Saturday, 18 August 2012

Istanbul: Topkapi Palace

Top of the agenda today was a revisit, for me after 34 years, to Topkapi Palace. We entered the palace by walking through through Gulhane Park, which used to be the private gardens of the palace. Work on construction of the palace commenced in 1460 taking until 1478 to complete. The palace was expanded and changed right up to the late 1800s when the sultans left Topkapi and moved to the new 'modern' palace of Dolmabahce.

Topkapi Palace is organised into 4 'courts'; the first for the public, the second for invited guests, the third for the royal family and the the fourth being private living areas for the sultan and his immediate family. The first court is now a large park area with the ticket booths in one corner, from there you enter the second court which has a large garden in the centre and the kitchens on one side. The Imperial Council Chamber is on the left, its a double room where the powerful leaders of the Empire gathered to discuss matters while the Sultan listened from behind a golden grill. When the Sultan had enough he would either cough or slam the grill loudly and the council knew the meeting was over and they'd been dismissed!

The infamous harem can be entered nearby.

The third court holds the audience chamber and a library building with an ornate painted ceiling. Also in the third court was a display of religious artefacts including gold plated guttering and part of the lock from the Kabba in Mecca. The sword and bow of the Prophet (pbuh) are on display as well as the gold plated cover of the holy black stone from Mecca worn by the touch of pilgrims.  An imam sits nearby and recites from the Koran, I believe there used to be an imam chanting from the Koran 24/7 but I'm not sure if this is still the case.
Through into another room was a display of portraits of the sultans.  The right arm of John the Baptist encased in gold is also on display (not many people know there is another right arm of John the Baptist in Venice).

Then came the highlight, the Treasury, housed in a building constructed by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1460 (he was the brains behind the whole palace). Unfortunately photography was forbidden as was the case in much of the palace. There are golden swords, bowls and bottles carved from rock crystal and then inlaid with precious stones, a pair of huge solid gold candlesticks that have over 1,000 diamonds on each and of course the Topkapi Dagger. The dagger was made on the orders of Mahmoud 1 as a gift for Nadir Shah, the ruler of Persia. An ambassador was despatched from Turkey to present the dagger to the Shah in Tehran but when the ambassador arrived at the border he learned that Nadir Shah had died so the ambassador returned to Istanbul with the dagger.  And there its stayed.

The dagger features 3 enormous emeralds on the hilt and the hinged lid carries a further large emerald surrounded by diamonds.  Diamonds and flower motifs are used to decorate the shealth. It was stunning 34 years ago and still is today.

We had a coffee on one of the terraces below the palace and then headed off to watch the All Blacks -v- Wallabies rugby game which was being shown live at one of the local pubs.

After the game, and the ABs triumph, we took a tram to the Basilica Cistern built by Justinian in AD532 to provide water for his palace. Eventually it was closed and then forgotten until around 1545 when a scholar researching the area was told that local people were able to get water from below their basements and were sometimes even able to catch fish. It has been restored several times in the past, the most recent restoration which involved the removal of 50,000 tons of mud, sludge and years of rubbish. The cistern is now a tourist attraction its 336 columns holding up a bricked roof 65m wide x 143m long. In a dark corner on the north western edge of the cistern two of the columns are mounted on carved heads of the mythical figure Medusa.  One of the Medusa heads is lying on its side and the other is upside down. Whether this was done on purpose or just 'recycling' will never be known. There's about a foot or so of water in the cistern now and its populated by carp, some of which were so big they had trouble moving round, in what is to them, shallow water.

After emerging into the light from the cistern we took the tram to the Spice Bazaar (Egyptian bazaar). It was packed as busy shoppers prepared for the end of Ramadan and the 2 days of public holidays, we'll try to get back at a time when its not wall-to-wall people.

We walked back to the hotel on the way trying some local icecream which is strangely stretchy when you try to bite into it.

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