There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Istanbul (3): The Topkapı Palace and The Grand Bazaar

The Topkapı Palace was the home of the Ottoman sultans from 1465 until Abdül Mecit moved to the Dolmabahçe Palace in 1856. It sits on the broad tip of the Sultanahmet peninsula alongside Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Unlike European palaces, it is not a single building, but a series of pavilions in four courtyards – a stone version of the tented encampments of the earlier nomadic Ottomans.
Haghia Eirene, Topkapı Palace, Istanbul

The first courtyard is, and always was, open to anyone, though entering by the Imperial Gate may not have been an option in days gone by. It once housed a bakery, a college and a hospital; still there are the imperial mint, the 6th century church of Haghia Eirene – rare among Byzantine churches in that it was never converted into a mosque - and the fountain where the imperial executioner washed his hands and sword after nipping off a few heads. We strolled towards the Camelot towers that guard the entrance to the second courtyard, stopping only at the ticket office on the way.

The executioner's fountain
Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
There is little in the second courtyard, the peacocks and gazelles of Ottoman times are gone, so we walked diagonally across it to the harem entrance, which requires another ticket. Guidebooks say you must arrive early to see the harem but turning up at 9.45, several hours after dawn prayers had been called, we may not have had the place to ourselves, but we were hardly fighting the crowds.

My idea of a harem is based on the adventures of Jim Dale and Kenneth Connor among the Vestal Virgins in Carry on Cleo. This may have little to do with history, but the idea of a life of ease and comfort, albeit in a gilded cage, is not easy to shake.  In the Topkapı harem, the walls are covered with blue tiles, giving the rooms a hard, cold feel particularly on a day that was not conspicuously warm. The few furnishings – maybe there would have been more and softer carpets and couches when the palace was in use - offered little comfort.

Inside the harem,
Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
The western system of kings having one wife and, therefore, one clearly defined oldest son to inherit the kingdom, has the advantage of clarity, even if it lacks quality control. With multiple wives, the status or ambition of a prince’s mother often trumped primogeniture. The sultan generally had dozens (occasionally hundreds) of sons, so succession was a serious problem. After Beyazit I died in 1402 (before the Ottomans took Istanbul) there was an eleven year interregnum while his sons fought over the succession. This was not good for the empire, so it became standard practice for the prince who grabbed the throne to start his reign by executing his brothers and half-brothers. By the 17th century such barbarous practices were no longer acceptable and it was part of the genius of the Ottoman sultans that they found a solution that actually made the problem worse.
Courtyard of the concubines,
Topkapı Palace, Istanbul

On ascending the throne an emperor would now imprison his brothers in ‘the cage,’ a suite of rooms within the harem where they were tended by deaf-mutes, eunuchs and concubines. Being confined in luxury was an improvement for the sultans’ brothers, but not necessarily for those around them. More than one sibling was plucked from the cage to become emperor whilst having a very tenuous grasp on reality. Ibrahim the Mad (sultan 1640-48) was reputed to enjoy archery, but only using live human targets, and had all 280 of his concubines sewn into weighted sacks and dumped in the Bosphorus on the basis of palace tittle-tattle. These stories were disseminated, possibly even invented, by those who deposed him; there is no hard evidence for their truth – and none that he was anything remotely like a competent ruler.

We emerged from the harem into the third courtyard which contains a tiled pavilion that was once the library of Ahmet III, but is more remarkable for the artefacts housed in the pavilions around the edge.

Temporarily daunted by the queue for the treasury we took a quick look at the collection of imperial clothing. The Sultans were not, apparently, large men, at least not in height, and it was interesting working out exactly how some of the garments were worn. Fashion, it seemed, changed remarkably little over four hundred years.
In the third (or possibly fourth) courtyard, Topkapı Palace

Facing up to the Treasury queue, we shuffled round the four rooms in a slow moving crocodile. Peering into the recessed display cases we saw many expensive but rather useless objects. Jewelled flasks, bottles and arrow quivers might be beautiful but are of little use as flasks, bottles and arrow quivers, though a diamond encrusted suit of chain mail scooped the prize for pointless opulence. The 86-carat ‘Spoonmaker’s diamond’, the world’s fourth largest cut diamond, was allegedly found on a rubbish tip in the 17th century and does have a certain beauty. There is also a throne, a gift from the Persian Nadir Shah.

The Topkapı dagger - so-called only since it co-starred with Peter Ustinov in the 1964 film 'Topkapı’ - was made as a return gift to Nadir Shah. Unfortunately, the Shah died before the dagger was delivered and it was brought back to Istanbul.

View of the Bosphorus
from the fourth courtyard of the Topkapı Palace, Istanbul

A box of several dozen emeralds, some of them very large, for which no use had been found, seemed a fine example of conspicuous excess. To be fair to the Ottomans, when it comes to flaunting unused wealth, their treasury comes a distant second to that of the Shahs of Iran. In one room in Tehran, they gathered together all the justification ever needed for a revolution.
Across the courtyard are treasures of a different kind. In chronological order they are, the saucepan of Abraham, the staff of Moses, the sword of King David, the hand and part of the skull of John the Baptist, the mantle of the Prophet, and various strands from his beard. I know nothing of the history of the mantle or beard and it is possible that they are what they are claimed to be, but for the saucepan, skull, staff and the rest mere skepticism would seem foolishly naïve.

One tiled pavilion gets to look a lot like every other tiled pavilion
Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
The fourth courtyard has views over the Bosphorus on one side, the Golden Horn on the other and several pavilions in between. The problem with tiled pavilions is that it soon becomes difficult to tell one from another. The word translated as pavilion is ‘köşkö’, from which we get ‘kiosk’ – a word from which we have stripped the grandeur along with the accents.

Seeing the palace easily took up the whole morning and at lunchtime we headed down towards the Galata Bridge. Beyond the bridge a couple of ornate boats grill fish on deck and provide inexpensive fish sandwiches for a steady stream of punters. Siân and James recommend them, but we headed under the bridge to the more formal fish restaurants.
Fish sandwich, anyone?
By the Galata Bridge, Istanbul

A trolley of fish was wheeled up and various suspects examined. They were sold by weight, and the waiter popped them on the scales and I mentally calculated the cost. It was not cheap, these things never are. According to Lynne I then had an attack of meanness; I rationalized my decision by saying the fish was not the freshest I have ever seen. Straight out of the Bosphorus, we were told, but any Portuguese restaurant would invite you to choose from shinier, healthier, fresher fish than these.

We settled for the basic ‘portion of Sea Bream’, which may have disappointed the waiter, but it is his job to make me happy not vice versa. It was acceptable if a little dry and overcooked. The ‘complimentary’ fruit salad and Turkish coffee were far better.

We again walked back via the spice market and Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is a vast network of roofed streets – to call it a covered market is like calling the Grand Canal a ditch. There are areas for clothes, carpets, gold and silver, antiques and anything else you might wish to buy. Lynne and I are not great shoppers, but it was still fascinating to walk through. We ended up with several boxes of Turkish Delight, some extraordinarily expensive Iranian saffron (Turkish is much cheaper, but lacks the richness of smell, flavour and colour) and a coffee pot to replace the one we bought so cheaply in Egypt (we soon discovered why it was so cheap - it leaked).

Inside the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
That evening we returned to the restaurant we had visited on our first night. It was small and unpretentious, little more than a lokanta, though it served alcohol. We were recognised and welcomed, which is always pleasing. We decided to share one main course and add a series of vegetable dishes and from the reaction of the management we were doing nothing unusual. Steak and rice, green beans, aubergines, cheese and bread, were all washed down with a large glass of Raki – similar to Ouzo but with a rougher, just-distilled edge. It was our best meal in Istanbul.

The city has been officially called Istanbul by the rest of the world since 1930, but the name has been used locally for a thousand years. We spent most of our time in the old quarter, which has an exotic charm, but even here it is seems (and there are those who disagree) to be a city whose soul is Islamic, but whose heart is European. It is the only major world city to straddle two continents, but modern Istanbul is, if not in the European mainstream, not far from it. The vast rural hinterland in what was once called Asia Minor, may be another matter – I have not been there…yet.

We saw most of the major sights in three days, but it was hard work and there is much more to Istanbul than this. It is a city worthy of a longer stay.


  1. I'm a fan of Deli Ibrahim. "bring me the fattest woman in the world!" he cried, after seeing - somewhat unflatteringly - the nethers of a cow and getting them cast in gold, he then sent janissaries out to find a young lady to match the model. They returned with a 300 lb delight that Ibrahim called Seker Para - Sugar Lump - and she is alleged to be the only concubine who survived the mass drowning in the Bospherus.

    See? Told you Ibrahim was fun... Bankrupted the country with his passion for tiles and large women, but fun.

  2. I thought that I'd died and gone to heaven when I saw the Grand Bazaar for the first time. It still had the wow factor after the 4th.visit in 4 days, although my other half might disagree....