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Notes on the Geography of Turkey (Istanbul): Topkapi and Dolmabahce

Here are two very different palaces. First, Topkapi or "Cannon Gate" Palace, commissioned by Mehmet the Conqueror after he took Constantinople in 1453. Second, Dolmabahce, the Turkicized Versailles to which the Ottoman sultans moved in the 19th century.

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Turkey (Istanbul): Topkapi and Dolmabahce picture 1

The fountain of Sultan Ahmet, 1728, first of the local genre of freestanding public fountains. The inscription reads: "Drink the water and say a prayer for Sultan Ahmet." Behind the fountain is the sultan's entrance to Aya Sofya; to the right, the first gate of Topkapi.

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Unlike European palaces, Topkapi turns in, not outward: it is built around courtyards, not grandiose facades. As in many other Asian capitals (Beijing's Forbidden City is an obvious comparison), the four courtyards are progressively more private and restricted. The first was a service area, open to the public. The Middle Gate, or Gate of Salutations, is shown here: it led from the first courtyard to a parade ground surrounded by offices of the imperial council and grand vizier. All but the sultan and his mother had to dismount when they passed through it. The next gate was the Gate of Felicity, which led to the third courtyard and the throne room, as well as rooms preserving several relics of the prophet. Adjoining the third court on the west, and extending into the fourth, was the harem, some 300 rooms that were the private quarters of the sultan. There is no gateway--only passages--into the fourth courtyard, a refuge of gardens and kiosks overlooking the Golden Horn and Bosphorus from a superlative location, a ridgetop at the northeastern end of the peninsula on which the city was built.

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Just before the gate to the second courtyard was this fountain, where the executioner washed his sword. Heads were placed atop the gate.

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Through the second gate and on the left: the Divan Salonu, or Imperial Council hall. The domes in the background are part of the harem.

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The porch of the council hall, with the entrance in early-morning light.

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The entrance itself.

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The towers of the harem rise behind the Divan Salonu. The term harem is equivalent to Seraglio, an Italian word formerly applied by Europeans to the whole of Topkapi. The word "seraglio," ironically, comes from the Persian saray, meaning palace.

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Only a small part of the harem is open. Maybe that's a good thing, because you could easily get lost in the place. Here, the Black Eunuch's courtyard, at the southeast corner of the harem.

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The south wall of the Black Eunuch's courtyard.

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The private rooms of the harem are lavishly tiled, though comparatively sterile when stripped of their furnishings.

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The carpets are gone, and almost all the cushions.

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The rooms are domed, however, and the domes are mounted on decorated pendentives like this one in the Imperial Hall.

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Pendentive in Murad III's chamber; this room was the only part of the harem designed by Sinan.

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An imam chants next to the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms, which adjoin the harem on the northeast and where relics of the prophet are kept.

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A marble arcade in the fourth courtyard.

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It shelters the approach to the circumcision room.

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Back in the harem for a moment, to consider the question of how such a palace could be kept up to date. Here: water runs through gold taps for the sultan's lavatory.

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Toilets were installed, too.

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In 1815, Sultan Mahmut II abandoned Topkapi for Dolmabahce, on the shore of the Bosphorus but across the Golden Horn. Mehmet was a modernizer: it was he who banned the wearing of turbans and ordered the wearing of the fez (which Ataturk would ban a century later). The present Dolmabahce Palace was begun 30 or 40 years later, during the reign of Abdul Macet, who hired an Armenian architect named Garabed Balian. The Balians--father, sons, others--dominated the buildings of their time, but Dolmabahce didn't stay in favor long and was superceded by others, including the Yildiz palace, where the long-ruling Abdul Hamid II resided after becoming sultan in 1876. Could Dolmabahce have been too pretentious even for a sultan?

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There are many gates to the palace; this one opens to the Bosphorus.

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This leads to the palace garden.

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One more. Soon, a Texan will build a copy for his place in Dallas.

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Abdul Hamid loved clocktowers and littered the Ottoman Empire with them. Here's the one installed at Dolmabahce in 1895.

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The palace was divided into the salamlik section of public ceremonial rooms and, well behind it, the private quarters of the harem. Here, the entrance from the garden to the selamlik section.

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Detail of the entablature and pediment.

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The Bosphorus side of the palace is an unbelievable 300 meters long. Here, one doorway along that facade.

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Interior photography isn't permitted, which is just as well, because the mass of crystal and velvet is crushingly opulent. Here, one tiny wall detail.


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