Topkapı Palace History
Topkapı Palace was the main residence of the Ottoman
sultans (from the mid-15th century until the construction of Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosporus.
This vast conglomeration of buildings stands on a magnificent promontory on the tip of the
peninsula overlooking the Bosporus and the inner harbour on the east and the Golden Horn on the
It is isolated from the city on the landward sides by walls on the south and
west. Originally known as the New Palace, only in the 19th century did it come to be known as
Topkapı (‘Cannon-gate’) Palace, after a shore pavilion built near a gate of that name. The
layout of the palace, established by Mehmed II, is based on the First Court, an outer precinct
or park, and an inner precinct of three courts that constitute the palace proper.
(I) Before 1453
The hill on which Topkapi Palace stands was the acropolis
of ancient Byzantion; it was surrounded with walls and graced with secular and religious
structures, some of which have been excavated among the present buildings. The Temple of
Poseidon, known to have been situated within the precincts of the palace, was transformed into
the church of St Menas, and it has been suggested that the present Arcade of the Chamber of the
Holy Mantle were built on the site. Under Byzantine rule the steep slopes of the hill were
terraced and cisterns built, of which 39 have been identified within the palace grounds. These
cisterns were supplied from an ancient ashlar-lined well, 5 m in diameter and 30 m deep. It
later became the main water source for the palace, and it was repaired by Sinan during the
reign of Süleyman.
The Mangana arsenal stood on the lower slopes of the eastern side of the
hill, and its name was later applied to the whole district. Constantine IX (1042–1055) built
the monastery and palace of Mangana; the latter was reportedly a large complex with five
storeys, the last remains of which were razed by Isaak II Angelos (1185–1195). According to the
sources this district contained numerous churches, among which were the Mangana monastery
church of St George, Christ the Philanthropist Church, St Demetrios, St Lazaros and St Barbara.
None of these buildings have been identified with the remains of various religious structures
found on the site.
Objects from the Roman and Byzantine periods found on the site include
sarcophagi, baptismal fonts and parapet slabs, and fragments of architectural elements and
sculpture, many of which were reused under the Ottomans. Sarcophagi and fonts were often used
as the drinking basins of fountains or water tanks. The font in the Treasury Apartments was
reportedly used as a safe for cash.
Within a few years of the conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed II constructed
a palace in the centre of his capital as well as several large fortresses in or near the city.
His selection of the magnificent site—easily defensible, highly visible and close to the
symbolic centre of the ancient city—was a logical choice for the major imperial residence and
administrative centre of the growing empire.
Construction of the walls surrounding the palace was begun around 1460 and
were completed in 1478. There are several gateways in the outer wall, but the major ceremonial
route was a linear series of three great portals leading into the First, Second and Third
Courts, with the audience throne-room beyond the third portal.
Remains from Mehmed’s period include the encircling walls, the main portal
for the entire complex, that of the palace proper, and a series of gardens and pavilions or
kiosks, built first in the palace proper and then in the park. Of these pavilions, the Çinili
(‘Tiled’) Kiosk in the park, with its splendid decoration and complex axial arrangement of
rooms, follows a 15th-century Timurid-style plan probably considered somewhat exotic in
Istanbul at the time.
Inside the palace proper, the most important building to survive is the
Arcade of the Conqueror’s Kiosk, built in a corner of the Third Court at the top of the
promontory on a cliff overlooking the conjunction of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara; the
magnificent view from its covered porch and its great visibility from the water leave little
doubt why the site was selected.
The Tower of Justice, the highest structure in the complex, recalls in its
original form a similar tower erected during Mehmed’s reign in the palace at Edirne. The basic
layout of the park and three interior courts established under Mehmed dictated the pattern of
The next major additions took place under Süleyman (1520–1566), when certain
ceremonial parts of the palace were rebuilt on a larger scale, and the palace infrastructure
was enlarged to support the burgeoning administrative bureaucracy of the empire.
At this time the Counchill Hall building was erected and the neighbouring
Inner Treasury in the Second Court and the Throne-room in the Third Court were built too.
Although these structures have been greatly altered in subsequent rebuildings, their decorative
tiles have been preserved in other parts of the palace, most notably on the walls of the
Circumcision Room in the Fourth Court. The massive gilded iron doors in the Middle Gate were
placed there in 1525.
Under Selim II (1566–1574) the great Ottoman architect Sinan built his first
important additions to the palace. New baths for the Sultan were erected and decorated with
Iznik polychrome tiles of the highest quality. In 1574, after the kitchens in the Second Court
were destroyed by fire, Sinan began the gigantic kitchens that still constitute the largest
single structure in the palace.
Other additions made to the Harem were substantially altered, and much of
the tile decoration was recycled by Ahmed I (1603–1617) for his great mosque. In the reign of
Murad III (1574–1595) the palace attained its present form with the construction by Sinan of
the Privy Chamber, previously remodelled between 1512 and 1520 under Selim I, in the Fourth
Court; vast additions to the Harem were also made, including the complex known as the Bedroom
of Murad III, several seashore kiosks in the park and more housing for the palace staff.
Murad’s architectural patronage was heavily concentrated in the palace, for he was the first
sultan since the conquest to forego building an imperial mosque in the capital.
In particular, his architectural patronage involved massive purchases of
ceramic tiles from Iznik. Contemporary documents sent from the palace to the administrative
judge of Iznik complained that potters were producing more lucrative tablewares for sale in the
bazaar rather than tiles for the palace. Murad’s additions were altered by the stripping of
their tiles and by the intrusion of European taste in the 18th century.
During the reigns of Mehmed III (1595–1603) and Ahmed I little was added to
Topkapı Palace. Ahmed’s preoccupation with the building of his mosque even meant that the
palace was stripped of tiles from structures damaged in the fire of 1574 for reuse in the
The first major additions to the palace in the 17th century occurred during
the reign of the bellicose Murad IV (1623–1640), who built in the Fourth Court the lovely Revan
and Baghdad kiosks to commemorate his victories at Erevan (1635–1636) and Baghdad
Based on the classical type of four-iwan plan, they have projecting eaves,
domed central spaces and interiors with recessed cupboards and woodwork inlaid with
mother-of-pearl. They typify Islamic and Ottoman palace structures. Their decoration in
blue-and-white tiles deliberately patterned after those of a century earlier are self-conscious
attempts to duplicate the glories of an earlier age.
The nearby Circumcision Room (Sünnet Odası), built in 1648 by Ibrahim, is an
altogether simpler structure than Murad’s two kiosks, but it is largely decorated on the
exterior with tiles that once graced ceremonial buildings of Süleyman.
Although it is not certain when these recycled tiles were added to the
Circumcision Room, it is highly probable that these prototypes for the decoration of Murad’s
kiosks were moved to their present location c. 1648 as part of the same reverence and nostalgia
for the art of the age of Süleyman. Ibrahim also erected the terrace that links the
Circumcision Room with Murad’s kiosks and the arcaded roof around the Chamber of the Holy
Another fire in 1665 resulted in the wholesale redecoration of the Harem,
although little of its plan and structure was changed. Once again the reverence for the 16th
century is manifested in a tenacious adherence to polychrome underglaze-painted tiles in the
Iznik mode, despite the poor quality. Although the redecoration is notable for its extreme
dreariness, it does include direct imitations of the mass-produced tiles of the reign of Murad
Topkapı Palace continued to serve as the formal seat of
government and primary imperial residence in Istanbul after 1687, but the palace gradually lost
its predominance as the Ottoman sultans spent more time in their new suburban palaces on the
Bosporus and at the Sweet Waters of Europe. Major additions during the reign of Ahmed III
(1703–1730) include the lovely Neo-classical library in the Third Court, built on the
foundations of an earlier kiosk; the spectacular Dining-room in the Harem, painted with floral
designs; and the pool and fountain in the Fourth Court.
Under Mahmud I (1730–1754) and Osman III (1754–1757) the Harem was
redecorated in the Ottoman Baroque style, an Italianate rather than French-inspired mode of
decoration that adds a jarring note when juxtaposed with the decoration of the Ottoman
classical age. In 1752 Mahmud I rebuilt the Kiosk of Mustafa Pasha in the Fourth Court: the
interior contains a Rococo ceiling, but this unusually spare and open building, with its large
windows derived from the wooden residences along the Bosporus, injects a refreshing and
forward-looking architectural note.
The last significant royal addition to the palace was the Kiosk of
Abdülmecid constructed by Sarkis Balyan on a built-up terrace beyond the Conqueror’s Kiosk,
with the same sweeping view of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara. This building, in the
eclectic Europeanized style popularized by the Balyan family in the 19th century, is simply
another typical seaside palace; its location within the Topkapı complex was due primarily to
the magnificent view rather than to old imperial associations.
(IV) After 1853
Although Abdülmecid (1839–1861) moved his official residence to Dolmabahçe
Palace, the sultans’ ties with Topkapı Palace were not completely broken. The palace continued
to be the residence of court officials and site of the treasury, ceremonies on the sultan’s
accession and handing over of the treasury were performed there, funerals for sultans began
there, and the yearly visit to the Chamber of the Holy Mantle on 15 Ramadan continued to take
The Kiosk of Abdülmecid was opened on occasion to accommodate foreign
guests. The Sultan gave special permission for foreign ambassadors resident in Istanbul and
their associates to visit the palace. They were able to tour two rooms in the Treasury and the
Dormitory of the Expeditionary Force, where a collection of 360 ceramic objects was exhibited.
According to Georgina Max Müller, who toured the palace with such a group, they had to pay a
Topkapi Palace underwent various changes and repairs to
suit the needs of its residents. The imperial historiographer Abdurrahman Şeref was the
first to receive special permission to spend a long time in the palace, where he established
the condition of the buildings and recorded their inscriptions.
Major repairs that changed the appearance of the Third Court were begun
under Abdülhamid II (1876–1909) and completed under Mehmed V Reşad (1909–1918). A report in
1915 stated that the repairs had been poorly done and recorded mistakes. The demolition of the
Music-room (Meşkhane) built by Selim III (1789–1807) at the entrance to the Gate of the White
Eunuchs was strongly criticized.
The Topkapı Palace was officially opened as a museum
on 3 April 1924. The first campaign of restoration (1940–1944) restored the kitchens and
adjacent cooks’ quarters, as well as the privy stables and Treasury Apartments. The Treasury of
the Ambassadors, built in front of the Treasury Apartments under Mahmud I (was removed.
The second restoration campaign (1959–1962), directed by the architect Selma
Emlar, delineated the Harem water-supply and exposed the pool under the Courtyard of the
Favourites in the Harem Apartments, known from its depiction in manuscript illustrations. The
larder beside the kitchen was repaired, the dairy restored and the archives transformed into
the textile depot. Under the architect Mualla Egüpoğlu Anhegger, the restoration of the Harem
The most striking part was the removal of the decorated wooden partitions
and penthouse from the Apartments of the Heir Apparent. The dome, which had been covered with a
flat ceiling, was revealed when the ceiling was dismantled. İlban Öz restored the apartments of
the Favourites and of Abdülhamid in the Harem and of the Halberdiers with Tresses. An
exhibition hall was constructed on the rampart opposite the kitchens.
Topkapı Palace Map&Location
Address: Topkapı Sarayı, Hotel İbrahim Pasha, Binbirdirek Mh., Terzihane Sk
7, 34122 Istanbul, Turkey.
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