Historical Information on The Topkapi Palace Museum

Istanbul's history dates back to 633 B.C. when Doric settlers from Megara founded a small, commercial colony here that became known as Byzantion. Two major constraints dictated the siting of ancient cities: topography and strategic considerations. The site of this new town was located at the tip of a peninsula that commanded three waterways. With the formal establishment of the polis, a city wall measuring five kilometers in length and having twenty-seven towers was built as protection. Within the walls, a hill within the walls was selected as its acropolis. This was the first of the city's eventual seven hills - apparently a topographical "must" for legendary ancient cities.

Continuous expansion and growth resulted in several transformations of the city's appearance. The first major one took place in 196, during the reign of the Roman emperor Septimus Severus. This involved the rebuilding of the land wall. Another Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, transformed the city into a great metropolis that he renamed Constantinopolis. This city was to become the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 412 with the aim of creating a new metropolis to serve as the capital of his empire, Emperor Theodosius undertook the fourth major expansion of the city and rebuilt the landwalls.

In the course of the centuries, palaces were built, abandoned, demolished, and rebuilt. Most of these overlooked the Sea of Marmara. Thus the Emperor Justinian (565-578) was making a radical and - for the city - fateful change when he decided to locate his new palace (Blachernae) at a place where the seawalls of the Golden Horn met the landwalls cutting across the peninsula. By the time of Alexius Comnenus (1061-1118), Blachernae was officially designated the imperial residence and all the other Byzantine palaces were abandoned.

Two thousand one hundred forty years after the foundation of the city, a young Ottoman sultan conquered the city at the age of twenty-three. Mehmed the II, given the name Fatih "Conqueror" in honor of his victory, made his conquest the capital of his vigorous, expanding empire. With his ambitions for world domination, he chose as the site of his administrative center and residence the very same place on which the original city was founded: a coincidence, perhaps, but more likely a reaffirmation of the rules of locational determinism; for even the length of the surrounding walls and the area they contained were close to those of ancient Byzantion.

At the time of his conquest, Sultan Mehmed encountered an impoverished city with a population of a mere forty thousand souls who lived scattered about in isolated residential sections set amidst cultivated fields. The site he chose for his palace was typical: a hill covered with an olive grove, presumably several abandoned monastic structures, chapels, and bathhouses, and a small residential district by the sea.

This was the beginning of an unprecedented scheme of grandiose proportions which became synonymous with Ottoman cultural and administrative history. More than a residential complex for the royal household, the new palace was to become the pivotal institution for the planning and decision-making institutions of a far-flung empire and it remained so from the late 15th century to the middle of the l9th.

With its "irregular, asymmetric, non-axial, and un-monumental proportions" as some European travelers described it, Topkapi Palace was certainly quite different from the European palaces with which they were familiar whether in terms of appearance or of layout. But it was also fundamentally different from oriental or Islamic palaces even though they might have had similar patterns of spatial organization. In fact, Topkapi was a sui generis microcosm, a paradise on earth or "to borrow a term from Ottoman palace terminology" The Palace of Felicity.

Topkapi may be considered a trans-cultural focal point in which a holistic civilization was created from the nomadic culture of Turkish tribesmen whose forefathers had set out from Central Asia and reached Asia Minor with stopovers in Persia and Mesopotamia. Within the historically short period of two centuries, the Ottomans rose from a small, feudal principality to become a major -the major- world power, yet at the same time they possessed a court tradition and culture of their own that was over a thousand years old. Undoubtedly Topkapi involved a synthesis of Byzantine elements but what grew up on the peninsula by the Golden Horn cannot possibly be divorced from its predecessors in Ottoman history.

With their conquest of Bursa in 1326, the Ottomans developed a new (for them) concept of a palace situated within a citadel in their new capital. Although no definite historical information is available about this palace's formal and functional organization, it may be assumed that it was here that the social organization and components of future palaces were shaped.

During the period of the empire's early formation and expansion (particularly during the conquest of the European territories called Rumeli) the concept of an established administrative capital had - for geopolitical reasons - to be flexible. Following his capture of Dimetoka in 1362, Murad I ordered the construction of a palace there and until 1368, that city served as the empire's temporary capital. The early sultans perforce developed the concept of keeping the center of administrative power moving as dictated by the mobility of military power.

Although Edirne was also conquered in 1362, and became the center of the administration of the empire's Rumelian territories, it did not become the formal capital until 1368, following the completion of a new palace built there. At the same time, Bursa remained a capital in its own right. Thus we see that the earlier empire was one in which there was a plurality of administrative focal points.

The first palace to be built in Edirne (which later became known as Eski Saray "Old Palace") was located in a place called Kavak Meydanl, the spot where Selimiye mosque was to be built in the 16th century. During the brief reign of Celebi Musa (1411), the palace grounds, in the form of a square, were protected by a wall fifteen meters high which turned it into an urban citadel. We have almost no detailed information about this palace's formal or functional organization or its architectural features.

Since it was originally the custom in the Ottoman empire for princes of the line to serve as provincial governors in cities like Kutahya, Amasya, and Manisa, palaces -whether new ones or reconstructions of existing ones- were built in such places for them to reside in.

Back in Edirne, work on the construction of a new palace began in 1447 on the banks of the Tunca river. It was not completed until 1457, by which time Mehmed II had already occupied the throne for six years and Istanbul for four.

After the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, a new palace for the Ottoman house was built within the walls of the city at a place called Forum Tauri. It replaced an abandoned monastery there. Also referred to in old Ottoman sources as Eski Saray, this palace covered a rather large area. Sultan Mehmed did not, however, live there much, preferring to take up residence in Edirne between campaigns.

When Istanbul was declared the empire's formal capital however, Eski Saray acquired the status of the sovereign's residence. Mehmed lived there until about the middle of the 1470's, by which time he had realized that he needed to construct a new palace whose grandeur and magnificence were more in accord with his imperial ambitions as evinced in the title "Ruler of the Two Seas and the Two Continents" that he assumed.

Within the remarkably short span of only ten years, four palaces were built in succession. It was probably this more than anything else that firmly established the roots of the extraordinary spatio-social evolutionary process that was to become the Ottoman palace tradition. The developmental stages of these palaces clearly define the royal house's developing conceptualization of what a palace should be: seat of government and imperial residence. The elements of this duality mutually influenced and transformed each other affecting the spatial and functional components of the Ottoman palaces until the early 18th century. The stages in this development may be summarized as:

  • Edirne Yeni Sarayi whose modifications and successive extensions undertaken in different stages and periods led to the evolution of residential and administrative units often with the same private and ceremonial functions and even with the same names. Thus this palace exhibits important parallels with the new palace in Istanbul.
  • Istanbul Eski Sarayi which, though originally intended as the Ottoman residence, was to play a vital role, as the "Women's Palace" in the development and spatial transformation of what was to become the new palace's Harem. While this palace served initially as the residence of the sultan's immediate family (mother, wives, and children), it later became the residence of all the womenfolk of deceased sovereigns. It thus serves as a parallel and external model for the official Harem of the new palace.

    In his capacity as chief planner of his capital, Mehmed II set out the structure of the state with its own organizational philosophy, inter- related institutions, and ceremonial orders (including the ethics, manners, and rituals that ultimately became traditions) as well as the physical environment of the capital in which all its integrated institutions were located in designated zones and districts.

    Mehmed II's Kanunname (literally "Book of Laws") lays down what are essentially the schematics for his prospective global empire- the "Third Rome". But although all its institutions are described in detail and were to be located somewhere within the urban context, the sultan's intentions with regard to matters of location and organization are not clearly known; only some vague assumptions can be made on the basis of the known duality of function.

    Although he originally selected as the site of his palace a location that was thoroughly urban, he later chose to relocate it to another that was (at the time) relatively remote and isolated. His motives in this cannot be precisely discerned. Did he anticipate the separate (or integrated) primary function of the new palace as a private domain or residence or as a ceremonial domain that would be fitted out with the administrative functions of the state?

    Another related, and unresolved, problem was why Yedikule, which was designed and built in accordance with the most sophisticated concepts of military architecture of the day, was to function solely as an imperial treasury. What purpose did he originally envision this structure serving? Compared with this, his intentions and aims in the construction of his kulliye (multi-functional complex) in the modern-day district of Fatih are clear and well formulated: it was here that the class of civil servants who would serve the state and make scholarly and technological contributions to its progress were to be educated.

    All the palaces built (or completed) during the reign of Mehmed II exhibit the same spatial order based on the principle of interconnected courtyards, each located in clearly defined public, semi-public, and private zones. These courtyards were arranged according to hierarchical considerations with their shapes being determined by topography rather than precise geometric or orthogonal principles. The number of these courtyards was flexible: there had to be at least two but could be as many as nine, as in the case of the Edirne place. Only five of them, however, were given the designation meydan (square) or taslik (courtyard) according to the particular palace's terminology.

    Palaces evolving around courtyards in the course of their historical development existed in both oriental and occidental cultures long before the Ottoman experiment. Spatial organization principles considering courtyards as "unit spaces" constituted a common design vocabulary that quite often was implemented as both an integrating and segregating spatial constraint.

    The use of walls and courtyards and of clear and strong transitions between and among them is one way of expressing domains. The spatial system of a palace (or of any other structure for that matter) is an expression of a human behavioral system. In this context, unwanted behavior and interaction that can be prevented (or controlled) through rules (manners, hierarchies, avoidance) can be reinforced through architecture that creates areas (zones) that are arranged hierarchically and occupied by various groups creating a balance of power among them, which in turn makes it possible to create the "system" through which group identities are formed, maintained, and integrated.

    It is for this reason that all the legendary palaces that are formed around a system of courtyards -Beijing or Forbidden City, Delhi, Akra, Fatehpur Sirki, and Alhambra- exhibit striking spatial/organizational similarities. Since an absolute ruler's philosophical vision of what should be the administrative and residential constituents evolved around a common behavioral system and tradition, they naturally reflect similar sources and guiding principles.

    Today Topkapi Palace functions as a museum and only a very small part of its original domain and environment can be appreciated. The ravages of time have resulted in the destruction (by fire) and the demolition (through new building) of many of its original structures. Despite this, the original 15th century spatial organization based on a triple courtyard order that integrates, segregates, and defines the palace's residential, ceremonial, and functional requirements has remained remarkably intact.

    These individual requirements led to the formation of homogeneous, self-contained clusters that evolved around smaller courtyards since this was dictated by the formative systems of the social and functional groups, corps, classes, and institutions that occupied them. These clusters are not isolated, however, but are linked to and aligned with the main courtyards creating a self- contained microcosm that perfectly mirrors the state it housed.

    That then defines the methodology of this book. By analytically exhibiting the spatial hierarchy of the palace, reconsidering its order and the successive stages of its transformation, we shall endeavor to expose the present state and past of this unique world, the Palace of Felicity.

    The text is extracted from the book "Topkapi: the palace of felicity" by Ahmet Ertug and Ibrahim Koluk,
    © Ertug & Koluk

    Web www.ee.bilkent.edu.tr