Soon after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II ordered the construction of Topkapı Palace as his principal residence and administrative center. The palace is actually a series of buildings and pavilions spread over four interior courtyards. It has been said that this layout reflects the tented encampments historically used by the Ottomans in their nomadic days. Construction continued on the complex from 1459 to 1465 (and, of course, future sultans made many additions and changes over the succeeding years).
Topkapı was built on Seraglio Point, a strategic location that overlooks the junction of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus Strait and the Golden Horn. In the sultans' times the palace complex and its private gardens took up almost the entire area, but today much of Seraglio Point is a public park. The first, and largest, courtyard of the palace was once a service area that included a hospital, a bakery, the mint and also served as a mustering point for the Janissaries (the elite palace guard). Today, Istanbul's huge Archaeological Museum is found in this area, as is a 6th century Byzantine church (Hagia Eirene) that was never converted into a mosque.
Second Courtyard: The second courtyard – and the entrance to the Topkapı Palace Museum that we visit today – is reached through the Gate of Salutations, which looks like a real fortress gate with defensive towers and crenelated walls. State ceremonies were held and foreign emissaries were received in this courtyard. The most prominent landmark in the second courtyard is the Tower of Justice, the highest point in the complex and a place where all that happened on the palace grounds could be observed. The tower rises above the Divan, a building surrounded by a wide porch where the viziers of the imperial council met to handle the administrative matters of the empire (and where their proceedings could be secretly watched by the sultan). From the second courtyard one can also visit the former palace kitchens, which today display a large collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain, glass and silverware.
The Harem: Behind the Divan and what is now a museum of armaments stands the Harem, the private part of the palace that was once accessible only by the sultan, his mother (the "valide sultan", who was the highest ranking female in the empire, as well as the Harem), his wives, favorites, young children, eunuchs and concubines . (The term "Harem" derives from an Arabic word that means "forbidden" and refers to the private quarters not, as Hollywood would have it, the women themselves.) The Harem can be visited today as part of a guided tour (and it is well worth seeing). Although the Harem consists of some 400 rooms, visitors today will see only the highlights. Nevertheless, one tries to imagine what court life was life in this labyrinth of rooms, narrow passages and palace intrigues. Many of the rooms are opulently decorated with fine tiles, intricately painted designs and stained glass.
The concubines were brought from all corners of the empire as young girls selected for their health and beauty. Some were presented to the court as gifts. They were trained in the ways of court and essentially became captive servants of the sultan, his family and higher ranking favorites and concubines. The valide sultan would choose women from among the concubines that she though might be suitable for her son, the sultan. Those whom the sultan found attractive could become one of his "favorites", women with whom he had intimate relations. It was the dream of most concubines to be selected as a favorite of the sultan and bear his children, thereby increasing the chances that they would become one of his wives. At its height, the Harem housed more than 1,000 concubines. Thus, relatively few became favorites and most toiled away in anonymity as servants. The Harem was guarded by black eunuchs, who were emasculated to ensure they could not engage in forbidden relations with the women of the Harem. (It has also been said that black men were chosen so if any did somehow sire a child, the child's mixed race would serve as evidence of the treachery of both the woman and the guard.)
Third Courtyard: Passing through the second courtyard's Gate of Felicity (also called the Gate of the White Eunuchs in honor of those who once guarded it), one comes to the third courtyard. This courtyard was the private domain of the sultan and his close aides. The Throne Room is here, as well as the Library of Ahmet III and the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle, which holds some of the most sacred relics of Islam. The third courtyard also contains a museum of miniatures and manuscripts, plus one of the most popular exhibitions in Topkapı Palace: the Treasury. The Treasury displays a wide variety of precious items, including the famous jewel-encrusted Topkapı dagger that become an unofficial symbol of Topkapı (and was the subject of the 1964 heist film "Topkapi"). The Treasury is well worth a visit, despite the wait that may be required.
Fourth Courtyard: The fourth and final courtyard at Topkapı is essentially a series of pavilions and gardens that were a private garden of the sultan. The Circumcision Pavilion (where young boys endured the rite of passage mandated by Islam), the Baghdad Pavilion and the Revan Pavilion all display fine Ottoman tile work. From here, one also has sweeping views over the Bosphorus and nearby waters.
Topkapı is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul and the crowds and the waits can sometimes be daunting. One can only visit the Harem as part of a guided tour leaving at specified times. There is also typically a wait to enter the Treasury and the crowds inside can make it difficult to see some of the items. Nevertheless, Topkapı is well worth seeing and provides a unique look at Ottoman court life. It is also interesting to compare the architecture and décor with the sultan's later residence at Dolmabahçe Palace. The best advice I can give for seeing Topkapı is to get there as early as possible, while the bus tours are still trying to round up their inevitable stragglers.