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Topkapı Palace

One of the major gates within the Topkapı complex.

(Returning to my long-overdue posts on last summer’s travels…)

Topkapı Palace is an interesting place. Having missed it on my earlier trip to Istanbul, I was going to make sure to see it this time. I was especially interested because one piece of my research had been considering the physical layout and arrangement of the Shogun’s Grand Audience Hall (Ôhiroma) at Edo castle, in Japan, and I thought that Topkapı, as the palace of another great non-Western empire, could make for an interesting comparison. Or could provide insights that I just couldn’t get from the scholarship on Japan. Topkapı is also of interest for its extensive collection of Ottoman artifacts.

As it turned out, I am sorry to say I found the palace a bit of a disappointment. I think that if/when I go back, I’ll try to get a tour guide, hopefully someone who can give a fuller explanation of how the rooms were used, why they were arranged the way they were. It’s an incredible, very impressive set of spaces, no doubt, and many of the rooms are lavishly, very impressively decorated with tile and so forth. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Very palatial, and in a distinctly Ottoman way; this was an earlier palace, quite unlike what I imagine Dolmabahçe Palace – inspired by Versailles, and by the modern/Western trends and pressures of the 19th century – looks like.

But, sadly, I really didn’t get a sense from the map pamphlets, or from the plaques on the walls, how this palace was used in an administrative, governmental, or ritual way, so much as just a focus on its artistic beauty, craftsmanship, and the lavish lifestyle of the sultan.

The Inner Palace Library of Ahmed III.

The collection was interesting, though frustratingly they didn’t allow photos in most of the exhibition rooms. It was neat to see weapons and other historical artifacts directly associated with some of the most historically famous or significant sultans – objects not only beautiful in their craftsmanship and artistry, but of historical note as well, such as the sword of Mehmet II, or the sword and bow of Bayezid II. The palace collection also included a number of items from other cultures, many of which I imagine were formal gifts from foreign rulers or governments. This included a sword belonging to Stephan the Great of Moldavia, several *huge* Hungarian greatswords, and several Japanese swords. While one of the Japanese swords bears the imperial chrysanthemum on its lavishly decorated gilded scabbard with purple velvet ropes, the rest had ivory scabbards which looked to me, if anything, like export art, not imperial gifts. But, then, I could be wrong.

The “Inner Treasury” exhibit was… well, it was something. If I hadn’t been told about this ahead of time, I would not have expected Topkapı to house such a room of such absurdities. They claim to have the sword of King David himself, the turban of the biblical Joseph (Yusuf), the staff of Moses, and of course numerous relics of the Prophet Mohammed. King David, of course, having ruled sometime around the 10th century BCE, not only is it fully unbelievable that his sword – even assuming it survived at all – should be in such good condition, but further, whatever a 10th century BCE sword should look like, this one seemed far too similar to a medieval sword in style; clearly an absolute anachronism. The turban and the staff, similarly; I can’t judge style, but both lived many many many many generations before even King David. Wikipedia suggests that Joseph, if he did live, lived sometime around the 1500s-1440s BCE. Did people wear turbans back then? Of what style?

What’s the story behind these treasures, I wonder. When we’re they made, or obtained, and for what purpose? They’re so obviously fakes, what’s the point? Or, is it so obvious? I really wondered what so many of the tourists around me, Christians and Muslims most of them, what they thought about all of this. How many see them as real religious relics, as something they’ve been so honored to get to see?

Since I don’t have any photos of the Inner Treasury, something completely different. A gate known as the Sublime Porte, a metonym for the Ottoman government as a whole.

Another set of very interesting and much more plausible artifacts pertained to the Kaaba, the most sacred site in all of Islam. Located at the center of the most sacred mosque in Mecca, it is strikingly iconic for its relatively unadorned black square form, and for the masses of pilgrims regularly (constantly?) forming circles around it. It’s easy to think of Turkey as an outlier on the margins of the Muslim world – Turks aren’t Arabs, after all. And, to be sure, Turkish history and Turkish culture are distinct from that of the Arab Middle East in all sorts of ways. But, what I hadn’t known is that for centuries the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was regarded as the chief (or sole?) Caliph of Sunni Islam.

After the Ottoman conquests of much of the Middle East, the keys to the Kaaba (to open and close it at certain ceremonial hours of the day) were sent to Istanbul as symbols of the sultan’s authority over the administration of Mecca. When the Kaaba was in need of repair at one point in the 17th c., doors of the Kaaba were apparently sent to Istanbul. And a number of other treasures associated with the Kaaba are still held at Topkapı today. (Or at least, that’s what is claimed. After that last set of rooms, who knows what to believe.)

We learn that a stone supposedly placed by the prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) marks the location of the circumambulations, even if the Kaaba itself is damaged or under repair. This stone was damaged by catapult stones during the Umayyad siege of Mecca in 756, but was repaired with silver. It broke again in the 17th c, but the Ottoman sultan had it gilded and repaired with lead and silver.

We are also shown items claimed to be the swords and bows of the Prophet Mohammed himself. Hard to know what to think, but I suppose I could actually believe this, since they’re hidden underneath later scabbards and cases and so forth, and since Mohammed lived far more recently than, for example, King David or Moses. So, it could be. Of course, even so, it seems just a bit too unlikely for these things – and his beard hairs, teeth, etc – to have actually been passed down and passed down and never lost. Then again, it was the 7th c CE, not super ancient times. If Japan can retain things from such a time, then I suppose Islamic civilization could too… Even despite all the wars and conflicts, from one sultanate or caliphate to another. maybe? I wonder if any of my readers might happen to have insights on this?

In the very last room, we finally get to 16th c. objects – letters and documents from Sultan Selim, and a large royal banner. Much more believable.

The sultan’s breakfast pavilion.

I’m honestly not sure what I expected from visiting the palace. I guess I was hoping for something which might more explicitly compare to, for example, Edo castle or Shuri castle, so that I might find something interesting in similarities or differences in how foreign delegations were received, how court ceremonies were conducted, etc. But you get very little of that at most historical sites, actually, right? Shuri has models in the gift shop of New Year’s celebrations and investiture ceremonies, both of which (alongside live reenactment events and scholarship) have been very informative and inspirational for me, but the castle itself, in its explanatory plaques and such, doesn’t really give visitors all that much of a sense of it. And Edo castle, of course, has nothing at all, since the entire Honmaru – the main section of the castle, where the shogun’s audience halls, meeting rooms, administrative offices, etc. were located – burned down in 1863 and was never rebuilt. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, it is now just an open public park area, just grass, while most of the rest of the castle grounds is now the Imperial Palace and is off-limits to tourists. Thankfully, though, the Edo-Tokyo Museum, among other places, has models and other sorts of recreations of what had been. Nijô castle in Kyoto has been perhaps the best of the places I have visited, really talking about who would be received in which rooms etc., and even going so far as to display mannequins arranged in the main audience hall to show how lords would have been seated, and what the room really looked like when it was in use. But here at Topkapı most of the palace rooms have been converted into museum galleries, displaying paintings or arms & armor or religious relics of questionable veracity, so we don’t get as much discussion as we might of how ceremonies or court business was conducted.

Then again, it might be simply a matter of reading about it ahead of time. Had I read Gülru Necipoğlu’s book about Topkapı more extensively before going there, maybe I would have known what to look for better. Certainly it was because of my knowledge of Edo, Beijing , and Shuri, from a combination of experience and study, that I understood the Korean palaces (which I visited in June 2017 and realize now I still have never blogged about) better.

The exterior of the Imperial Council Hall. A plaque explains how the space would have been used, but that’s about it.

A few final notes, small things I found interesting.

One label in the Palace Kitchens section mentions a Polish page, Ali Ufki Bey (Albertus Bobovius). Apparently, according to Wikipedia, he wasn’t merely a page, but actually became one of the most prominent or influential musicians and dragomans (interpreters/guides) in the 17th century court. One wonders how common this was, and how diverse the court.

Some 4,000-5,000 people lived/worked at Topkapı in the 16th century, and the number rose to 10,000 in the early 17th. The palace chose the finest fruits, vegetables, meat, grains, etc from all incoming ships or caravans, before the remainder was allowed to go to the people of the city.

Tons of Chinese porcelains, celadons, etc. were used in the Ottoman court, alongside Persian ceramics, Turkish metalware, etc. I suppose I should not be surprised at this, but nevertheless it is interesting to see, firsthand, in person, the incredible extent to which Chinese goods (not ugly “export art” goods like we see in so many Western museums, but nice, good, blue and white porcelains) were integrated into the everyday courtly material culture. The newly reorganized Islamic Art galleries at the British Museum (which I would visit in November) reflected the same.

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