Splendors of Topkapi, Palace of the Ottoman Sultans

by Stanley Meisler

Smithsonian Magazine - February 2000"Splendors of Topkapi, Palace of the Ottoman Sultans" by Stanley Meisler was originally published in the February 2000 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine. A short abstract is available on the Smithsonian Magazine website. The complete text of the article is published here (copyright © 2000 - Stanley Meisler, all rights reserved). Subscribe to the Smithsonian Magazine.


For centuries, the Western world was fascinated by the marvels and mysteries of the Ottoman Empire and the sultans who ruled their vast domains from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Writers, composers and artists celebrated or satirized the omnipotence and opulence of the sultans and the secrecy lurking in the harem. The creative works about the Turks were so numerous that the French had a word for the genre: Turqueries.

The examples are plentiful and well-known. In the 17th century, Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme ridicules a bourgeois father who allows a young man to marry his daughter only after the suitor pretends to be the son of the sultan. In the 18th century, Mozart's opera The Abduction from the Seraglio tells the story of two kidnapped young women who are freed from a pasha's palace. In the 19th century, Ingres beguiles his patrons by painting fanciful scenes of voluptuous women lying languidly in the harem and Turkish baths.

All this came to an end as the Ottoman Empire dwindled over the years and then crashed apart in World War I, soon bringing the dynasty of sultans down with it. Although tourists come to Istanbul every year, a fascination with the Ottoman sultans no longer grips the Western imagination.

Now the rest of the world receives only occasional reminders of the sultans and their empire and palace. Images of grandeur and power from old history books come back to us, for example, when war breaks out in former provinces of the empire like Bosnia and Kosovo, or an earthquake threatens the treasures in the Topkapi Palace Museum, or the government of Turkey allows a sumptuous selection of those treasures to tour outside the country.

One such reminder is on its way to the United States. A new exhibition, Palace of Gold & Light: Treasures from the Topkapi, Istanbul, will open at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. on March 1 and remain until June 15 before moving on to the San Diego Museum of Art (July 14-September 24) and the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale (October 15-February 28, 2001).

The show will include the emerald-studded dagger that earned notoriety 36 years ago as the target of a band of thieves in the movie Topkapi, the throne used by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent on his battle campaigns during the 16th century, and more than 200 other items, including swords and daggers, royal clothes, carpets, textiles, ceramics, manuscripts, jewels, armor, paintings and finely crafted objects of art. Organized by the nonprofit Palace Arts Foundation and largely curated by Tulay Artan, a social historian at Istanbul's Sabanci University, the exhibition will endeavor to relate these treasures to the history of the Ottoman Empire and the Topkapi Palace.

The show comes to the United States at a time of soul-searching in Istanbul over the Topkapi Palace. The August 1999 earthquake, which killed thousands in western Turkey, caused only minor damage to the palace, but called attention to Topkapi's inadequacies as a museum. A daring robbery a few weeks later undermined confidence in the complex's security. In addition, visitors often leave Topkapi with a confused understanding of the palace and its history. Some of the confusion, scholars say, comes from the nature of the place, for it is a hybrid - part museum like the Louvre in France, part historic building like Versailles.

"The Topkapi has to decide," says Filiz Ozer of Istanbul Technical University as she rushes through the rooms of the harem, "what it is going to be - a Versailles or a Louvre. I am an architectural historian, and I have spent much of my life in this palace. At every corner, I see something wrong, and it breaks my heart." But even experts who agree with her cannot agree on what should be done.

The Topkapi Palace was built by Sultan Mehmed II, "the Conqueror," after his army stormed and sacked Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople, the last outpost of Christendom in the East, shocked and frightened the rest of Europe. Mehmed understood the symbolic importance of conquering the city that had once served as capital of the Roman Empire. He took "Roman Caesar" as one of his titles, declared Constantinople (which soon became known by the Turkish name Istanbul) capital of his Ottoman empire, and built a new palace from which to rule his vast domains. Claiming Alexander the Great as his model, Mehmed ordered courtiers to read portions of a Greek biography of the Macedonian conqueror to him every day. The book is still in the Topkapi library.

As the site of the new palace, he chose the ancient Byzantine acropolis, high above the confluence of three vital bodies of water: the Bosporus, which separates Europe from Asia; the Golden Horn, which separates the ancient quarters of the city from the rest; and the Sea of Marmara. The palace was called the New Imperial Palace then but took on the name Topkapi Sarayi (Palace of the Cannon Gate) several centuries later.

At the zenith of its power in the 16th century, the Ottoman dynasty of the Topkapi Palace ruled an empire that included Greece and the Balkans, much of the Caucasus and the Crimea, most of the Middle East, and the populated areas of North Africa. The cities of Athens, Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Bucharest, Sofia, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Mecca, Cairo, Alexandria and Tunis all at one point belonged to the Ottoman Empire. The sultans lived in the Topkapi until the middle of the 19th century, when their taste turned more Western and led them to a residence more like that of European royalty.

From afar, the Topkapi Palace is still a sterling sight - a walled array of domes and turrets and minaret-like chimneys and belvederes commanding the city from on high. Once on the acropolis, visitors enter the palace by passing through a monumental gate guarded by twin towers. Save for the Arabic inscriptions and calligraphic signatures of sultans, known as tughras, on its facade, the gate looks like the entry to a medieval European castle. But the gate does not lead to a grand building of any kind. The palace is really a complex encompassing 173 acres of gardens, courtyards and vistas, workshops, kitchens and armories, baths and fountains, offices and halls and residential areas. In its heyday, the Topkapi resembled a small city, inhabited by the sultan, his royal family and thousands of bureaucrats, soldiers, craftsmen and servants.

Some buildings now house exhibits. The most spectacular pieces in the upcoming show, the majority crafted by palace artisans, come from a building now known as the Treasury. Other exhibits on the grounds display lavish gifts to the sultans, such as the Meissen and Limoges porcelain presented by European royalty. Some buildings - the library and kitchens, for instance - attempt to impart an idea of their original function. Some walls have original tiles and decorations and fountains; other walls are bare. The living quarters of the sultans and the harem are less like a huge mansion than a confusing, many-domed warren of interlocking rooms and courtyards.

There are stunning sights in the Topkapi. The rooms of the Privy Chamber, where sultans lived and kept their throne, still retain the gleaming domes, and the flowered and brilliantly colored tiles from the town of Iznik that decorated the complex in the 16th century. A visitor can still feel the beauty, even though the rooms are now kept in dim light because of the swords, hairs, holy mantle and other relics of Muhammad displayed there.

A visitor can also take in all the opulence of the bedroom that Sultan Murad III built for himself within the harem during the late 16th century. Murad, who did not care much for affairs of state, was regarded by Europeans as a great libertine. His bedroom, really a cluster of rooms, was designed by Sinan, the architect of some of the great mosques in Istanbul. An inscription of that era describes the bedroom pavilion as fulfilling the sultan's request for something "beautiful, exhilarating and unequaled." The walls of the enormous chamber are covered with Iznik tiles. There is a plume-shaped bronze fireplace, a gilt dome and an intricate marble fountain. "In an Ottoman room," says Filiz Ozer, "if you see running water, you know the room was a meeting place. Water conceals voices."

Two pavilions built in the 17th century - known as the Baghdad Kiosk and the Revan Kiosk - retain most of their original decoration. These lovely pavilions, replete with alcoves and windows, stand in the sultan's private court near gardens, a fountain, a pool and a gazebo. In the old days, carpets, textiles and sofas would fill the alcoves, and the sultans, accompanied by women or courtiers, would relax by listening to music, writing poetry, taking food or opening the mother-of-pearl shutters to watch the ships on the waters below. "I will tell you that these kiosks are the most agreeable buildings that the Turks have," wrote Albert Bobovi, an enslaved Polish musician who worked in the palace for 19 years during the 17th century. Visitors can still catch the mood.

Yet, despite these flashes of beauty, a visitor is likely to feel a little disconcerted leaving the palace, as if the key to it all were somehow missing. Gulru Necipoglu, professor of Islamic art and architecture at Harvard University and one of the world's leading scholars on the Topkapi, grew up in Istanbul and remembers the bewilderment of tourists unable to fathom the compound's architecture. "I once heard someone walk out of the palace gate and say to his friend, 'Where was the palace?'" she recalls.

It was Necipoglu who uncovered the key to understanding the complex. "I used to go there and look at the buildings," she says, "and I could never figure out what it was all about. Books on the Topkapi and the Ottoman Empire used to say that the palace was built in a haphazard way with one sultan adding buildings to what had come before. I began to doubt this."

In 1991, after extensive research, Necipoglu published a book, Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: The Topkapi Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, that changed scholarly ideas about the origin and meaning of the Topkapi. Necipoglu revealed that sultans had renovated the palace but had never changed its original structure. That structure, in fact, resembled the layout of a traditional tent encampment when sultans led armies into battle, and embodied the imperial might of the Ottoman Empire.

Unlike a palace such as Versailles, which exuded power through its monumental size, the Topkapi demonstrated power through the inaccessibility and mystery of the sultan and his court. An outsider would typically move through the first two courts of the palace, transact business in various offices, perhaps catch a glimpse of the sultan in some ceremony, but never enter the inner sanctum. Visitors could measure their importance by noting how close the strict ceremonial etiquette of the palace allowed them to the sultan. But the living quarters of the sultan, his harem, his private gardens, his pavilions, were all off-limits to outsiders, no matter how distinguished or mighty.

"Some modern architectural critics have argued that the small buildings of the Topkapi showed that the sultans were modest men who showered their love on the great monumental mosques," says Necipoglu. "But that's not true. What seems to us haphazard and modest is, in actuality, what they considered to be a symbol of power."

Necipoglu suggests that new guidebooks and additional placards could offer visitors a better understanding of the palace. But the outspoken Filiz Ozer believes this would still leave the original function of many rooms obscured because they are now used to display museum pieces. She points, for instance, to the Treasury. "This was the original home of the sultan," she says. "It has to be changed to show that the building is more important than the jewels." Then she shrugs and adds with a smile, "But maybe this is going too far." Her afterthought reflects the ambivalence of Topkapi scholars. Some would like to transfer the priceless works of art and craft to a modern museum. Yet many fear that removing the exhibits, though sensible from a scientific viewpoint, would denude the palace of the signs of past opulence.

Yet there is also agreement that the Topkapi does not really function well as a museum. "There is no conservation," says Walter B. Denny, professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts and a well-known scholar of Ottoman art. "There is not a single climate-controlled room, not a single square inch of climate-controlled storage. It's a security nightmare. If I thought a lot about this, I wouldn't sleep at night. I worry about the things I love."

Since many of the palace's walls are ten feet thick, the complex escaped structural damage in the devastating August 1999 earthquake. But Filiz Cagman, a distinguished scholar who is the director of the Topkapi Palace Museum, says that tiles and plaster were damaged. The experience persuaded Cagman to transfer much of the palace's grand collection of china into new mounts.

The palace staff received a second blow a few weeks after the earthquake. A thief or a gang of thieves broke into the library at night and stole a section of a 12th-century Koran from a locked case. "The robbery was very scary for the museum," says Tulay Artan. "There is a fear that the thieves wanted to issue a challenge, that they wanted to say they can take anything they want." While stealing the Koran, the thieves left behind far more valuable manuscripts, leading to speculation that the crime may have been an attempt to embarrass the director. The culprits, according to that speculation, may be Islamic extremists who want the palace turned into a religious shrine.

The traveling exhibition in the United States does not try to create the illusion of the Topkapi Palace. But Artan, the curator, has bunched related pieces together to help visitors understand the significance of the palace and the Ottoman Empire. She wants them, first of all, to feel the power of Mehmed the Conqueror. The exhibition displays the sword he carried into battle, with its silver cap, bone handle and slightly curved, 40-inch steel blade inscribed in gold calligraphy. A Greek manuscript describing Mehmed's conquest of Constantinople also graces the exhibition, along with his worn blue kaftan and talismanic shirt bearing Koranic scriptures to ward off evil spirits.

Portraits of Mehmed, including one by Gentile Bellini now in the National Gallery in London, reveal a thoughtful man with piercing dark eyes and a long, slender nose. Bellini showed up in Istanbul after Mehmed asked the doge of Venice to send him a "good painter." Mehmed spoke Turkish, Greek, Arabic, Latin, Persian and Hebrew fluently and displayed a considerable interest in Christianity, which led some European Christians to hope that he might convert. Pope Pius II promised him fame even greater than that of Alexander, Caesar or Constantine if he converted and united his empire under the Christian faith. "There is a controversy today, in fact," says Artan, "between those who believe Mehmed considered converting to Christianity and those who believe he did not."

The best-known sultan is probably Suleyman the Magnificent, who expanded the empire in bounds and came close to capturing Vienna in the 16th century. History shows contrary sides of Suleyman. A Venetian envoy described him as "by nature melancholy, much addicted to women, liberal, proud, hasty, and yet sometimes very gentle." He wrote love poetry under the pen name Muhibbi and remained devoted for many years to a Ukrainian concubine named Roxelana, whom he married. In one poem, he describes Roxelana, who took the name Hurrem after her conversion to Islam, as "My sheer delight, my revelry, my feast, my torch, my sunshine, my sun in heaven;/My orange, my pomegranate, the flaming candle that lights up my pavilion." Often called the Lawgiver, Suleyman codified and simplified a complex and confusing array of legal procedures. His code attempted to wipe out discriminatory practices against Christian subjects and eased the draconian punishments against criminals.

But his reign had a dark side as well. Although the killing of rival brothers had long been a practice among sultans, Suleyman executed two of his sons as potential threats and often ordered the slaughter of prisoners after battle. He was a haughty ruler who started the sultanate tradition of refusing to say a single word when foreign ambassadors presented their credentials.

The exhibition includes Suleyman's throne, sword and tughra. The walnut-and-ebony throne, which Suleyman used on battle campaigns, is constructed so it can be taken apart and reassembled. Decorated in ivory and mother-of-pearl, the throne would be fitted with carpets and cushions so that the sultan could sit cross-legged upon it. The sword, known as a "yataghan," is an exquisite example of Ottoman craftsmanship, its steel blade and ivory hilt lavishly decorated with gold and jewels. Suleyman's tughra is shown in an eight-foot-long illuminated work by the 16th-century artist Kara Memi.

Turkish scholars seem defensive about the Topkapi harem, mostly because of the titillating and fanciful accounts by ill-informed travelers over the centuries. It is, of course, difficult to break the popular erotic image when historians relate stories of Sultan Murad III passing between two lines of concubines and tossing a handkerchief at the one he fancied for the night. In the late 16th century, Sultan Selim II could choose from 150 concubines guarded by the 18 African eunuchs who ran the harem.

Scholars, however, regard the harem as a vital system of organizing the empire. Although the women were mostly non-Turkish slaves, either offered as gifts by their families or captured, they were well educated and lived in fine apartments with many servants. If they became favorites of the sultan, they wielded influence. If one's son became sultan, she assumed a powerful position in the palace. Despite their status as slaves, these women had some choice in ordering their future lives. Favorites who failed to produce a son could marry the highest officials of the empire. Those who never became favorites could accept an influential servant's job in the palace or a proposal of marriage from an outsider.

Topkapi scholars do not know which furnishings fit which rooms of the palace, but the array of carpets and curtains and bedding and cushion covers and tiles in the exhibition offer a hint of the sumptuous life within the mysterious harem. Some featured carpets are known as Lotto and Holbein carpets because carpets with similar patterns appeared in the paintings of Lorenzo Lotto and Hans Holbein the Younger during the 16th century.

The Topkapi Palace employed scores of artisans and was the center of Ottoman art. In 1575, for example, the palace enlisted 898 artisans. According to recent research by Filiz Cagman, they included painters, designers, tile makers, calligraphers, book binders, manuscript illuminators, goldsmiths, engravers, swordsmiths, bow and arrow makers, carpet and textile weavers, armorers, gunsmiths, furriers, ivory craftsmen, musical instrument makers and potters.

The new exhibition offers some of the finest examples of their work, much of it heavily jeweled. The best known is the Topkapi dagger, its sheath studded with diamonds, its hilt displaying three giant emeralds; a fourth emerald, at the top, conceals a small watch. Sultan Mahmud I ordered the dagger as a gift for the shah of Persia in the 18th century. The shah, however, was assassinated before Ottoman envoys could deliver the gift. Another example is a 16th-century sultan's pen box encrusted with jewels.

Some sultans chafed under the strict ceremonial rules of the Topkapi, and dissatisfaction with the palace intensified as the rulers became more Westernized and envious of their counterparts in Europe. In the 19th century, Sultan Mahmud II deplored the comparison of the Topkapi to Western palaces. "None save a rogue or a fool," he said, "could class that palace...hidden beneath high walls, and amid dark trees...with these light, laughing palaces, open to the free air, and pure sunshine of heaven."

The Topkapi Palace was abandoned in 1853 for the new Dolmabahce Palace. The sultans lived there while their empire and dynasty disintegrated - dismantled by British, French and Italian imperialism, nationalism in Greece and the Balkans, wars with Russia, an alliance with the losing side in World War I, and the creation of the Turkish republic by the war hero Ataturk in 1923.

The Dolmabahce was all that the Topkapi could not be. It was a monumental, three-story symmetrical building, with 285 rooms, 43 salons and an enormous reception hall. But the Dolmabahce suffered from a vital lack. It had none of the mystery and charm and history of the wondrous Topkapi.


Floral motifs adorn the gold-plated horse's head frontal.
Selamet Taskin / Topkapi Palace Museum

The notorious Topkapi dagger is laden with precious stones.
Hadiye Cangökçe / Palace Arts Foundation

The Topkapi Palace looks out across the junction of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara to Asia. Its collections boast such treasures as a 15th-century Ming celadon pitcher.
Yann Arthus Bertrand / Corbis; Hadiye Cangökçe / Palace Arts Foundation

A bejeweled 17th-century turban ornament denoted royal power. A 16th-century jewel-encrusted pen box was likely used by a sultan.
Hadiye Cangökçe (2) / Palace Arts Foundation

The Topkapi manifested power through the inaccessibility and mystery of the sultan and his court. His living quarters, harem and private gardens were off-limits to outsiders.
Exterior entrance to the Council Hall. Elaborate interior of the Apartment of the Crown Prince. Refurbished golden dome of the Privy Chamber's throne room, now the Chamber of the Holy Mantle. 18th-century chamber of Ahmed III, also known as the Fruit Room.
Wolfgang Kaehler; Ara Güler; Ali Konyali (2) / Palace Arts Foundation

"I will tell you that these kiosks are the most agreeable buildings that the Turks have," wrote an enslaved Polish musician who worked in the palace during the 17th-century. These pavilions, replete with alcoves and windows, stand in the sultan's private court.
The Baghdad Kiosk was built in 1635-38 by Murad IV to commemorate his victory over the city of Baghdad.
Robert Frerck / Odyssey

The gold incense burner bears the name of a sultan's daughter. Portrait of Mehmed II, founder of Topkapi, was painted for a 16th-century manuscript. Rock-crystal canteen is from the 17th century.
Hadiye Cangökçe (3) / Palace Arts Foundation


Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: The Topkapi Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries
Gulru Necipoglu
Architectural History Foundation & MIT Press, 1991

The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire
Lord Kinross
Morrow Quill, 1977

Splendors of the Ottoman Sultans
Dr. Nurhan Atasoy, Tulay Artan (translator)
Wonders, 1992

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