You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
The other pages of this section group the monuments of Constantinople according to the historical periods during which they were built. Topkapi Sarayi is covered as an itinerary in order to retain the overall unity of a site which is made up of elements which span the whole Ottoman tenure of the city.
The first hill takes up the whole breadth of the promontory, on
which the grand signor's seraglio is built.
Richard Pococke - A Description of the East and Some Other Countries - 1745
In the ages of the Greek empire the extreme point of the promontory, which is said to have been the entire site of Byzantium, was appropriated principally to the priests of the church of Santa Sophia; but when Mahommed II. in a great measure re-modelled the city, he judiciously chose this spot for his imperial palace. In 1478, he finished an inclosure with lofty walls of four miles circuit, with eight gates and two large courts, beyond which, for strangers no circumstance can obtain admittance.
James Dallaway - Constantinople Ancient and Modern with Excursions to the Shores of the Islands of the Archipelago and to the Troas - 1797
Soon after having conquered Constantinople in May 1453, Sultan Mehmet II Fatih decided to relocate the Ottoman court from Edirne to the conquered city. He first set his residence in a complex of buildings on the site of today's Istanbul University, but already by 1459 he ordered a new residence to be built on a hill where once the acropolis of ancient Byzantium had stood. The area chosen for the new palace (which was known as Yeni Sarayi - new palace) was protected with new walls; they were not state-of-the-art walls which could cope with artillery; from a military viewpoint their objective was limited to contain the effects of occasional riots; their main purpose was to act as a screen between the Sultan and his subjects. From this respect Sultan Mehmet II Fatih followed the steps of Emperors Diocletian and Constantine who both emphasized the divine role of the emperor by limiting their public appearances and by establishing elaborate procedures for approaching them.
By walking along the walls from Yeni Cami the attention of the traveller is attracted to a polygonal building projecting from a tower: it is the Alay Kosku (Parade Pavilion) from which the Sultan watched (without being seen) the great parades which took place in Constantinople; the most spectacular parade was not a military one, but the Procession of the 1001 Guilds of Constantinople which took place every fifty years and which according to contemporary accounts started at dawn and ended at sunset. The current pavilion dates from 1819 by which time these parades had been already discontinued; the sultans used it to observe the movement at the Sublime Porte, the residence of the Grand Vizier, which stands opposite Alay Kosku.
A section of the palace gardens is open to the public: it is called Gulhane Park, the Park of the Rose-House.
Rear side of Cinili Kosk and detail of its decoration
The rear side of one of the oldest buildings of Topkapi Sarayi can be seen in Gulhane Park. It was built in 1472 as a pleasure palace. It is known as Cinili (tiled) Kosk owing to its decoration. The small blue tiles are arranged in a way that they form Kufic inscriptions praising God. It is thought that it was designed by a Persian architect because its decoration is similar to that existing in that country, e.g. at Soltaniyeh. Today it houses a museum of Ottoman tiles.
St. James's is for a diplomat a synonym of the English Court and by extension of its government. Similarly Sublime Porte was in the past a way of referring to the Ottoman government. It was the main gate leading to the residence of the Grand Viziers and ambassadors were accredited at this gate, in the sense that they were greeted there by the grand viziers. The current gate was built in 1843 and its projecting roof provided some protection in case of bad weather and shade in summer to those who attended these ceremonies.
Houses in Soguk Cesme Sokagi (Street of the Cold Fountain)
Terraced houses became a housing style in Constantinople in the late XIXth century, following the emergence of a middle-class in Ottoman society.
Unlike their European counterparts, they were designed and built without front gardens.
With the advent of modern apartments in the XXth century, terraced houses were left for use by lower-income citizens. Today they are being restored
as luxury residences.
Soguk Cesme Sokagi is a narrow street between Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Sarayi: its wooden houses have been nicely restored and turned into boutique hotels.
Sultan Ahmet III Cesmesi (1728) and in the background Sultan Ahmet I Camii (left) and Hagia Sophia (right)
The fountains likewise are extremely magnificent, being buildings about twenty feet square, with pipes of water on every side; and within at each corner there is an apartment, with an iron gate before it, where cups of water are always ready for the
people to drink, a person attending to fill them; these buildings are of
marble, the fronts are carved with bas reliefs of trees and flowers; and
the eves projecting six or seven feet, the soffit of them is finely adorned
with carved works of flowers, in alto relievo, gilt with gold in a very
good taste; so that these buildings make a very fine appearance. Pococke
The fountain named after Sultan Ahmet III is located on the final part of the road to Topkapi Sarayi and opposite its main gate. It was the first of a series of fountains built during the Tulip Era. It consists of a large square block with a wall fountain at the centre of each fašade and a circular sebil projecting at each corner. The building has a tall ceiling crowned with a shallow pyramidal vault. It has four small turrets at the corners and a large turret at the centre, all domed and coated with lead. The roof projects outward, forming large eaves that shade the walls.
Sultan Ahmet III Cesmesi: details
Almost at every turn as you walk along you find,
too, a shop where they sell sherbet. This is made of
raisins, sugar, and water, which they give you in a
large cup, into which they put snow from Mount
Olympus. It is sold everywhere, and makes the drink
very agreeable when you are heated with walking.
The letters of John B.S. Morritt of Rokeby descriptive of journeys in Europe and Asia Minor in the years 1794-1796.
In summer the attendants at the sebils offered passers-by not only glasses of water, but also sherbets (a cold drink of sweet diluted fruit juices).
The inscriptions above the wall fountains are the text of a short poem by Seyyid Huseyin Vehbi bin Ahmed (1674-1736) where he compares the waters of the fountain with those of Zemzem, the holy spring near the Kaaba in Mecca.
have made great additions, so that the whole space is now irregularly
covered with detached suites of apartments, baths, mosques, kiosques,
gardens, and groves of cypress. Such a combination of nature and
art, so many glittering domes with an elevation singularly fine, cannot but fill the eye of a stranger with admiration and pleaure, which,
if considered separately, could produce neither. Dallaway
The residence of the Sultans did not consist of a large palace with a few minor ancillary structures, but of a series of four large courtyards surrounded by low buildings with porticoes. The last of them actually is not a courtyard, but a garden with pavilions placed here and there. From a certain point of view the layout of Topkapi Sarayi can be compared with that of the Roman Imperial Palaces (Domus Flavia) on the Palatine. The first court is entered through the Imperial Gate (Bab-i Humayun); for defensive reasons it is a rather narrow opening in the walls. The marble frame with the two niches is a late XIXth century addition when the palace was no longer the residence of the sultans. The four inscriptions in the upper part of the arch date back to 1478; they are thought to be a work by Ali Sofi, a calligrapher who also worked at Murat Pacha Camii. The other inscriptions were placed in the XIXth century. The gate remained open at all times when the first courtyard was not in use for a hunting party and it was guarded by Janissaries.
The first courtyard (the largest one) is dominated by the apses of Hagia Irene;
the other buildings surrounding it were mainly related to the Janissary garrison and to facilities for those who worked at the palace.
Access to this court was basically unrestricted.
In summer the soldiers used to rest and have their meals under the shade of a large Oriental plane tree (Am. sycamore); the Janissaries came from small villages in the Balkans and Greece where children and the elder used to gather near an old plane tree in the central square of the village, e.g. at Rumeli Feneri and Aglasun. From earliest days, these trees, (which shade a very large area) were regarded as sacred trees: Hippocrates used to teach medicine under a plane tree in Kos. Pliny's Natural History records the westward progress of the plane "introduced among us from a foreign country for nothing but its shade".
(left) Bab-us-Selam (Gate of Salutation); (right) an old bronze pinnacle
Entrance to the second courtyard is through the Middle Gate, or the Gate of Salutation that was built by Sultan Mehmet II Fatih.
The gate was refurbished by Sultan Murat III in the late XVIth century.
This was the entrance to the Inner Palace and no one was allowed to ride beyond it. The portico behind the gate houses a number of funerary stones and the bronze pinnacle of a mosque.
The garden of the second courtyard is characterized by five alleys in one of which a fig tree is
grafted on a cypress. One of the alleys leads to the Harem, the women's apartments which the Venetians called serraglio after Turkish sarayi (palace).
The Ottomans did not use chairs and tables: in his 1991 novel The White Castle Orhan Pamuk, 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, describes how a young Italian slave teaches his Ottoman master to sit at a table. The members of the Imperial Council (Divan) met in a large hall in the second courtyard and they sat on low long sofas without arms. Over time these sofas became known as divans.
The seraglio and public audiences of the grand signor have been fully
described; I saw part of the ceremony of an audience of the grand vizier,
and was habited in the caftan, but I could not enter into the audience
room to see the monarch, because the number of persons permitted
to go in with the ambassador was full: A divan is always held before
such an audience, at which the ambassador is present, and the grand
signor is at a lattice window over the seat of the grand vizier, but is not seen, though by some signal it is known that he is there; and when the business of the divan, as a court of justice, is done, (which is chiefly reading petitions of poor people, who are brought one by one into the presence ot the grand vizier), then stools are set before the vizier, the two cadiliskiers, the treasurer and seal-keeper, who are always present and about seven in the morning the dinner was brought on several small plates placed on large dishes, and put before them on the stools, without their moving from the place where they did the public business; the small plates
were very often changed; the ambassador eating with the grand vizier
and those who go to audience with him, with the seal-keeper, and treasurer, the cadiliskiers being people of the law, are too holy to eat with infidels: After this the grand signor's firman is read, which orders that the ambassador should be introduced. The vizier holds the ordinary divans four times a week in the grand signor's seraglio, and on the other days
he has a divan in his own house. Pococke
The Divan was redecorated in the early XVIIIth century by Sultan Ahmet III. The image used as background for this page shows a detail of the grills of this building. The porch is embellished by columns of different colours. The tower above the building was added a Neo-classic lantern in 1820.
(left) Dome of Bab-us-Saade (Gate of Felicity); (right) detail of the kitchens
In 1574 a fire destroyed the kitchens in the southern part of the courtyard; they were rebuilt by Mimar Sinan, the greatest Ottoman architect; the tall chimneys he designed characterize the view of Topkapi Sarayi from the Marmara Sea.
Today the kitchens house an impressive collection of Chinese porcelains.
The second courtyard ended with a gate which led to the most private part of the palace; it was modified several times and redecorated in the XVIIIth century. On special occasions the throne of the sultan was placed at this gate where he received the homage of his subjects.
Plan of this section:
Hagia Irene and Little Hagia Sophia
Roman/Byzantine exhibits at the Archaeological Museum
Great Palace Mosaic Museum
St. Saviour in Chora
Byzantine Heritage - Other Churches (before 1204)
Byzantine Heritage (between 1204 and 1453)
First Ottoman Buildings
The Golden Century: I - from Sultan Selim to Sinan's Early Works
The Golden Century: II - The Age of Suleyman
The Golden Century: III - Suleymaniye Kulliye
The Golden Century: IV - Sinan's Last Works
The Heirs of Sinan
Towards the Tulip Era
The End of the Ottoman Empire
Museums near Topkapi Sarayi
The Princes' Islands
Map of Istanbul and key dates of its history