Harem. But many of the women of the Harem were brought from throughout the Empire as gifts, prisoners of war, or kidnap victims.
The Harem women numbered several hundred at a time, but only some of these would be chosen by the Sultan as lovers; the others served as female slaves tending to tasks like laundry and watching children, always aware of their potential “call-up.” The Harem had some 400 rooms and made for a true labyrinth. This is a ceremonial hall within the Harem; the Sultan would host the women of his Harem in the hall on special occasions, officiating over events from the little kiosk with the yellow couch.
Inside the Sultan’s living quarters in the Harem, the Monkey examined the intricate and beautiful tiles that decorate the Sultan’s library. Ottoman architecture made elaborate use of the colorful, patterned tiles made mostly at Iznik, some 100 kilometers from Istanbul. The turquoise (can you guess where that word comes from? hint, hint), blue, white, and red-orange tiles decorated mosques, palaces, and other buildings all over the Empire. Here you can see a few Iznik tiles up close, while below is a photo of the tiles used to great effect as exterior decoration.
The Monkey happily poses by another building of the Harem that reveals the splendor and intricacy of the architecture at Topkapi. For a time this building was thought to be the notorious “Cage”, where Sultans locked their younger male siblings (along with a supply of concubines and deaf mutes) so as to avoid fratricidal succession struggles. Of course, if called upon years later to succeed their elder brothers as Sultans, the younger brothers inevitably emerged from the Cage demented, spoiled, and totally out of touch with the world’s ways (or even royal ways!). The Cage was a twisted take on the metaphorical “ivory tower,” and many scholars assign some of the blame for the Empire’s decline to the Cage itself, which spawned sultans with names like Ibrahim the Mad.
Inside the Harem at Topkapi Palace, there are at least 10 hammams. The Monkey paused by one of the spigots in the Sultans’ very own hammam. This may be the only royal bathroom picture the Monkey ever manages to achieve, and is worthy of inclusion here for that reason alone.
The Monkey waits in the Throne Room for his audience with the Sultan, who never arrived. Pssst, Monkey, the Sultans aren’t calling the shots in these parts any more. You need to go to Ankara and speak with the PM!
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