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The fabled Topkapi Palace of Istanbul

Palace Intrigue: The Fabled Topkapi Palace of Istanbul
By Diana McLeod

      The Turkish Sultans built their palace on a bluff overlooking the Golden Horn district of Istanbul. Today, the Topkapi Palace is one of the largest preserved palaces in the world. Dave and I took the tour, and we were impressed. The famous harem alone has over 300 rooms and open courtyards. The harem and the Sultan’s' quarters are elaborately decorated with high quality tilework, pillows, divans, chandeliers, and stained glass windows. The palace'’s airy pavilions and magnificent reception halls are surrounded by beautifully tended gardens, with marble balconies overlooking the sprawling city below. In its day, it was a world unto itself, with its own stables, infirmary, markets, even a private zoo. Here are some glimpses of life in that world...

SULTANS AND THEIR HAREMS: The Sultans of Turkey kept hundreds of women locked in the gilded cage of the Topkapi harem. The culture was based on slavery, and to be female of that era was just another form of slavery. Beautiful women were sought out from around the world, for the Sultan's’ personal amusement. Many of them were presented to the Sultans as gifts from foreign potentates. Black African eunuch slaves kept the women locked up in a special area of the palace, where no man could ever see them. The concubines were taught that their only chance for elevation within this closed society was to please the Sultan and especially to have children by him. Only favorites would attain positions of power. There was a luxurious marble swimming pool, off to one side of the harem, where the Sultan could sit and watch his beauties bathe. From there, he could select his choice for the night. The Queen Mother was privy to everything that went on in the harem. She would know if the chosen one failed to please him, and she would make that woman'’s life miserable from then on. Woe to the woman who was blamed for a poor performance because her Sultan had imbibed too much wine or opium, or because he was suffering from a bad headache, or even a bad mood!

THE WORLD OF THE PALACE KITCHENS: We did not fully grasp the scope of palace life until we saw the kitchens. The kitchens of Topkapi were enormous facilities for an army of slaves and cooks, and it was their job to prepare food for thousands of people every day. (On an average day, the kitchens fed over 4,000, but this number would swell during festivals and feastdays.) These huge rooms held massive ovens, open firepits, and gigantic cauldrons. The roofs of these warehouse-sized rooms bristled with chimneys. The serving dishes and silver alone occupied several large cavernous halls.

     The head chef must have been a person who wielded great power, but he must have lived in a virtual pressure cooker of stress every day. He had to constantly increase his repertoire of new delicacies for the Sultan and his entourage. He had to command an army of slaves, and he had to train them to perform challenging tasks, teaching them how to shop for specialized ingredients in the marketplaces, how to bake delicate pastries and how to cook meats and all the other dishes properly. He had to produce gigantic banquets on time, three times a day, and he had to present them with elaborate artistry. If the Sultan chipped a tooth on a stone in a poorly washed salad, or if a dish failed to please, or if the dinner was late for any reason, it was his fault. Excellence would be taken for granted, but a poor performance could cost him his job, or even his head.

THE JEWELS OF THE ROYAL TREASURY: The Ottoman Empire was very wealthy, in its day, thanks to its strategic position in the world. Istanbul was a hub of commerce between Europe and Asia. Goods came overland from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and European goods flowed in the other direction. Eventually, the Turks stole the secrets of silkmaking from the Chinese, and Turkey became a major silk producer.

      The Sultans grew rich and powerful from all of the commerce. They began to amass a vast treasury of jewels, pearls, and gold. The sultans were well known for ostentatious jewelry. Many of them wore rings and bracelets, heavy strings of pearls, and they wore fabulous turban pins encrusted with spectacular gems. The most famous of these is the “Spoonmaker’'s diamond: an 86 carat pear-shaped beauty. Legend has it that a spoonmaker found the stone in the trash in Istanbul, while he was casting about for metal to make spoons with.

      Dave and I goggled at the fabulous collection of treasures. The Sultans were apparently very fond of emeralds, and they had the largest collection of raw emerald crystals we had ever seen. Three of these were large enough to make up the entire hilt of the legendary “Topkapi dagger,” a ceremonial knife with a solid gold scabbard covered in large diamonds. We saw one emerald crystal large enough to fill my hand. There were gold and gem covered coffecups, tea sets, bookstands, and even water pipes. One pair of solid gold candlesticks, were taller than I am, and they weighed 48 kilos each. I tried to count the numbers of 2-3 carat diamonds decorating the sides of them, but I didn'’t have that much time... They must have had over 300 stones per side.

One of my favorite pieces was a gift presented to the Sultans. I believe it came from the Moghul princes of India. It was a large pearl which had formed into an unusual shape. It looked like the torso of a man. A goldsmith had crafted this gem into a figurine of a Sultan, sitting on his golden throne. It was a marvelous little gem-encrusted miniature.

      At the end of the day, when we left the palace, it was a jolt to return to modern Istanbul. It was also a bit of a relief. Turkey has come a long way, since the days of the Sultans. It has the most secular society of any of the Muslim countries. So far, the government has managed to keep Islamic fundamentalism out of the lawbooks. (I wrote this in 2008) Women and minorities today have more rights (on paper) than in many other countries of that region. This is an issue that is being fought over, right now, in Turkey, and it has made headlines internationally this year. As the world holds its breath and wonders what the Turks will do, I hope that Turkey continues on the secular path, and does not go backwards, towards Islamic Sharia government. The world needs more democracy, and fewer Sultans!

Thanks for reading! Diana

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