The Topkapi Palace Museum I

Istanbul's history dates back to 633 B.C. when Doric settlers from Megara founded a small, commercial colony here that became known as Byzantion. Two major constraints dictated the siting of ancient cities: topography and strategic considerations. The site of this new town was located at the tip of a peninsula that commanded three waterways. With the formal establishment of the polis, a city wall measuring five kilometers in length and having twenty-seven towers was built as protection. Within the walls, a hill within the walls was selected as its acropolis. This was the first of the city's eventual seven hills - apparently a topographical "must" for legendary ancient cities.

Continuous expansion and growth resulted in several transformations of the city's appearance. The first major one took place in 196, during the reign of the Roman emperor Septimus Severus. This involved the rebuilding of the land wall. Another Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, transformed the city into a great metropolis that he renamed Constantinopolis. This city was to become the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 412 with the aim of creating a new metropolis to serve as the capital of his empire, Emperor Theodosius undertook the fourth major expansion of the city and rebuilt the landwalls.

In the course of the centuries, palaces were built, abandoned, demolished, and rebuilt. Most of these overlooked the Sea of Marmara. Thus the Emperor Justinian (565-578) was making a radical and - for the city - fateful change when he decided to locate his new palace (Blachernae) at a place where the seawalls of the Golden Horn met the landwalls cutting across the peninsula. By the time of Alexius Comnenus (1061-1118), Blachernae was officially designated the imperial residence and all the other Byzantine palaces were abandoned.

Two thousand one hundred forty years after the foundation of the city, a young Ottoman sultan conquered the city at the age of twenty-three. Mehmed the II, given the name Fatih "Conqueror" in honor of his victory, made his conquest the capital of his vigorous, expanding empire. With his ambitions for world domination, he chose as the site of his administrative center and residence the very same place on which the original city was founded: a coincidence, perhaps, but more likely a reaffirmation of the rules of locational determinism; for even the length of the surrounding walls and the area they contained were close to those of ancient Byzantion.

At the time of his conquest, Sultan Mehmed encountered an impoverished city with a population of a mere forty thousand souls who lived scattered about in isolated residential sections set amidst cultivated fields. The site he chose for his palace was typical: a hill covered with an olive grove, presumably several abandoned monastic structures, chapels, and bathhouses, and a small residential district by the sea.

This was the beginning of an unprecedented scheme of grandiose proportions which became synonymous with Ottoman cultural and administrative history. More than a residential complex for the royal household, the new palace was to become the pivotal institution for the planning and decision-making institutions of a far-flung empire and it remained so from the late 15th century to the middle of the l9th.

With its "irregular, asymmetric, non-axial, and un-monumental proportions" as some European travelers described it, Topkapi Palace was certainly quite different from the European palaces with which they were familiar whether in terms of appearance or of layout. But it was also fundamentally different from oriental or Islamic palaces even though they might have had similar patterns of spatial organization. In fact, Topkapi was a sui generis microcosm, a paradise on earth or "to borrow a term from Ottoman palace terminology" The Palace of Felicity.

Topkapi may be considered a trans-cultural focal point in which a holistic civilization was created from the nomadic culture of Turkish tribesmen whose forefathers had set out from Central Asia and reached Asia Minor with stopovers in Persia and Mesopotamia. Within the historically short period of two centuries, the Ottomans rose from a small, feudal principality to become a major -the major- world power, yet at the same time they possessed a court tradition and culture of their own that was over a thousand years old. Undoubtedly Topkapi involved a synthesis of Byzantine elements but what grew up on the peninsula by the Golden Horn cannot possibly be divorced from its predecessors in Ottoman history.

With their conquest of Bursa in 1326, the Ottomans developed a new (for them) concept of a palace situated within a citadel in their new capital. Although no definite historical information is available about this palace's formal and functional organization, it may be assumed that it was here that the social organization and components of future palaces were shaped.

During the period of the empire's early formation and expansion (particularly during the conquest of the European territories called Rumeli) the concept of an established administrative capital had - for geopolitical reasons - to be flexible. Following his capture of Dimetoka in 1362, Murad I ordered the construction of a palace there and until 1368, that city served as the empire's temporary capital. The early sultans perforce developed the concept of keeping the center of administrative power moving as dictated by the mobility of military power.

Although Edirne was also conquered in 1362, and became the center of the administration of the empire's Rumelian territories, it did not become the formal capital until 1368, following the completion of a new palace built there. At the same time, Bursa remained a capital in its own right. Thus we see that the earlier empire was one in which there was a plurality of administrative focal points.

The first palace to be built in Edirne (which later became known as Eski Saray "Old Palace") was located in a place called Kavak Meydanl, the spot where Selimiye mosque was to be built in the 16th century. During the brief reign of Celebi Musa (1411), the palace grounds, in the form of a square, were protected by a wall fifteen meters high which turned it into an urban citadel. We have almost no detailed information about this palace's formal or functional organization or its architectural features.

Since it was originally the custom in the Ottoman empire for princes of the line to serve as provincial governors in cities like Kutahya, Amasya, and Manisa, palaces -whether new ones or reconstructions of existing ones- were built in such places for them to reside in.

Back in Edirne, work on the construction of a new palace began in 1447 on the banks of the Tunca river. It was not completed until 1457, by which time Mehmed II had already occupied the throne for six years and Istanbul for four.

After the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, a new palace for the Ottoman house was built within the walls of the city at a place called Forum Tauri. It replaced an abandoned monastery there. Also referred to in old Ottoman sources as Eski Saray, this palace covered a rather large area. Sultan Mehmed did not, however, live there much, preferring to take up residence in Edirne between campaigns.

When Istanbul was declared the empire's formal capital however, Eski Saray acquired the status of the sovereign's residence. Mehmed lived there until about the middle of the 1470's, by which time he had realized that he needed to construct a new palace whose grandeur and magnificence were more in accord with his imperial ambitions as evinced in the title "Ruler of the Two Seas and the Two Continents" that he assumed.

Within the remarkably short span of only ten years, four palaces were built in succession. It was probably this more than anything else that firmly established the roots of the extraordinary spatio-social evolutionary process that was to become the Ottoman palace tradition. The developmental stages of these palaces clearly define the royal house's developing conceptualization of what a palace should be: seat of government and imperial residence. The elements of this duality mutually influenced and transformed each other affecting the spatial and functional components of the Ottoman palaces until the early 18th century. The stages in this development may be summarized as:

Topkapi was the first Ottoman palace to be built (1466-1478) in the newly conquered capital of the Empire by Mehmet II. Located on the spot where the foundations of the city were first laid in ancient times by Megarian Chief Byzas in the 7th century BC, the palace boasts one of the most beautiful views of Istanbul, incorporating the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, the two shores and the sea of Marmara. Unlike the European palaces, Topkapi is not a single monumental structure but a more organic complex made up of various kiosks, gardens and areas spread over the tip of the historical peninsula at the entry of the Golden Horn. Topkapi Palace served as the residence of Ottoman sultans for about 400 years, until Abdulmecid built the Dolmabahce Palace. In its hey-days, there were between 8-10 thousand people living in the palace, mostly being the Janissaries.

It was turned into a museum in 1924 and has become one of the most attractive palace-museums in the world. The most attractive exhibition halls of the palace are: treasury, Islamic holly relics, costumes of the sultans, divan, harem, kitchens, Chinese porcelains and several kiosks such as the Baghdad, Revan, Sofa and Mecidiye. There are appealing eating and resting facilities for visitors on the palace grounds with a great view.

Open daily between 9:30-5:00 p.m. except Tuesdays.
Tel: (212) 512 04 80

The Topkapi Palace Museum - II

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