Monuments to Power: Topkapi Palace

On my last morning, I thought I was ready for a palace and yet another World Heritage site. Aya Sophia, also on the list, was undergoing renovations and the young Costa Rican met in the Blue Mosque warned me about the rather sad condition of this once-great church and mosque. So I opted for a next time, and plunged into Topkapi first thing on Sunday morning. Fortunately, a hazy sun and little wind made the trip enjoyable.

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Sports fans will notice the geometric shapes on the wall of this inner palace hall, with a close up below.  Clearly, the Ottomans originated the sport of baseball long before Mr. Wagner got credit.  Their “home plate” might be upside down, but the design is spot-on.

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I also enjoyed seeing many families on Sunday morning excursions.  This photo op, taken in front of a golden viewing platform looking over the city to the east, shows a proud mom and dad with their two stylish daughters.

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This is one of the few places on the planet where not only can you see a palace kitchen with 16 chimneys but also the actual quarters where the sultan and his harem lived. As one might expect, the former was elegant but not ostentatious and the latter was neither: claustrophobic and dark. The images we have of harems are of scantily clad women lounging around on pillows and such, but these do not depict how the women lived. They were frequently ill because of the poor living conditions and lack of heat in the freezing winter, always at risk of being expelled or thrown in the sea and killed, and had little to no freedom. It seemed like a monument to suffering rather than pleasure.

There was also a kind of a relic museum that presented as “fact” the sword of Muhammad, one of his teeth, his footprint, the walking stick of Abraham, and other far-fetched items. My guidebook says the place is usually swamped with visitors, but I was there early and found its displays well-done and designed to impress and inform.

For me, the most memorable aspect of Topkapi palace was the view. High on a terrace over the meeting of the Bosphorus and Marmara seas, sultans and visitors could see ferries, fishing boats, cargo ships and other vessels en route to their destinations. Now, the big suspension bridge between Europe and Asia is also in the view, and reminded me again of how this place where the tips of two cultural zones meet has been (and perhaps will be again) hugely significant for world civilization–in ways positive, negative, and many points between. From the Greeks to Romans, from pagan to Christian to Muslim, and from Ottomans to a World Heritage site, this spot of land has empowered (briefly) a long succession of rulers. Here’s hoping the fragile Turkish democracy can learn from the past and enable leadership through the rule of law and a strong judiciary–not the cult of the “great leader” chosen by God.

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And one more thing.  The palace seemed as if it was the home of many cats.  They appeared well-fed and taken care of, even sitting still for photos in their regal, “oh must I pose for you?” manner.

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