The Topkapi palace served both residential and administrative purposes for the Ottoman sultans. Throughout our trip to Turkey, we found silly glee at identifying Turkish words that occasionally were the same in Hindi too. So the Topkapi palace literally meaning Cannon(top in Hindi) gate was a fun titbit. Though still very grand, the structures within have undergone multiple renovations due to earthquakes and fire incidents.
The area is broken up into 4 courtyards and the Harem. Unless you’re really checking things off of a list it’s a bit hard to visit every single place within it all. We took the route of wandering in and out of what we pleased.
Within the 2nd courtyard, we dropped into the imperial kitchens and bakery. It had displays of utensils used in the era in addition to silverware and porcelain. The kitchen staff had an elaborate hierarchy in order Head of the pantry->Superintendent of the Imperial kitchens assisted by the clerk of the kitchens-> Chief cook-> Master cooks, journeymen and apprentices.
The simple-sounding “kitchen” consisted of
- The imperial pantry
- 2 bakeries
- One for fine bread for the Sultan and his family
- One for ordinary bread
- A butcher’s shop
- A poultry shop
- 2 dairies
- One specializing in making yoghurt
- One to produce butter, cheese and other milk products
- A candle-making section
- A vegetable store
- A water distribution office
- A flour mill for fine white flour was the one part which was housed separately in Bursa a town near Istanbul.
At its peak, it employed 1300 people in the 17th century and understandably was the largest kitchen in the Ottoman empire. We found particularly interesting with meticulously arranged exposed brick used to make both the walls and the domed ceilings.
On the opposite end of the 2nd courtyard are sections displaying armoury and various clocks of the era in addition to staying quarters for the halberdiers(who provided services for the palace quarters).
We walked into the 3rd courtyard and the Audience Hall– the place where the King met ambassadors of other kingdoms, his ministers and other officials.
Next was the Library of Ahmed the III. This space changed by definition of what I thought would be my dream library. Floor level seating, stained glass windows, gorgeous mosaics.
The last area we passed by was the Chamber of sacred relics in the 3rd courtyard. As named it housed stunning versions of the Quran with the most amazing calligraphy and we heard a lovely voice in the background. Wondering if it was a recorded bit of music, we were taken aback to realize it was a gentleman who was singing it live and genuinely appeared angelic in his immaculate white outfit. Since it’d be rude to just stand and stare, we walked out and plonked ourselves on the benches just outside to enjoy his singing infusing its fragrance into the gentle evening air. The large open garden area just ahead which supposedly had peacocks and gazelles during the Ottoman times now had quite a few seagulls being chased enthusiastically by toddlers seemingly just for our amusement.
We made our way out through the Imperial gate– a massive gate with gilded calligraphy of verses from the Quran and seals of various emperors surprised that it was only our very first day in Turkey and that so much seemed to have been experienced.
Note: The term Topkapi palace is misleading. It’s an immense complex which takes a few hours to cover on foot and will have you taking a few rest stops. We recommend you visit this just after your breakfast or lunch so you’re not hungry mid-way. It wouldn’t be a terrible idea to even carry a packed lunch and some snacks. Your ticket is for single entry so unless you want to pay twice you’d rather come prepared to spend the time for a while.
Munching on some corn from a vendor and a chocolate simit ( a circular bread often sprinkled with sesame seeds found with stalls all over Istanbul) we made our way back to the Airbnb. We truly felt lucky to also be back to a lovely view of the Ottoman mosque of Sokullu Mehmed Pasha till it was too dark to see it anymore.
A bit rested by now and not too hungry after the simit and corn we still made our way to dinner at a nearby restaurant and shared the vegetarian version of the testi kebab. A dish cooked within sealed clay pot brought in on a plate of flames. The pot is broken open with a theatrical flourish and the dish then served. For Indians, the vegetarian version tasted more like a milder version of sambhar with loads of vegetables. However the testi kebab is supposedly more famous in Cappadocia, and that’s where we were headed the very next day.