A must-see attraction in Istanbul, is the Topkapi Palace.
Sultan Mehmed II, conqueror of Constantinople, constructed this palace from 1460 to 1478. It was altered many times over the years. In the early 1850"s, the sultans moved to Dolmabache Palace on the Bosphorous, as Topkapi could no longer satisfy the requirements for state ceremonies and protocol. In 1924, after the abolishment of the Ottoman empire, the palace became the first official museum in Turkey. Even after the move to the new palace, Topkapi still housed the royal treasure, the imperial archives as well as the Holy Relics of the Prophet Muhammad (1).
The museum today
The palace grounds are what you would expect of a royal palace. Upon entering, you are met with a big garden, green lawn and an avenue of trees. You can bring your picnic basket and have a picnic here - if you don't mind the hoards of people visiting that is.
The buildings are beautiful, dome-shaped, all adorned with beautiful Izmir tiles and gold trim. Truly stunning.
The kitchens showcase some of the original plates, cups, urns and everything else used during the time with descriptions of how the kitchens operated.
The Library was one of our favourites, as it still contains all the books, cushion and reading tables.
The clock section was another favourite, it has an amazing collection of clocks and watches from all over the world gifted to the sultans.
You can visit the Harem for an additional price. A building with interlinking corridors housing the Queen Mother's room, the Sultan's Room and the Concubines (aptly called the Golden Passage).
The Privy Room and the Chamber of the Holy Relics
Honestly, we didn't know that this section existed. We merely followed a long line of people and waited 20 minutes to enter the building. If so many people are waiting, it must be good right?
The Privy room served as the sultan's private apartment. They would come to pray in this room before taking the throne.
Today, this place is home to Holy Relics of the Muslim world. No photo's are allowed.
In 1517, the Caliphate was passed from the Abbasids to the Ottomans, and during this event, the Holy Mantle of the Prophet was given to Sultan Selim.
During times of unrest when holy places were attacked, as well as during World War I, precious relics would be sent to the sultans for safekeeping in Topkapi.
On showcase here, is the Staff of Moses, the turban of Prophet Joseph, beard clippings of the Prophet Muhammad, a couple of his teeth, his Holy Mantle, his sword, the sword of David and many more (2).
Clearly, we were kind of surprised by the Holy Relics section. People, followers of Islam, would run and shove you just to get close to these objects. Some would say a prayer here and there.
As a non-religious outsider, this is strange behaviour - to place so much emotion, and value in an object. And we have so many questions!
Assuming it is real, why would the staff of Moses be in the custody of the Muslim's, and not the Christians or Jews for example. My personal belief is that it is just a story, so how can it then exist? and still exist thousands of years after? Cant help thinking that its just a random stick.
It also contains the keys of the Kaaba in Mecca. As the Ottoman sultans were in office of the Caliph of Islam it was their duty to maintain and repair the Kaaba. As objects of the Kaaba were replaced over time, the old objects would be brought to Topkapi for safekeeping.
What we found lacking
This place is beautiful and one can imagine that it was a great place once. But, the reason you visit such places, is to see and feel and experience how these people once lived.
We found that one can only see walls of buildings. Very few of the original objects and artifacts (or replicas) are still in place, so you don't really get to see the opulence and richness and power that once was the Ottoman Empire and its sultans. Only a few rooms still has some cushions and carpets in place.
Even in the Harem, there is no bedding or cushions or side tables or staged scenes, not even a visual depiction, of what it was once. So although you can imagine it, you don't really get to see or experience is besides the tiled walls.
There is also not much of the history of the Ottoman Empire contained in this museum. The weapons section wasn't on display and there is no section containing dresses and clothing from the era.
Is it worth a visit?
Of course! It is still amazing to stroll through the palace grounds and see the magnificence of the palace itself and see the architecture and living spaces of that bygone era. It is still beautiful.
*Note that the fees increased after 01 October 2018. You can check their website for up to date fees here.
The entrance to the palace: TL 40
The harem is separate and you pay a further TL 25
Hagia Irene Church TL 20
If you are planning on visiting many of the museums in Istanbul, you can opt to buy the Istanbul Museum card for 125 TL and save some money.
Open everyday, except Tuesdays. 09:00 to 18:00.
During religious days, it only opens in the afternoon.
*At the time of our visit the exchange rate was R1 = 4 TL, however, the rate fluctuated significantly on a daily basis, especially affecting the Dollar and Euro. In order to avoid losing out, rather take out money at an ATM directly from Rands, on wait until the exchange rate is in your favour before exchanging.
Want to visit Istanbul and the Topkapi Palace? Let us know in the comments.
Further Reading: Turkey visas requirements for South Africans - apply now!