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August 5, 2012

Turkey: Istanbul, Topkapı Palace

Inside Topkapı Palace

Amongst Istanbul’s prime tourist attractions is the Topkapı Palace.  The palace was the principal residence of the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years of their 624-year reign.  Today 3.7 million visitors fill the palace annually, a fate that no sane sultan could have anticipated.

Topkapı Palace’s buildings are located on a 140-acre site located on a promontory over looking the Gold Horn.  Inside the walls is a self-contained campus with all that’s needed to rule an empire.  There are ceremonial halls, kitchens, baths (hamans), a harem, and even a circumcision room (ouch!).

Enclosing 400 years of Ottoman history the Topkapı Palace’s walls could tell tales.  Lonely Planet Istanbul puts it this way:

“This opulent palace is the subject of more colorful stories than most of the world’s museums put together. It was the home of Selim the Sot, who drowned in the bath after drinking too much champagne; İbrahim the Crazy, who lost his reason after being locked up for four years in the infamous palace kafes; and Roxelana, beautiful and malevolent consort of Süleyman the Magnificent….”

Carefully avoiding detention in the kafes we spent hours exploring the beautiful palace and its pleasant gardens.  For an extra fee we entered the harem on a guided tour.  During the tour we learned how an Ottoman harem is organized.

There are many advantages to the Ottomans in perpetuating the harem system.  Importantly, a sequestered harem guarded by eunuchs minimizes confusion about the identity of the sultan’s genetic offspring.  Women, always foreigners by Islamic tradition, were confined inside.  Aside from the sultan, no fertile males were allowed to stay within the harem.  Presented with numerous captive options, a sultan, at least in theory, was less likely to stray.

Design beneath the an external arcade (HDR)

Iznik tiles

Sitting at the top of the hierarchy of the women in the harem and undoubtedly mediating catfights was the sultan’s mother.  Though the whole harem arrangement seems hedonistic by Western standards, it worked as a practical ruling family system for the Ottomans for centuries.  It is a system created by an alpha male for alpha males.

Though the harem system assured that the bloodline of the sultan’s offspring was clear, the presence of multiple sons made succession to the throne contentious.  Offing all competing claimants to the throne had significant disadvantages.  It is here where the infamous kafes came into play.  Just missing being the next sultan was not a good thing.

Visiting the opulent Topkapı Palace complete with its harem establishes one thing:  It was good to be a sultan in the Ottoman Empire.  At least it was good to be sultan until hoards of tourists arrived at the gates.

Taking pictures

When traveling Ross believes in immersing himself into the local customs. Did he go a little too far in Topkapı Palace’s Circumcision Room?


  1. All your photos are breathtaking. Simply gorgeous! And what an amazing place!

    Comment by Anarya Andir — August 6, 2012 @ 5:28 am

  2. Reblogged this on turkischland.

    Comment by turkischland — August 6, 2012 @ 5:31 am

  3. […] visiting the fabulous Topkapı Palace it is difficult to imagine that a replacement was needed.  Considering that in 1843, when […]

    Pingback by Turkey: Istanbul, Dolmabahçe Palace « Another Header — August 10, 2012 @ 9:54 pm

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