The Topkapý Palace

Tents and courtyards
From War Lords to Mute Sultans >>

Components of cohesion in an evolving morphology >>

Tents and courtyards
The Palace was first built by Mehmed II between 1459 and 1470, on a steep hillside, which was used as an olive grove. While employing numerous architects, including the Italian Aristotele Fioravantini , it is believed that Mehmed II, well aquainted with Islamic as well as Renaisance architecture, largely designed the palace himself. His decisions, which greatly aided subsequent growth stemmed from necessity and tradition: The steep terrain upon which the palace was built dictated assymetry. Hence the dominant feature of the palace, the 3 huge courtyards, designed by Mehmed II, are completely assymetrical, around which subsequent constructs are clustered in grids at irregular angles.

An illusory facade of architectural grandeur when viewed from the outside...

Tentlike constructs, clustered around huge assymetrical courtyards within.

Having been built on steep ground, the palace projects an illusory facade when viewed from the outside due to the necessary terracing employed during construction, appearing as a deceptively unified, multistoreyed structure of royal proportions. However, once inside its gates the most striking feature of the palace becomes immediately apparent:

“The Topkapý Palace appears as an aggragate of modest buildings loosely grouped around courtyards, an agglomeration incapable of conveying imperial power, lacking as it does the monumentality, axiality and rational geometric planning principles... ...Why was it not conceived as a single integrated edifice of monumental dimensions?” [*]

Emissaries writing on palace ceremony convey to us that on such occasions the display of splendour was achieved entirely by the transient, the animate and the portable, and that to great effect: The vast second courtyard, filled with thousands of Jannisaries, horsemen and state officials, lined up hierarchically, decked out in splendid garments and jewellery; not to mention the observance of absolute silence observed on these occasions, seems to have had a thoroughly awe inspiring effect which was augmented by the abundant display and usage of jewel bedecked garments, furs, dinner services, ornaments, tapestries and carpets .

Court ceremony during the reign of Selim II

Further testimony to the lack of structural grandeur within, comes from Iacopo de Promontorio who in 1475 makes the analogy between the palace and the tents used during military campaigns; not only architecturally, with their pyramidial roofs and domes atop flat structures projecting awning-like roof extensions but also in terms of usage: The tent of the Sultan surrounded by those of his minions is indeed reflected in the layout of the palace, carrying nomadic heritage into architecture through the symbol of the tent.

Tent-like buldings projecting awnings.

The second courtyard was flanked by the Divan, the kitchens and the treasury. Again, these buildings contributed to the display of imperial power symbolically, by function, rather than monumentality: The Sultan was capable of feeding, not only his vast household and army but entire city populations; the treasury was the repository of the wealth that brought about this abundance; and the Divan was where the distribution of wealth was meted out with justice.

The Kitchens

The Treasury

The Divan

The Gate of Felicity led into the third courtyard, and thus to the Chamber of Petitions as well as the private quartes. Ambassadors and guests could not venture beyond the Chamber of Petitions, but again, the glimpses they caught were of gardens with wild animals and birds and water displays rather than architectural magnificence, leading us once more to the preference of the transient to the permanent in the display of power and glory.

The Gate of Felicity

The innermost, secluded third court, divided into male and female sections, was more than a royal residence; in it the loyal slave pages lived and were educated by tutors, to occupy high positions as bureaucrats in the centralised imperial governement. The young slave pages and concubines, dwelling in separate dormitories, in the strictly delineated male and female zones of the third court, were educated in a common court culture and eventually married off to one another to constitute the loyal ruling elite of the empire. [*]

In Ottoman court poetry the garden was used as a metaphor for an inner, secure space where one was free to allow the private, emotional part of one’s nature to emerge, resembling the ancient Roman distinction between otium and negotium. Thus, the Hanging Gardens were created as an extension of the third court, for the Sultan’s pleasure, contemplation and repose; becoming the most captivating part of the palace.

Lokman. Miniature from "Hünername". 16th century.

From War Lords to Mute Sultans
From the courtyards and public buildings built by Mehmed II, to the secluded Harem, greatly enlarged in the late 16th and 17th centuries, the story of the palace is closely linked to that of her Sultans and is one of tragic decline and progressive seclusion: The proactive ruler of the 15th century went about the construction of the palace in a manner reflecting this lifestyle: While neither Mehmed II, nor his immediate successors concentrated upon the private quarters, keeping their households and families in the “Old Palace” and expending their considerable resources upon building the public facade of the palace instead; matters began to change dramatically beginning with the latter parts of the reign of Suleyman I.

Prior to Suleyman I the Harem of the Topkapý Palace was primarily a school, where concubines were educated in music, literature, languages and Ottoman customs, to later join the Sultan’s family at the “Old Palace”. While the wives and favourites were selected by the Sultan’s mother from amongst them, the concubines’ main role was that of attendance to the wives, favourites and daughters.

Lord Frederic Leighton (1830-1896). "The Music Lesson"

During the latter years of Suleyman I’s reign wives and favourites started to live in the Topkapý Palace herself. The Sultan’s mother gained increased power due to this proximity to the seat of government and the influence she exercised over her son, using the powerful eunuch’s as emissaries in conducting state affairs. The Sultan withdrew from public life into the Harem, to the side of his powerful mother, The Valide Sultan.

Carle Van Loo. "The Valide Sultan taking coffee" 1752

To monopolise the authority of the acceding Sultan, fratricide had been instigated in the 15th century; and the Sultan’s of the 16th century followed this tradition aided and edged on by their all powerful mothers, having dozens of brothers strangled immediately upon accession to the throne. Additionally wives, in competition for the all powerful post of Sultan’s Mother, also practiced extensive infanticide towards the offspring of their rivals, thus compounding the bloodshed. The princes who had once been sent to the provinces to learn the rules of government, now grew up secluded in the Harem, in their “golden cages” due to the fear of assasination.

Room in "The Golden Cage"

"The Golden Cage". Outside view

The "Fruit Room", Harem

Silence reigned supreme under its ornamented domes and long colonnades as the palace’s occupants went about their lives, serving the silent Sultans and caged princes, using a complicated sign languge. However, this silent world carried tremendous importance in the workings of the empire and the Harem is the part of the palace that was most built and extended after the mid 16th century. Sultan’s added rooms and baths to existent buildings, as well as entire buildings to existent complexes. Courtyards were created and rooms chopped up or extended to make room for an increasing population of wives, favourites and concubines, all revolving around the pivotal figure of The Sultan’s mother.

Passages, Harem

Heavily ornamented though the Harem is, it is yet very easy to see where additions have been made, buildings extended or rooms partitioned. What is bewildering is the cohesiveness of the emerging construct, composed as it is of some many diverse parts: It is the repetition of certain structural elements, from the second courtyard all the way to the inner sanctum of the Harem that accounts for a large part of this consistency.

Evolving architecture: Heavily ornamented though the Harem is, it is yet very easy to see where additions have been made, buildings extended or rooms partitioned.

Components of cohesion in an evolving morphology

Arches, clusters and colonnades


The arches are a repetitive motif in the entire palace, starting in the second courtyard, where they front the colonnades as well as support the awning of the Divan. Throughout the palace these arches maintain almost identical proportions. There is a difference of almost 2 centuries between parts of the Harem, as well as the Pavillions in the Hanging Gardens and the second courtyard. Thus although different architects, not to mention different periods in art history are involved, this consistency of the usage of arches and especially their porportions seems to have been maintained throughout the palace, no matter what the building material or ornamentation may have been.


Arches support roofs and domes indoors.

Fronting colonnades outdoors, these arches support domes and roofs indoors. Domes cover rooms and halls as well as the colonnades and again the consistency of the proportions and shapes of these domes is strictly maintained throughout. The colonnades not only run along the lengths of buildings but link clusters or indeed single modules with one another providing further cohesion.

Most of the rooms, halls and colonnades seem to have been constructed by the alignment of modules consisting of domes, or pyramidal roofs placed upon vertical rectangular prisms, the 4 sides of which are arches – almost like the modules of a Lego set. Even on sides where these modules form outer walls these arches can be present and visible, that is, they are kept outside of the actual masonry as ornamental elements.


Grids and Assymetry
While the overall plan of the palace is assymetrical the clusters of buldings are designed as modules situated upon grids forming clusters and these gridded clusters are then integrated into the overall assymetry at angles. In places such as the kiosks in the Hanging Garden this clustering may be loose, joined with the axes of the colonnades while in other places, like the Harem we find ourselves in almost mazelike structures.

Grids and clusters

The Transient
The tangible elements, those of brick, marble and mortar, that provided for consistency in evolution have been listed above. However, it seems that there is yet another element, one which by its very nature defies accurate description but which probably was as, if not more, important in achieving a particular kind of cohesion that, sadly, we can no longer observe today:

Splendour was sought not through structural opulence, but through animate, portable and thus transient elements, such as those carried on or provided by humans, as well as the gardens that they populated alongside the rare plants, wild beasts and exotic birds. Depleted of all these it is almost impossible to understand the aesthetics or indeed the imperious qualities of the palace today.

Procession from "Surname"

Today, deprived of its populace, with the sheer grandeur of their number in orderly ceremony, their terrifying silences; not to mention their jewels and sable trimmed garments; their tapestries, carpets, ornaments and costly china; the palace carries an element of vulnerability, almost poverty; demonstrating to what extent the conveyance of splendour must have relied upon this animate, transient content.

[*] Necipoðlu, G. "Architecture, Ceremonial and Power: Topkapý Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries". Cambridge, MA: MIT 1991.