There are many books written about the life of Ottoman Sultans and many took place in Topkapi Palace. It is one of the highlights of Turkey.
When Sultan Mehmed the Conquerer captured Constantinople in 1453, he chose a large area on the broad peak of the Third Hill as the site of his first imperial residence. He constructed a great complex of buildings and gardens here and they came to be known as "Eski Saray" which means "The Old Palace". A few years later, he decided to have his palace on the north side of the First Hill which had been the acropolis of the ancient Byzantium. He constructed a massive wall surrounding the area along the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn.
This took place during the period 1459-65 after the Sultan left the former palace to women of his father's harem. The Harem in Topkapi Palace in its present state dates back to the reign of Murat III(1574-95), Mehmed IV(1648-87) and Osman III(1754-57). The Topkapi Palace had been changed with the influences of the time of sultan. When the sultans felt insecure they withdrew himself behind the walls removed from nature, there was an attempt to bring nature inside the walls in the form of miniatures, tiles and suchlike. And as the empire became larger, the palace was likewise enlarged.
Topkapi Palace was more than just the private residence of the Sultan and his court. It was the seat of the supreme executive and judiciary council, the Divan and the training school, the Palace School. In the First Courtyard, there were a hospital, bakery,arsenal, a state mint, a part of the treasury and the Outer Service. It was open to public. The Second Courtyard was open to people who had business with the council. The Third Courtyard was reserved to the Sultan's household and palace children. The Fourth Courtyard was exclusively reserved for the Sultan's use.
Topkapi Palace continued to be the principal residence for four centuries until in 1853, Sultan Abdul Mecid I moved into the new palace of Dolmabahce on the Bosphorus. The old palace was used as house for the women of the departed sultans and their servants until the Harem was officially disbanded in 1909. In 1924, Topkapi Palace was converted to a museum with the order of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The final step was the opening of the Harem to the public in 1960.
The First Courtyard
The main entrance to the palace is through Bab-i Humayun, the Imperial Gate. The monumental gateway was erected by Mehmed "the Conquerer" in 1478. The rooms in the gateway housed the guards who were watching the palace at all times in day and night. The imperial monogram (Tugra) is the one of Mehmed II, and the other calligraphic insciptions go back to the reconstruction of the gateway by Abdul Aziz in 1867.
The Imperial Gate leads to the First Court of the palace which is known as "the Courtyard of the Janissaries". The Janissaries were the paid soldiers of the sultan who were staying in the First Court when on duty. During the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 17-18th century, they lost their effectiveness as a military force and caused a lot of violence. The Janissarry Corps was finally abandoned by Mahmud II in 1826 who was a reformist sultan.
The First Courtyard is not considered as the palace proper, it is just the entrance to the palace. There were the palace bakeries and the grounds of the Great Palace of Byzantium on the right side. To the left of the entryway, there is a small Byzantine Church of Hagia Irene and far more to the right is the state mint (darphane) and the Outer Treasury. Just to the north of those buildings, a road leads down to Gulhane Park and the Archeological Museums.
The Second Courtyard
At the far end of the First Courtyard is "Bab-us Selam", the Gate of Salutations, better known as the "Orta Kapi", Middle Gate. This was the entrance to the Inner Palace and the passage was only on foot for authorized people. Only the Sultan could enter on his horse. The gateway is a typical military architecture of the Conqueror Mehmed II's time, twin octagonal towers capped with conical roofs. Above the outer gate is the tugra, the imperial monogram of Suleyman the Magnificient and a calligraphic inscription reading "There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet". The chambers on the towers hosted the gatekeepers and one of them was for the visitors and ambassadors. The visitors were first taken to the room, served refreshments and then accepted by the Grand Vezir or Sultan. There was another small room for prisoners awaiting execution.
In the Second Courtyard on your right there is Palace Kitchens, which now serves as Chinese and Japanese Porcelain Collection. The enormously big chimneys give the idea about the population of the palace in the former times. On the opposite of the Porcelain Collection, the 18th-19th C. beautiful European and Ottoman Glass - Silverware Collection could be seen. On the left of Porcelain Collection, there are two different sections of Kitchen Utensils and Ottoman Vases - Porcelain Collection. In the latter, the coffee cups which the Ottoman Sultans are depicted on are worth seeing.
On the left side of the second court is the Imperial Council Chamber, also called the Divan. The Imperial Divan (council) met here to discuss the state matters. Sultan would sit behind a latticed grille placed in the wall and listen to the proceedings from there. The Council never knew whether or not the sultan was actually present and listening to them unless he decided to speak himself. The Divan consisted of two rooms: the Office of the Grand Vizier and the Public Records Office, the Tower of Justice.
North of Imperial Council Chamber is the Inner Treasury, which today exhibits Ottoman and European armour.
Beneath the Tower of Justice is the Harem, on the left side. The word harem which in Arabic means "forbidden" refers to the private sector of a Moslem household in which women live and work; the term is also used for women dwelling there. In traditional Moslem society the privacy of the household was universally observed and respectable women did not socialize with men to whom they were not married or related. Since Islamic law allowed Moslems to have a maximum of four wives, in a harem there would be up to four wives and numerous concubines and servants. Having a harem, in general, was traditionally a mark of wealth and power.
The idea of the harem came to the Ottoman sultans from the Byzantines. Before coming to Anatolia, Turks did not have harems. After the conquest of Istanbul, sultans built the Topkapi Palace step by step. Parallel to it, a harem was also begun. Eventually it became a big complex consisting of a few hundred rooms. The harem was not just a prison full of women kept for the sultan's pleasure. It was his family quarters. Security in the harem was provided by black eunuchs. Valide Sultan (Queen Mother) was the head of the harem. She had enormous influence on everything that took place there and frequently on her son too.
Among the girls there were mainly four different classes: Odalik (servant), Gedikli (sultan's personal servants; there were only twelve of them), Ikbal or Gozde (those were Favorites who are said to have had affairs with the sultan), Kadin or Haseki Sultan (wives giving children to the sultan). When the Haseki Sultan's son ascended to the throne, she was promoted to Valide Sultan. She was the most important woman. After her, in order of importance came the sultan's daughters. Then came the first four wives of the sultan who gave birth to children. Their degree of importance was in the order in which their sons were born. They had conjugal rights and if the sultan did not sleep with them on two consecutive Friday nights, they could consider themselves divorced. They had their own apartments. The Favorites also had their own apartments. But others slept in dormitories.
Girls were trained according to their talents in playing a musical instrument, singing, dancing, writing, embroidery and sewing. Many parents longed for their daughters to be chosen for the Harem.
It should not be thought that women never went out. They could visit their families or just go for drives in covered carriages from which they could see out behind the veils and curtained windows. They could also organize parties up on the Bosphorus or along the Golden Horn.
When a sultan died, the new sultan would bring his new harem which meant that the former harem was dispersed. Some were sent to the old palace, some stayed as teachers or some older ones were pensioned off.
The Third Courtyard
After the kitchen exhibits, one approaches the "Bab-us saadet", The Gate of Felicity. This is the entryway to the third courtyard and this area was strictly reserved for the use of high ranking officials and palace children. The gateway was originally built by the time of the Conquerer and restorated in the late 16th C and redecorated in rococo style. In the holidays, the Sultan sat in front of the gate on his gold and emerald throne subjects and officials. There is a little stone with a hole in the middle, it is the "Sacred Standard" in which the flag of Ottoman Empire was centered. After the conquests, the flag was brought here and put in its place with ceremonies.
Just beyond the threshold of the Gate of Felicity stands The Audience Hall of the Sultan. In this room, the Sultan received the reports of the Council Meetings presented by the Grand Vezir(Prime Minister) and high officials to make the final decisions. The Sultan received the foreign ambassadors in this room. Lord Byron or many French Ambassadors were accepted in this room. The tiles on the two sides of the door of the room are 16th C splendid Iznik Tiles. The Sultan sat on his golden and emerald decorated throne whereas all the visitors sat on the floor (now displayed in Treasury Section). The room was decorated with precious stones. The little fountain on the right of the door was for making noise during the meetings so that nobody could have heard what the subject of the meeting was.
The Third Courtyard included the Palace School, The Imperial Costumes, the Treasury and the Holy Relics section. Among the Treasury the Kasikci Diamond (the Spoonmaker's Diamond) and the Topkapi Hanceri (the Topkapi Dagger) are the most precious. The Kasikci Diamond is 86 carats, "drop-shaped", faceted and surrounded by 49 large diamonds. The Topkapi Dagger, a beautiful dagger ornamented with valuable emerald pieces was planned to be sent to Nadir Shah of Iran as a present, but when it was on the way it was heard that Nadir had been assassinated and so it was taken back to the palace treasury. Relics including a hand, arm and skull bones belonging to John the Baptist are also on display in the treasury section. The Holy Relics are personal belongings of the Prophet Mohammed (a mantle, sword, seal, tooth, beard and footprints) and Caliphs, Koran scripts, religious books and framed inscriptions.
The Fourth Courtyard
From the Treasury Halls, there are stairs leading down to the fourth courtyard. This courtyard was exclusively reserved for the Sultan's own pleasure and nobody else was allowed without the permission of the Sultan. Upon the entrance, there's a little mosque on the right, this is just a little room to pray during the pray times.After a couple of stairs, comes the wonderful view of the Strait Bosphorus. There are stairs from the entrance of the courtyard to a 101-year old restaurant "Konyali" which will contribute to one's enjoying of Istanbul.
A passageway leads to a corner which is a great spot for taking a lovely Bosphorus picture. As one turns left from the corner, there are lovely chestnut trees in the garden and the building on the left is called "the Mecidiye Kiosk". It is the last building added into palace area. The building dates back to 1840 and was erected by Sultan Abdul Mecid I. It's now being used as the management of "Restaurant Konyali".
As one takes the way to the right, after taking 4-5 steps, there is a lovely passageway through a refreshing garden. After completing the steps, there is little fountain and pool on the left side. This is another courtyard which the floor is marble and there is little canopy standing to observe the gorgeous view of the Golden Horn. On the left, stands the Suleyman's Mosque with all its magnificence.
The building on the right of the canopy is called "the Baghdad Pavillion" which was constructed to celebrate the conquest of Baghdad. The building is decorated with lovely Iznik tiles and inside the building is quite ornate. The fireplace and the hand paintings on the dome are worth seeing. There are beautiful examples of mother-of pearl inlaid into beautiful wardrobes. There is a brazier in the center of the room which served as a means of making Turkish coffee or to warm up the room in cooler days.
An interesting room in the same courtyard on the left is the "the Circumcision Chamber". This room is surrounded with splendid tiles and dates back to 16th C. According to the Islamic principles, all the male children should be circumsized after completion of 6-7 years of age.
The last pavillion on the Fourth Courtyard is called "Revan Kosku", Revan Pavillion. It was built by Murat IV in 1636 to commemorate the capture of Revan in Iran. It is a small replica of the Baghdad Pavilion. The central brazier was a gift of the French King Louis XV, to Mahmut I, made by Duplesisa, a famous worker in bronze of the time. This room was also known as the Turban Room, as it was here that the sultan’s turbans were kept.