Topkapı: Military Encampment or Imperial Palace?

1453 is a year often portrayed as an ending. It saw the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the city which for over 1,000 years had served as the capital of Byzantine culture and administration. Its last emperor died in the battle for the city, signalling–to contemporary European observers–the destruction of a Christian power that had successfully interposed itself between Islam and the West for centuries.

Ottoman kiosk outside Topkapi. A square tower along the palace walls is visible at left.

Ottoman kiosk outside Topkapi. A square tower along the palace walls is visible at left.

Yet despite everything brought to an end by Mehmed II the Conqueror’s occupation of Constantinople, 1453 deserves recognition not only as the end, but also a beginning, of an era. His victory initiated sweeping developments in the Ottoman state, setting the stage for the splendour and military success of the empire under the later sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Their dynasty–alongside that of their contemporaries, the Hapsburgs–became one of the longest-reigning in history.

The aspirations and world-views of these Ottoman sultans are given full expression in the palace–begun by Mehmet II–which served as the centre of their court and administration. Topkapı, situated overlooking the Bosphorous, may seem anomalous from a European architectural standpoint, but its many chambers and courts were constructed in an elaborate reflection of Ottoman society as the sultans saw it.

The exterior wall of Topkapi and the gateway to the Fourth Court. The sultan's tughra (or signature-seal) is in the roundel over the passage.

The exterior wall of Topkapi and the gateway to the Fourth Court. The sultan’s tughra (or signature-seal) is in the roundel over the passage.

The single most important features of Topkapı are its walls. These separated the parkland of the acropolis on which it stood from the rest of the urban environment, screening the sultans from view and providing green space for his enjoyment. Behind these walls was the so-called ‘First Court’, the most public of the palace areas. Within this, one proceeded to the Second, Third, and Fourth courts–the space becoming more exclusive the further inward one travelled.

The crenelated entryway to the Third Court--a later embellishment.

The crenelated entryway to the Third Court–a later embellishment.

Things like the palace workshops and kitchens, and even the council chamber, were located in the relatively public Second Court, while the Fourth Court–the sultan’s own private residence–were forbidden (haram, in Arabic) to all but his closest attendants (many of whom were eunuchs or personal servants chosen through the devshirme.) At the height of Ottoman imperial protocol, audiences would take place on the threshold between the Second and Third courts, leaving the intimate areas out of reach to most visitors.

Tower of Justice Topkapi

The Tower of Justice overlooks the Third Court, a hive of activity for palace residents and visitors.

These arrangements reflect several important strands in Ottoman imperial ideology. Firstly, the arrangement of the household around the sultan mirrored the layout of Mehmed II’s military encampments. The building was designed not for pleasure, but for functionality, with a retinue of craftsmen and bureaucrats continually on call. This character was dominant during the palace’s early years, when the Ottoman leaders spent much of their time on campaign.

The monumental Baroque entryway to the receiving chamber, with the Third Court beyond.

The monumental Baroque entryway to the receiving chamber, with the Third Court beyond.

Secondly, the palace offered a model of the empire in microcosm, with the sultan’s slaves and councillors at the centre of a social network that spread outward to provincial governors and military commanders. The supreme authority of the sultan himself was expressed through the seclusion of the palace’s inner precincts; although inaccessible, he was also ideologically omnipresent. This aspect of his personality can be seen in the grate overlooking the divan–or council chamber–from which the Sultan could observe the proceedings unseen.

Grate in the divan chamber. The sultan's potential presence was meant to insure his councillors acted with justice towards petitioners.

Grate in the divan chamber. The sultan’s potential presence was meant to insure his councillors acted with justice towards petitioners.

The interior layout of the palace, however, was only one aspect of its architectural propaganda. Another was its placement within the existing city of Constantinople. Topkapı sits directly next to the great church of Hagia Sophia, converted to a mosque after the conquest, and actually engulfed the church of Hagia Eirene. In this way, the palace proclaimed the continuity of imperial ambition and appropriated the Byzantine legacy for the Ottomans. It also reoriented the ceremonial axis of the city, so that its skyline (and that of mosques like the Suleimaniye and Rustem Pasha, below) were seen to best advantage from the European enclaves of Pera and Galata, across the Golden Horn.

Ottoman architecture still dominates Istanbul's skyline.

Ottoman architecture still dominates Istanbul’s skyline.

In many respects, then, the political philosophy of the Ottoman sultans can be read from their palace, which reverenced the ruler while remaining true to the practical concerns of his government. At the same time, its rich decoration and commanding location also testify to the importance of Topkapı as a cultural and ideological centre–diseminating an imperial vision throughout the many lands and territories it modelled.

6 thoughts on “Topkapı: Military Encampment or Imperial Palace?

  1. Thanks for your article featuring one of my favorite places in the world. I have a small correction to the caption of your first picture. What the photo actually shows is not a kiosk but a fountain built under Sultan Ahmet III in 1728 in the Turkish Rococo style. Fountains, a source of drinking water for the public, were one of the several ways sultans and other high officials provided charity required by Islam, while at the same time keeping their own name in the public eye.

  2. Pingback: Ishak Pasha Palace ← OVERTURKEY

  3. Pingback: Topkapı Palace ← OVERTURKEY

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