Monday, January 5, 2015

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

The Topkapi Palace (1453-1853)is one of those must see places for tourists if only for the Harem. Of course you don’t have to say you’re going to see the Harem, you can say you’re going as a deeply devout religious person to see the religious artifacts or as a connoisseur of beauty to see the 86 karat diamond. The fact remains we have a curiosity about how the truly rich live and to get a peak inside the harem of the Ottoman Sultan is really terribly inviting.
Mehmet Tetik, my guide, (\tetik) ( had told me that a few years previously he’d had the true privilege of guiding for Royalty in another country working as a translator was well.  Mehmet’s other language of fluency besides English and Turkish is German. I’d been telling him how I’d met the very rich in my time and contrary to the public image of the  arrogant ‘idle rich’ they had been very efficient and prodigious as well as being very pleasant people to be around.  Mehmet described his experience similarly but noted their impeccably good manners and their sincere concern for those around them, even the least.
The Ottoman Empire ran for 600 years and we tend to, probably being biased by Hollywood and it’s tendency to play to our worst fears have an image of the Sultans as ‘tyrants’. Mehmet told me that there was one indeed who would probably be described today simply as a sex addict and drunk but the women in the family, sisters and mother, apparently covered up for him and managed to keep the Empire muddling along.  The society and times were tough with the eunuchs being boys castrated at age 8 to they could have future employment.  (The women complain about the bound feet in the orient as a strategy for advancement). Mehmet II who conquered Constantinople was a remarkable leader and military strategists.  Many of the Sultans were devout and studious men too.
From a young age the competition and survival that went into creating a Sultan was cruel and no doubt shaped the power of leadership.  I'm not suggested they didn't "fire" folk with impunity and put the to torturously deaths that modern CEO's might envy but what seems to be missing is that 'leaders' must have these advanced social skills and abilities to maintain allies and be very judicious in their use and abuse of power.  Sultans had been assassinated and there were revolts. It was all very complex.
The oldest son was the one to become Sultan but he must first live to reach age of maturity.  His mother had to protect him.  Then he had to win out over his immediate brothers.  But this wasn’t one on one combat but rather a complex intrigue in the court with much power of personality to attract the army to him at a critical time when his brothers might wish to challenge his initial leadership. The people skills and political wrangling that must have gone on probably make the present day US Senate and Congress special interest groups and factions and democrats and republicans and fund raising all look like child’s play to a man who rose to lead the Ottoman Empire.
Initially Mehmet explained the old Sultan would die and then the first born would kill off his brothers. At one time the brothers would be rulers in the provinces and require a great deal of political intrigue to know when the old Sultan died so that you could rush back to the capital and take charge before a younger brother got there first and rallied the troops and assassins to off you and take your place. The Sultans at a later time kept their brothers in the area around the Harem, really too keep an eye on them.
One particularly advanced strategy of administration of the realm which Mehmet pointed out was that the sultan had a room and window above the chamber where his forty or so advisors met each day.  He could sit among them or he could sit above them looking down.  But most importantly he could also sit observing without them knowing that he was there.  One aspect of his personal survival was his own dining room, a separate and secure place where he ate alone as he never shared food.  Finally he had a golden cage around his bath with a key that he had so that he would not be accosted while in the shower.  No Hitchcock Movies climax for the Sultan, that’s for sure.
A person who could survive and lead the millions he did would have to have quite extraordinary people skills and an immense number of allies with a capacity to assess men and encourage them to do their best, not just through threat but also through personality and devotion.
I suspect we like to make these world leaders cartoon caricatures because of our envy and the inherent jealousy for our betters. Not only is this  man born to the greatest wealth and privilege with countless women at his beck and command with armies responding to his desires but what a bitch it would be if he was relatively speaking not a bad guy, a good friend to his friends.  Given all that he has given to him it’s much easier to think he must be an asshole.  And no doubt some were and some times individuals are.
But I couldn’t help thinking as I was walking about the Palace with Mehmet hearing the stories and seeing where these great rulers of men lived that they were highly skilled social beings with multifaceted personalities and a score of gifts along with the greatest training of the day.
Consider that royalty have their pick of teachers and there is little doubt in my mind that if I’d had Jose Feliciano as a guitar teacher my musical skills today would be far more advanced. In their day Sultans had the best teachers of the skills needed for survival, swordsmanship, archery, horseback riding, and hand to hand combat.  Instead of the image of the ‘idle rich’ there is little doubt these guys were ‘straight A’ students with a truly heavy curriculum.  And mothers would have been teaching them their manners for when they met with other royalty. And there would be arithmetic and geography and studies of all aspects of the realm that would make their adolescence look less than ‘carefree’.
Still the parties in the harem, just by the lay out, and having so many women on best behaviour competing for your attention, look tantalizing…..well there must be some rewards for a hard working soldier and administrator and leader.  All work and no play makes the Sultan a dull boy.

Mehmet explained to me that the palace had several walls.  Between the first one and the second was where the maintenance people might be situated. There were watchtowers and soldiers and all manner of visitors coming from all over the empire for administrative reasons.  One might have to wait to give a petition and only the grandest would be invited further into the palace.

The views throughout the palace of the environs were magnificent.

The administrative building seemed small considering the vastness of the empire. It was here where the Grand Visor and various ministers and consultants met daily and it was here that people came to petition.


In the administrative building was the room where the ministers daily discussed management issues and the golden window where the Sultan might or might not be watching and listening.

Smoke stacks of the kitchen
Final passage into the inner court.  In the second courtyard there were peacocks and gazelles. There was also a cistern dating back to Byzantine times .The gate to the third courtyard was called the Gate of Felicity.
The jewels and religious relics were all in chambers where they didn’t allow cameras.This reminded me of the Queens Jewelry I’d seen in England.  It’s one of the many ways they must take to reduce the risk of thievery alone, especially when you have a goose egg 86 carat diamond on display.  I loved the flasks and vases with precious stone inlay.
But in the inner rooms there was the walking stick of Moses, the robe of a daughter of Mohammed, the swords of the Caliphs.  So much extraordinary jewelry was on display as well as the door of Mecca and keys to Mecca because the Sultan had been the Caliph.  Each year he made a pilgrimage to the holy city.  Mehmet explained much of the importance to a Muslim of what was here and said how often older men and women would stand crying to be so near the hair of the Prophet.
It really had some of the elements of relic worship that I’d encountered in Rome where the bones of saints are kept in ornate boxes as reminders for the followers.  Raised Protestant Christian all this is frowned upon in my family as superstitious but really I cannot judge.  And really did appreciate the presentation in this fabulous museums.
The armoury was where I was really fascinated, seeing the mail and shields, daggers, flintlock rifles and pistols with their blade calligraphy and precious stone inlay on handles.  Now this was my cup of tea. Others no doubt were rolling their eyes that such cruel weapons of war were made into such fine pieces of art and then kept.  How ghastly! Frankly I loved the armoury. I've been to many around the world including the Tower of London and this one I really liked. There was even a sword I'd barely be able to lift if even swing.
The religious can have their relics though I certainly love the holy places and the shrines.  Perhaps it’s the doctor in me who having done enough time doing autopsies in the morgue can’t get excited by anyone’s bones kept indefinitely preserved. I’m not a big one for the Egyptian mummies either except to appreciate the science and chemistry.  But then the protestant Christian aspect is significant too, as we’re quite happy to  be cremated and the Muslims don’t cremate but bury their bodies for the resurrection.
I did like the throne room with the great king sized bed area where the Sultan met dignitaries. On display were some of the incredible fabrics that had been used to adorn the room.  It was no doubt lavish and opulent in it’s day.  The rooms had great fire places too that would have added to their appeal.  I liked the care for detail in the golden taps in the throne room.

The inner courtyard was a grand place to walk with rooms off to each side and entrances and exits with lovely views. The style of the palace is described as turkish baroque.
The outer courtyard of the Harem connected to the stables. The floor had a centre place raised with stones to make a better horse path because the Sultan could ride into this outer area, though no one else could. This was where the eunuchs resided.  The eunuchs assisted the women and did anything that needed manly help in the inner palace. They also went out with the women when they went on excursions.
A reconstruction showed one of the rooms of the eunuchs.  There were beautiful Iznik tiles throughout the Harem as the Harem was the living quarters of the Sultan. This was where if any where he could let his hair down and be with family and closest of friends, not to mention his loves and the mothers of his children and the children themselves.
As Mehtik explained girls  were brought from around the empire to the harem where they were raised and trained and lived.  The Sultan's mother and family had a lot to do with which women he saw and when. If the Sultan picked a woman, she would become his ‘favourite”.  The women who had his first male children became his wives.  Favourites could visit but obviously status and importance rested with becoming one of his four wives.  Favourites and wives had regular access to his bedchamber yet a woman might only go once or not at all.
The women who were not favoured would be married to the students at the religious schools who had come from all over the empire.  These married couples would then return to the outlying districts where they would become the governors and functionaries of the empire having had this intimate contact with power from youth.  This was just one of the masterful ways that were developed to manage this vast empire.  Allegiances to the women of the harem and the teachers of the schools were assured thereby.
This room was the inner courtyard of the harem with the favourites on one side and the wives in rooms on the other side.  One can imagine the desire to cross this great divide.  If I had a time machine and a desire to be wealthy this is definitely the place to sell the latest pregnancy test strip at the highest price!
The inner rooms of the palace where the Sultan’s bedroom was had the best views from the palace looking out over the forest and waters.  Now the city has encroached on what was once forest and gardens.  I loved the exquisite mother of pearl in lay on doors and other woodwork. Every little detail was considered.


The stained glass windows were each a work of art in themselves. Of the bed chambers the Sultan’s mother’s was to my mind the most interesting. Off it was the room of the chief eunuch as she and he ran the harem.
Off the harem there was an outdoor terrace and a number of pens where they kept their lions and such. In addition what looked to be a very large swimming pool, Mehmet corrected me , was indeed a place for the Sultan and girls to lounge in boats.
In addition to the main grounds there were several large pavilions where the men could go and hang out among themselves or with the ladies. These were each lovely works of art with great views and cozy places to lounge in.

I loved the terraces with the views. While I couldn’t quite identify with the older Sultan I could certainly see myself as a dashing young calvary officer wooing his lady love on moonlit walks in these gloriously romantic pavilion environs.  Mehmet told me there was a movie made in Turkey about just that sort of thing centred here that had been hugely popular around the world.

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