Topkapi Palace was an absolutely wonderful experience; definately one of the top of my life to date. It just kept on giving - round every corner there was something else interesting, or another beautiful view.
Topkapi Palace was the most important residence of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years, and was famous for its opulence, luxury and magnificence. Legends built up about the famous Harem and the eunuchs who guarded it. The very mention of Topkapi Palace brings to mind images of jewel-encrusted sultans lounging about on shady terraces and gardens, sipping at iced sherbert from crystal goblets and languorously picking at silver or fine porcelain platters of fruit or confectionery...
Anyway, having entered through the main gate into the fine gardens of the first courtyard (which are free to get into), we continued through the next gate into the second courtyard. We didn't have to pay at this point because we'd bought Istanbul Museum Cards on our first day, which allows free entry into lots of famous attractions within a 5 day period.
From the second courtyard we entered the famous Harem. Only part of it was open to visitors, but due to the vastness of it, even that took quite a while to see. There were different apartments for the sultan, the Queen Mother, princes and other members of the sultan's family, a courtyard for the eunuchs, a short corridor with a long counter where eunuchs left dishes of food delivered by kitchen staff (for the concubines and other people to take), and one or two other places. The decoration of each room was beautiful, with stunning, colourful patterned tiles all over the walls. One room had paintings of piles of different fruits.
My favourite part of the Harem, however, wasn't a room at all but the Courtyard of the Favourites, where only the sultan's favourite concubines were allowed to go. The terrace had a really good view of the Golden Horn, the river which separates the two European sections of Istanbul, in the distance. I sat on a bench and pictured how I thought the courtyard might have looked 400 years ago; I thought of an extract from a book of historic travel accounts from over the ages that I have, which was written by a European visitor to one of the earlier Ottoman sultans. He was the only visitor allowed to get a glimpse of the Harem; usually, he said, anyone caught within the Harem or even glancing into it from outside, who was not the Sultan himself, the Queen Mother, one or two other select members of the sultan's family, a concubine or a eunuch, was instantly put to death. He mentions peering through an iron-barred window for a few seconds and glimpsing concubines playing at ball in a courtyard.
Once we emerged from the Harem, we wandered round the other two courtyards and then looked round the second one again properly, as the first time we'd been there we'd gone into the Harem almost straight away instead of exploring.
We saw so many interesting places and things, it would take me forever to describe them all in appropriate detail! The following are some of the highlights;
- a lovely rose garden with a fountain in the middle; the rose season has clearly just turned, but there were still lots of relatively fresh-looking red and pink blooms left.
- a terrace with an even more beautiful view of the Golden Horn and Galata Bridge than the courtyard in the Harem had. It also overlooked the Fig Garden and the Elephant Garden behind (no explanations for the name of the Elephant Garden were given; maybe one of the sultans kept a managerie in that garden at one point?) Overlooking this view was a small golden-roofed covered seat where one of the sultans liked to break each day's fast during Ramadan.
- a terrace on the other side, with a magnificent view of the Strait of Bosphorus, the other European section and the Asian section. On the way there we looked through a couple of small but magnificent kiosks; the Terrace Kiosk, where the Sultan watched sporting contests in the garden, the Revan Kiosk, which was used to store the Sultan's turbans, and the Baghdad Pavilion, used as the library of the Pricy Chamber from the 18th century onwards.
- a bottle rose sherbert we shared... It lived up to every expectation! It was sweet and tasted a lot of roses; apparently mashed rose petals was one of the main ingredients. The courtyard we sat in was the perfect place to drink it.
- the palace kitchens, especially the confectionary kitchen where huge copper cauldrons, iron ladles and marble slabs were displayed. There was lots of fascinating information about the confectionary, syrups, sherberts and also medicines, soap and scented candles that were made here.
- the Arms & Armour display. This was one of the best I've ever seen; extremely well preserved and beautifully engraved and patterned helmets, daggers, swords, axes, maces and bows. It also had arrows, chainmail and colourful wicker training shields.
- the Treasury; this contained a massive glittering diamond, a 22-carat gold jug and ewer, a basket of huge emeralds, rings encrusted with rubies and sapphires, more very finely engraved swords, a British Order of the Garter presented to one of the sultans by Queen Victoria, Chinese Ming pottery and lots more.
- Some of the holiest relics of Islam, including parts of the Prophet Mohammed's beard, his sword and of of his footprints set in stone. In the same exhibition we saw a metre square model of one of the holiest Islamic buildings in Mecca, made entirely from mother-of-pearl.
On our way out of the palace we stopped to flop for a bit on the grass. Outside the gates we bought two salted, grilled corn-on-the-cobs from a street seller and ate them on the way back to the hostel. It was now past 17.30 and we'd spent four and a half hours at Topkapi!
For dinner we ate on the rooftop terrace of a fish restaurant round the corner from the hostel. Dave had bass, I had bream (both of which came with rice and salad) and we shared an iceberg salad and a spinach casserole. Dave also had some olives wrapped in anchovies. They gave us free baklava and Turkish coffee afterwards! Dave went into raptures about the baklava, and for good reason!