Europe 2016 Day 12.1: Topkapi Palace


Tight schedule today. I was staying within the Sultanahmet area, but I would be hitting 4 different historical sites. Better get started…

First stop of the day: Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi). This is the residential palace of the Ottoman Sultans since… way back when, until 1856 when the Dolmabahçe Palace replaced it.

The entrance is rather… discreet, so it was not easy to find. There’s no signboard(s) to point you in the right direction. You basically get to the plaza in front of the Blue Mosque, and walk in the direction opposite of the mosque.

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Until you see this… building. I don’t know what this building is
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The entrance to the Topkapi Palace area is next to the building

The palace is surrounded by two layer of walls. You don’t actually have to pay anything to enter the outer wall section. But you do have to go through security screening.

I entered and found myself at the outer courtyard of the Topkapi Palace. Right next to the wall lies a rather famous Eastern Orthodox Church of Istanbul, the Hagia Irene (Aya İrini).

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Hagia Irene

This church is older than the Hagia Sophia, but because it is smaller and, well… less famous, not many people will bother going in. I am one of the many people. Tight schedule, remember?

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Outer courtyard
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Entrance to the inner courtyard

You’ll need tickets to go beyond this entrance. The ticket counters are outside the entrance. to the right of picture above. The Topkapi Palace access is split into two sections: the museum and the harem. Ticket prices are as below:

  • Topkapi Palace Museum: 40 TL
  • Topkapi Palace Harem: 25 TL (optional, but you have to enter the museum to access the harem, so that’s 65 TL)
  • Hagia Irene: 20 TL

Or… you could purchase the Museum Pass for 85 TL and it will give you queue-beating access to all three and a few other museums outside the Topkapi Palace.

If you read my live updates from Istanbul, you probably know which route I went…

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Another round of security clearance to enter the inner courtyard

If you look closely at the picture above, you’ll probably notice a group of Malays clearing the gates. We were staring at each other for a bit, I guess I looked like a Malaysian to them too but they could not be sure. So I walked towards them and said: “Ya, saya Malaysian juga (Yeah, I’m Malaysian too)”, and one of the guys replied: “Oh!”.

But that was as far as our conversation went. You know, after being harassed by touts for days (I’m sure they got more or less the same), I was naturally suspicious of anyone who claims to be from our home country. I was quite sure that they were suspicious of me too, so making small talks did not seem like a good idea. So we didn’t.

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Inner courtyard
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Entrance to the palace proper
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Map of the entire Topkapi Palace area

I’ve done enough research before coming here to know that I should not expect to be wowed by the Topkapi Palace. Especially not when I come here after visiting the Dolmabahçe Palace. You see, while the Topkapi Palace is older and was home to many more Ottoman Sultans, the fact is that most of the luxurious Sultan artifacts have been moved to that newer Palace. Today, the Topkapi Palace is just a museum.

The one and only major trump card that the Topkapi Palace holds is that within this palace, there is a certain Chamber of the Sacred Relics. This is the one place that will get extremely crowded as the day wears on, so it is definitely a good idea to come here first before exploring other parts of the palace.

Entrance to the Chamber of the Sacred Relics

No photography allowed inside, so… no photos of the insides.

Sacred Relics here mean relics of the Prophet Muhammad. Inside this chamber, you will see things like Prophet Muhammad’s sword, Prophet Muhammad’s beard, Prophet Muhammad cloak, cup that Prophet Muhammad drank in, Medina soil that Prophet Muhammad stepped on, etc.

I’m not sure if all the relics on display here are genuine relics or just replicas. Especially the beard. There were like, more than 10 different golden embroidered containers of beards. But according to the audio guide, they are all genuine. The audio guide also claimed that this chamber holds the most number of sacred relics in the world, besting even Mecca and Medina. A great number of Muslims all over the world will make the pilgrimage to the Topkapi Palace just to see these relics. It is true, I witnessed a good number of people kneeling down and praying to the various relics in this room.

But, the audio guide also claimed that all these relics were gifts from the Arabian tribes to the Ottoman Sultan Selim I. Yeah, no disrespect, but I think this statement is full of sh*t. I mean, it depends on which side you are viewing things from. If you are Turkish, what the audio guide would most definitely be true and accurate. But if you are Arab, the correct statement would probably be: The Turks beat us in war and seized all our sacred relics to bring back to their home in Istanbul.

Even as a neutral… well, I guess it is just like the native Americans presenting gifts of gold to Columbus to appease the God of Spanish Guns.

Anyway, let’s move on…

According to the audio guide, the Topkapi Palace was built here due to its strategic location. It afforded the Sultans an unparalleled view of the Golden Horn, perfect to monitor any possible naval threats from the enemies of the Ottoman Empire.

It started to rain the moment I arrived here, as a result the atmosphere was quite fitting and did make me feel like a general scouting the sea for enemy ships:

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Overlooking the Golden Horn from the Fourth Courtyard
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Overlooking the Golden Horn from the Fourth Courtyard
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Bower of the Fast Break

The Bower of the Fast Break is the place where the sultans will berbuka puasa (break fast) during the month of Ramadan, and all his important ministers and officials will join him on the terrace.

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Lovely flowers

If you have noticed, yes, all my photos are of the outdoors. I don’t have photos of the indoors, because all the indoor chambers of the palace were either closed off, or photography disallowed. In this aspect it is quite similar to the Dolmabahçe Palace.

To be honest, after coming out from the Chamber of the Sacred Relics, I got pretty bored very quickly. I was only wandering around the palace areas because I paid a lot of money and wanted to get my money’s worth.

I was initially undecided if I wanted to explore the Harem. If I had to purchase separate tickets, most likely not. But I was on the Museum Pass and the Harem’s access is included, so… 不去白不去 (wasteful not to go), right?

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Map of The Harem
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Entrance chamber of the Harem

At first I thought it was a great idea, because we were allowed to take photos inside the Harem sections…

The first few chambers were great, but things quickly went downhill after that. The Harem is probably made up of 100 rooms/chambers or more, but most of them were either…

This (sealed off, no entry),
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Or this (renovation, completely sealed off)

Man, this sucks. This sucks big time! I’m just guesstimating of course, but I reckon more than 70% of the Harem was either off limits or sealed off for renovation works, so there’s really very little to see. And they were charging us the full price for it! I don’t want to call this a scam, because that’s rude, but… you know… close…

Somewhere inside the Harem, my audio guide got… messed up I think, and it kept playing audio clips of the royal kitchen, on loop. The story seemed interesting, so I thought the kitchen would be an interesting place to see. So when I trudged out of the Harem, I made my way to the royal kitchen section (right across the courtyard from the Harem) only to find that the entire kitchen area was closed too. WTF?!

Here’s roughly what I remember of the audio clips:

Every year the Sultan would order a banquet from the royal kitchen to be served to his elite group of soldiers, the Janissary. If the Janissary members rushed to eat the food and finished them it signifies they are happy with their wages and approve of the Sultan, and they would serve the Sultan loyally for the coming year. If the Janissary refused the food or manifested displeasure during the meal, it signifies they disapprove of their wages and there would quickly be re-negotiation. Towards to end of the 16th century, the Janissary became a corrupt group, always demanding for more, until the Sultan finally disbanded them in the 1800s.

It would have been awesome to see the kitchen while listening to this story, but… it was not to be…

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Meh… one last look at the front courtyard, and then it was byebye

Tips for future Topkapi Palace visitors: The correct sequence of visitation would be to come here first before the Dolmabahçe Palace. Also, the Harem is not worth your money unless you’re on the Museum Pass.

I originally planned to enter the Hagia Irene because the Museum Pass covers it, but as I was leaving, I thought that I would be visiting the much larger and more popular Hagia Sophia next, so… meh… let’s just head straight to the big one…


    • I was traveling alone, so yeah, I was the only one that thought things went downhill (越来越糟糕) 🙄 .

    • Huh? Disney? Hahaha maybe I have never been to Disneyland before, I could not make that connection. 🙄

  1. Wah, the entrance to the inner courtyard looks like castle, or Disneyland, hehe..Yup, I saw one “pau tao” (tudung) lady in the group, how you know they were Malaysians? Somemore you pandai-pandai say you are a Malaysian jugak.. If they are Malaysians also, am sure they already ask you where you stay in Msia, etc..Eh that renovation narrow walkway looks spooky and suffocating, rimas aku!

  2. I am sure you could tell they were your countrymen. I never failed to spot our own folks in Japan, China or even Taiwan esp the dressings before they opened their mouths to utter.

    This palace is not bad but the earlier palaces in other areas looked more impressive and prominent. Suddenly I made comparisons with our big mosque in Putrajaya which has a magnificent grandeur with beautiful ceilings inside.

    • Hmm, I’m not as good as you. I can never tell based on their clothes alone. Most of us who travel would dress well for the occasion, so I could hardly tell us apart from Indonesians or Taiwanese. 🙄

      Yeah, the earlier palace I went to was more grand. So better to come here first then go there to avoid the lack of excitement.

  3. How sure are you they are Malaysians? Maybe they are Singaporeans? That’s why they only answer you with a “Oh”. In their heart they wanted to say, “We are Singaporeans, yo! Our money is bigger than yours” 😛

  4. I seldom go to museum coz I’m not interested in artefacts. I might jst doubt the genuineness of the displayed item (could be a replica sometimes). I rather enjoy the building architecture and the fine skies/weather/food while travelling. The Harem seems like a big rip off. I would complain kaw-kaw if they is a customer service counter.

    • I’d say besides the Sagrada Familia and the Camp Nou in Barcelona, my most enjoyable moments of the trip are NOT these historical site visits. But… a tourist gotta do what a tourist gotta do lah… first timer ma… 🙄

  5. Ya, I also want to know how you are so sure that they are your countrymen and not from the neighbouring country. Did you hear them talking? From the way they sound you would know for sure.

    Maybe they were just looking at you and thinking, wow, this guy sure looks tired and you blurt out “oh I am M too”..and they were like …… speechless.

    • Yeah, I heard them mention the taboo words, so they must be Malaysians. If not, yeah I won’t be able to tell, they might be Indonesians.

      Hahaha I guess so. But the way they stare at me, can feel one lah… they got the “this guy looks like my countryman” look… 🙄

  6. This certainly sounded like quite a sight-seeing day. In line with your sentiments, sometimes it can be hard to tell if the artefacts are genuine. I really don’t know if the relics of Prophet Muhammed do lie there as I do wonder if that is really his resting place.

    Pity to hear most of the Harem was under renovation. What a rip-off. Who knows how long that might have been going for…

    As for the random Malaysian guy, I don’t fault you for being too careful. If you could tell a Malaysian from the way they look, that is some skill…but I suppose with your countrymen you just know 🙄

    • No, that’s not his resting place. I think Prophet Muhammad’s tomb is still in Mecca (or Medina?), it’s the relics that they brought back to Istanbul after the Ottomans conquered Arab a few hundred years after Muhammad’s death.

      I wouldn’t know, but even after all their renovation works are done, I doubt I would want to go again were I to find myself in Istanbul again. 🙄

      LOL! It’s easy to identify a Malaysian. Just listen to what they say to each other! Lately it is all about Najib, 1MDB, Wall Street Journal, or MH370.

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