THE AURA OF PAST EMPIRES lurks in every corner of Istanbul. Yesterday, I went back to Sultanahmet to revisit the Aya Sofya and to go to Topkapı Palace, the center of the Ottoman Empire and residence of its imperial sultans for over 400 years. While I only spent about one hour there, I was astonished at the beauty, historical significance, and opulence of the Palace. I will be going back many more times, as one could spends days wandering the many buildings, pathways, and courtyards of Istanbul’s most imperial landmark.
After alighting the tram from Kabataş, I found myself directly facing the Aya Sofya. I’ve already posted many pictures of this incredible building, but here is one more, capturing just what I saw as I got off of the tram (as always, click on these pictures to make them full-sized):
Walking behind the Aya Sofya, you find yourself on a pathway leading to Topkapı Palace:
At the end of the pathway, you stand at the Imperial Gate, the grandiose entrance to the palace grounds:
Sultan Mehmed II “The Conquerer,” a monumental figure in both Ottoman and world histories, began building Topkapı Palace in 1459. Among the notable events in Mehmed II’s lifetime are conquering Constantinople for the Ottoman Empire, constructing Topkapı Palace, creating significant cultural exchange between Western and Eastern artisans, and being defeated by the historical version of Dracula in 1462. The Venetian artist Gentile Bellini was fascinated by Ottoman society, and after developing a friendship with the Sultan, painted a portrait of him in 1480:
To finally enter the Palace courtyards, one must pass beneath the Gate of Salutations:
The Arabic calligraphy at the apex of the archway announces the presence of imperial majesty. The oval resting at the very top of the arch is the signature of the Ottoman Empire’s other famous sultan, Süleyman I “The Magnificent,” who ruled Istanbul during a golden age of art, prosperity, and trade. A different Italian painter, Titian, completed this portrait of Süleyman I circa 1530:
Here is a tower on one side of the Gate of Salutations:
Next, here is a picture of me in front of the entrance to the Imperial Council Hall. It’s rather opulent:
Here is the arch by itself, sans moi:
The Imperial Council Hall is where the Sultan and his Grand Viziers would meet to deliberate. Inside of the Hall, domes and walls are decorated with ornate patterns:
Also important (if oppressive) to the Ottoman Empire was the famed Harem, where upwards of fifty women would serve the sultan:
A it turns out, these sorts of sexual prisons were by no means exclusive to the Ottoman Empire. Similar places existed in Britian, France, and most of the Western world, when its societies were largely monarchical, heavily patriarchal, and overtly imperial. Unfortunately, to tour the harem costs additional money, so I did not get to see it yesterday. But I will go back soon, and provide many pictures.
Here is the entrance to the Sultan’s Reception Hall:
Here is some calligraphy above a palace archway:
Here are some various pictures of the courtyards and gardens of Topkapı Palace:
The above photographs are by no means representative of the entire Palace. As I said earlier, it is immense and enormous. There will be more pictures from Topkapı Palace in the coming months. One really interesting thing I saw in the palace, which I was not allowed to photograph, was the Hall of Holy Relics, which holds perhaps the world’s most sacred relics from the Christian and Islamic religions, including the following (purportedly) Biblical and Koranic items: David’s Sword, Joseph’s turban, Mohammed’s footprint, teeth, and sandals. In the hall, an imam chants verses from the Koran 24 hours daily, making for an eerily sacred-feeling experience. I’m not personally very impressed or interested in the spiritual element of the world’s religions, but one cannot help but be absolutely shocked by the cultural, historical, and temporal significance of these ancient items.
Leaving the Palace, I bought some orange juice, juiced right in front of me by a local vendor:
Walking through Sultanahmet, I was amused by this restaurant I passed, which humorously deems itself “The Best Turkish Restaurant”:
Here is a shot of the tramway which connects Sultanahmet to Kabataş:
Here is the 600 year old Galata Tower from across the Golden Horn:
Süleyman Mosque looked Magnificent in the sunset:
After such a long day of exploration, we needed to relax. So we found this great pub on the top floor of a tall building, from which you could look down on the streets:
This place was rather authentically Turkish; we were most definitely the only non-locals in the place. That is good though, as I try to avoid the overtly-touristic places. Inside of the pub, there was really interesting local live music, which you can hear in the background of this short video I took:
Next, we walked to a local jazz club, expecting to hear, well…local jazz. Instead, I think you’ll be surprised by what the band was playing as we walked in the door:
That’s correct, ZZ Top! This is just more evidence that you really never know what to expect in Istanbul. You can, in a single day, end up seeing and experiencing such different things. From sultans, to fallen empires, to local musicians, to spice bazaars, to blues rock in a jazz club, it’s all here.