Saturday, 18 October 2014

Topkapı Palace Part 4 - The Practical Bits

Our visit to - and subsequent blog posts about - Topkapı Palace were long overdue for this blog. It should have been a presence many moons ago. However, all that is now put right (we do get round to these things eventually) with the mini series we did to try and give you a flavour of what to expect if you do visit.

Part 1 of our series was a walk around the grounds of Topkapı Palace. Centuries old palace buildings, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn as a backdrop and gardens of ancient trees; it all makes for a pleasant amble, and that's before you've even gone inside. 

In Part 2, we took you inside Topkapı Palace to have a look at the decor, the furniture and the rooms where the Imperial Council deliberated, planned and plotted. Many rooms where displays are on show don't allow photography so you can visit for yourself to gaze at the jewels, clocks, daggers and other artefacts. 

And Part 3, well we couldn't not go for a little exploration of the Topkapı Palace Harem. Lots of photos taken and the slideshow below is a little 2-minute summary of our visit in photos, complete with two or three photos that didn't make the blog posts.

Topkapı Palace - Useful Information
  • Topkapı Palace is open every day except Tuesday. On Mondays, nearby Aya Sofya is closed so if you're planning an Istanbul trip, visit Topkapı Palace on Monday and Aya Sofya on Tuesday as there are *slightly* thinner crowds.
  • Autumn and winter are also less crowded. We visited in late autumn and were rewarded with beautiful garden scenery.
  • Visitor hours for summer season are from 09:00 - 18:45 (April 15th - Nov 1st)
  • Visitor hours for winter season are from 09:00 - 16:45 (Nov 1st - April 15th)
  • According to the official website, Hagia Irene is now also open to visitors with a separate entrance fee. 
  • Clothing: Be aware that there is a section of the palace housing very important sacred Islamic relics. You need to wear appropriate clothing - no shorts, mini skirts, strapless tops. Basically, make sure your legs and shoulders are covered. 
  • If you have a Müze Kart, entrance to Topkapı Palace is free but there is a fee for entrance to the Harem.
  • If you're in Istanbul to tour all the sights, it's worth you investing in a Museum Pass to save money. These can be bought from mobile booths in Sultanahmet or from museums which are part of the scheme.
Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Topkapı Palace Part 3 - Exploring The Harem

We've been around the grounds of Topkapı Palace, we've stared through glass display cabinets at huge jewel encrusted daggers, clocks and watches and jewellery items (no photos allowed in those rooms) and we've also explored some of the Topkapı Palace rooms such as the Kubbealtı in the Imperial Council building.

But what about where the sultan of the time, along with his wives, children, mother and siblings, lived? Yes, this is the famous Harem section of Topkapı Palace and this is where 'Barry and Julia practicalities' stepped in. We were at Topkapı Palace because last we year, we had a Müzekart. Entrance to Topkapı Palace is free if you have one of those...but if you want to see the Harem, you still need to fork out a further 15 TL. Hmm, did our budget justify us paying 30 TL between us? Well, these are the type of money questions we're always asking when we're away and Barry very happily volunteered to wait on the bench outside enjoying the gardens whilst I went inside to explore... 

Harem Entrance, Topkapı Palace
Entering the Harem of Topkapı Palace
And just like when I went into Izmir Agora on my own, instantly the Harem felt more 'real' than the rest of the palace, and even a bit spooky. It seems lots of people had opted not to pay the 15 TL entrance fee so the crowds had thinned further still. Walls 10 feet thick in places, beautifully tiled as they are, made me feel quite claustrophobic, and, straight away, you're transported to wondering what life was like for those in this section of the palace. 
Harem Area, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Walkways and gilded entrances around the Harem
No bed of roses, that's for sure. In earlier Ottoman days, the sultan who wanted to make sure he kept the throne obviously didn't want any meddling brothers hanging around lest they themselves fancied being in charge. Fratricide was seen as the best method to reduce the threat of the annoying sibling. Later, however, a change in strategy meant the potential threat of ambitious siblings was reduced by effectively imprisoning brothers within a section of the harem. If anything happened to the sultan then the sibling could be released to take up reign of the empire.

All of a sudden, you can see how these walls become imposing and claustrophobic and, indeed, by the time their services were needed, some of these siblings had completely lost the plot - quite literally, they had gone stir crazy - and were unfit to rule. 
Harem Rooms, Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
Rooms are smaller than you might expect but fantastically ornate in decor
Anyway, back to the living quarters. The Harem of Topkapı Palace is quite a large area and only small sections of it are open to the public. In days gone by, if you wanted to visit here as a tourist, you needed to get to the palace ticket office early and book your ticket for a guided tour at an allotted time. Once the tickets were gone, that was it. In 2013, that had changed and you can now just buy your ticket at the Harem entrance and wander around at your leisure.
The fountain of the privy chamber of Murad III
There was restoration work going on when we were there and, from photos we've seen in the past, there were parts of the Harem closed that have previously been open to visitors. That's why repeat visits to places like Topkapı Palace are never boring - you can remind yourself of why you enjoyed it so much in the first place, see things you missed first time round...and if you're anything like us, you enjoy it more than your previous visit. That was our experience, this time.

The fountain in the photo above is from the oldest room in the Harem; a room designed designed by Mimar Sinan. The sound of the water flowing from the fountain prevented nosy people in the palace from eavesdropping on private conversations.
Modern Istanbul From Topkapı Palace Harem
View of modern day Istanbul through a centuries old grill of the Harem
In the ten years since our last visit, we've done lots of reading on both modern day Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. We're also older and (hopefully) a tad wiser. No two visits are ever the same because you get different experiences each time.
Harem Section, Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
You almost feel like you're intruding on someone's private space as you wander the Harem
And that's why Barry preferred to sit on a bench in the gardens and wait for me while I entered the Harem. We'd both forgotten how much we'd enjoyed the gardens on our first visit...but I really wanted to see where the sultan, his eunuchs and his ladies spent their time. And rather than rooms being few in number and spacious, it's surprising how numerous, small and intimate they are.
Valide Sultan Dairesi, Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
Apartments of the Queen Mother - Valide Sultan Dairesi
As you can see here. This is the courtyard of the apartments of the queen mother. These apartments date from the 1570s and were the living quarters of she who gave birth to a son who ascended to the throne. Of course, room for her entourage was necessary, too, hence the size of this area. 

I was in the Harem for perhaps 90 minutes or so. It's a bit of a maze and signs guide you around the site...and the entrance and the exit are two completely different doorways in two completely different parts of the palace gardens...and I have absolutely no sense of direction. Poor Barry had another wait on his hands while I tried to negotiate my way back to his bench! 

Look out for our next and final post in this series about Topkapı Palace where we'll give useful links and practical information for visiting. 

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Topkapı Palace Part 2 - Let's Go Inside

Yes, we're up to part 2 of our little Topkapı Palace mini series. In part 1, we were wandering around the grounds of Topkapı Palace, just enjoying the gardens and the views along the Bosphorus. We did go inside, too, of course, so this post is just really a mass of colour. The Ottoman rulers loved a bit of pattern it seems.
Topkapı Palace Interiors, Istanbul
Gilded globes hang in many of the rooms, a symbol of the sultan watching over the world
And when you're walking around each of these rooms in the palace - usually with a stiff neck from looking up all the time at the ceilings and stained glass windows - it's hard not to be in the present day, mentally, dreamily, decorating bits of your kitchen and bathroom; not that the tiles in our kitchen or bathroom remotely resemble any of these tiles - but, you know, one day...
Circumcision Room, Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
The circumcision room in Topkapı Palace
But let's get back to the palace and a little bit of history - more interesting than our kitchen and bathroom! The tiles in the photo above, for instance, are decorating the walls of the Circumcision Room, which is a separate building in the palace grounds, built in 1640. 
Topkapı Palace Rooms, Istanbul
Many rooms in Topkapı Palace are quite small and in some places, walls are 10 feet thick
Topkapı Palace and the grounds were almost a world within a world - and, apparently, at full size, the whole complex could host up to 4,000 people. Topkapı Palace was not just a home to the Ottoman rulers but also the centre from which the Ottoman Empire was run; where battles were planned, where politics was discussed, where the administrative affairs of the empire were organised, where religious affairs were organised and laws created and foreign dignitaries hosted. And, of course, there was much intrigue, paranoia and betrayal as those with ambition attempted to climb the power ladder.

Ahhh, to be able to drop back in time a few hundred years and spend a day - invisible - just watching, watching. Fascinating. 
Kubbealtı, Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
The Kubbealtı
This chamber here, for instance, is the Kubbealtı in the Imperial Council building where the Imperial Council would gather to meet. The sultan of the time needed to be able to trust his viziers and other chief staff...but it didn't always work like that. See the Golden Window just above the sofa? The sultan would sit behind this, discreetly, so he could watch and listen to what was going on in the council chamber. As the plotting of the downfall of various sultans and others in the palace happened throughout Ottoman rule, this plotting was either done very cleverly or it happened elsewhere.
Imperial Divan Secretarial Chamber, Topkapı Palace
Gilded globe in the Imperial Divan secretarial chamber
So, what have we missed out so far in the Topkapı Palace experience? Well, quite a bit. There's centuries of history here, there are chambers closed to the public and there are chambers where photography is forbidden - that's a good thing because it means you can go to see for yourself - and there are photos that have just not made it into these posts...but we've not finished yet. What is it that interests so many people who visit Topkapı Palace? In our next Topkapı Palace blog post, we're taking you to the Harem. 

The Ottomans and the Ottoman Empire are fascinating subjects. If you're interested in this topic, we can highly recommend Caroline Finkel's book, Osman's Dream

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Istanbul - Wandering The Grounds Of Topkapı Palace

In our last blog post, we told you we were going to do a mini-series about one of Turkey's most famous tourist draws, Topkapı Palace. Well, to get us going with part one, we're taking you around the grounds because, for us, the outside areas are just a really pleasant place to be - well, if you're the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, you're not going to go and build yourself a palace with rubbish surroundings, are you? 
Entrance To Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
Through the main entrance of Topkapı Palace
So when you're there, it's not just a case of going from room to room and being entranced by the beauty and detail of the Iznik tiles and rich decoration - that's for the next blog post - it's also about the whole area. As in the photo above, before you even need to part with any entrance fee, you head through the main palace gate and into what used to be one of the courtyards. Now lawns, pathways and ancient trees, you could enjoy a few moments away from the crowds, here. 

That's what we were doing when we took the photo above. It was our last morning in Istanbul and we were enjoying the autumn sunshine away from the Sultanahmet masses around here and Gülhane Park. It was a different day altogether when we actually went inside the palace grounds - not a sunbeam in sight, as you'll see with the rest of the photos.
Fountains, Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
Fountains in the gardens of Topkapı Palace
A lot of people who visit Topkapı Palace talk about the queues and the crowds - which isn't surprising, is it? If it's your first visit to Istanbul, you're likely there to see Aya Sofya, Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) and Topkapı Palace. They're all next to each other; three of the world's most famous tourist sights within minimal walking distance. No wonder they're so packed.

And we're not pretending we had the place to ourselves when we visited Topkapı Palace - far from it - but if you want to soak up the palace and grounds and enjoy the splendour with minimal people fuss, what we've noticed over the years is that autumn and winter visits are going to be your best bets. Also, on Mondays, Aya Sofya is closed so there are slightly fewer tourists in the area. 
Grounds of Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
The grounds of Topkapı Palace
Slightly fewer people around so you can enjoy the palace's autumn gardens and take photos without having thousands of other tourists aimlessly wandering through your shots. Looking back at these photos now, I can't believe how lucky we were, really, to visit here at this time of year. A touch of good management - but also good luck, too, as we needed to be in Istanbul in November for the Istanbul Marathon.
Topkapı Sarayı, Istanbul
Topkapı Palace splendour
Depending on how interested you are in all the ornaments and other possessions that filled the home of the Ottoman rulers, you can spend a good few hours at Topkapı Palace. Built between 1459 and 1465 and the official residence right up until 1853 when a move to Dolmabahçe Palace was made, the Ottomans obviously amassed a lot of riches. Much of this is in evidence in the jewellery, clocks, weapons and clothing on display today.
Bosphorus Strait From Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
Bosphorus views from Topkapı Palace
The first time we visited Topkapı Palace, there was a whole room open with kitchen goods on display. The Ottoman kitchens were world famous and many of the culinary creations are still a major part of modern Turkish cuisine, today. Being keen cooks, we spent a long time in this area and were looking forward to reacquainting ourselves with it. As with many museums, however, displays have been rearranged and swapped around - no kitchens for Barry and Julia on this occasion as the room was closed to the public.

Still much to while away our time with, though. Because we'll be honest; we enjoyed Topkapı Palace on both visits because of the surroundings. The views down the Bosphorus towards the Bosphorus Bridge - we hovered around this section of the palace for some time. It's whatever does it for you...and rooms with jewel-encrusted clocks and daggers only manage to keep us occupied for a matter of minutes, especially when photographs are forbidden. 
Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
Topkapı Palace
The great outdoors of Topkapı Palace is what does it for us. The architecture, the decorative paintwork, the ceramic tiles, the marble, all set amongst ancient cypress trees, gardens and the backdrop of the Bosphorus.
Topkapı Palace, Autumn Istanbul
Autumnal Topkapı Palace
And over the years, we've learned to forgive ourselves a little when we're looking around sights like this. While we loved the kitchens of Topkapı Palace on our first visit, and enjoyed the setting, we were kind of left with a feeling of, 'well-we're-not-blown-away-and-everyone-else-seems-to-be-so-is-it-just-us.' Well, ten years later and ten years older, whether that's 'just us,' or not is now irrelevant. 
Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
Just enjoying Topkapı Palace
Topkapı Palace was home to one of the world's most powerful dynasties for four centuries, and, while in 2014 rooms with glass cabinet displays might not really capture our imagination, personally, we're perfectly happy with that. It doesn't matter. Every person who who enjoys their visits to Topkapı Palace, enjoys them for their own reasons. For us, it's soaking up the grounds, the setting and the architecture of the palace that evokes some sense of the significance of the Ottomans in world history...

If you'd like to visit this area of Istanbul then you can book hotels near Topkapı Palace through

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