ISTANBUL — TOPKAPI
If you compare Topkapi to Versailles, you probably would be disappointed; nothing quite lives up to the splendors and the vastness of Versailles, except perhaps Peter the Great’s Palaces who deliberately copied and outdid Louis XIV. That Winter Palace in St. Petersburg is still on my bucket list. Last year in Helsinki, I was so close! It takes only a short train ride or a ferry trip to get there, but visa issues stood in the way…
The layout concept of these palaces is different. As Versailles is one huge 1/4 mile long main building with various suites and a huge garden with a mile long pond, fountains, sculptures, and secondary pavilions that stretch over more than 2000 acres of land, the Topkapi is an enclosed set of four courts with several small garden areas that total no more than 200 acres.
I could not get through Versailles if I wanted to in a full day using all the shuttles I could get a hold off. But after spending 6 hours at the Topkapi, I had seen and done what there was to see and do and taken a leisure coffee break at the restaurant off the fourth court overlooking the Bosphorus Straits in one direction and the Sea of Marmara in the other. The views from up there are spectacular.
The most intriguing part for Western visitors are definitely the Harem quarters. Images of debauchery reinforced by Western artists such as Ingres in his Turkish Bath are conjured up, even though more likely, these residential quarters were highly regulated in rituals and etiquette; similar again as in Versailles, were life away from Paris would seem more like life in a corset no matter how much luxury it involved. Indeed, the Harem quarters are splendid. Some of my favorite rooms are located there, and one of my all-time favorite tile motif comes from the mosque of the Eunuchs.
But one of my favorite parts of the Topkapi is actually the kitchen area designed by the infamous Sinan. One could think of him perhaps as the “Michelangelo” of the East. He was multi-talented and designed hundreds of buildings of which about 85 survive. I love that tract of cooking areas, with the row of chimneys and the brickwork inside. Hard to photograph, since the corridor is so narrow and so many people roamed around. But I tried anyhow.
My alltime favorite in a bit of a cynical way is the Islamic Museum. Topkapi has been the place in which various relics of Mohammed and other religious dignitaries have been preserved. People line up for an hour or more to see them. Inside the museum it is dark, and the guards there are actually on your toes scolding people for any photograph they are trying to sneak. But really, because of the dim light, I often could not even tell what I was looking at… But I can list a few of the treasures here: David’s sword (the one he presumably took from Goliath); Moses’ staff (the one he presumably struck a well with in the wilderness); the turban of Joseph (the one who was exiled to Egypt by his jealous brothers); Mohammed’s coat, his water cup, a tooth and several beards of his; Fatima and Hussein’s mantle, and the list goes on. Something was there that belonged to Abraham, but I did not catch what.
I decided that my time was too valuable to wait in line and returned to the museum shortly before closing time. The lines had dwindled then, even though the museum still felt crowded. Behind me were two English-speaking, university-educated young female Turkish students. I asked them only one thing: Do you think these artifacts are real? Vehemently, they assured me that of course, they were.
I did not poke a hole into their balloon, but it strikes me how gullible people are, or perhaps better want to be. We hardly have any historical evidence of any of these people, Mohammed included. Nobody seems to wonder how the lack of historical facts can go hand in hand with an abundance of artifacts. Moses, by all historical accounts did not exist but is a personification of a historical event; the Exodus, which happened over an approximately 400 year period. But we have his staff nonetheless.
I guess, Christians don’t mind either that all the splinters of the true cross on which Christ was crucified that are kept as relics the world over, add up to an amount of wood that could make a cross ten times as the real one ever could have been… But at least we have historical backup of the fact that Christ was crucified, if nothing else.
Either way, even though I did the museum out of the chronological order and don’t believe for a second that half of these objects are real, it was ultimately, a highlight of the day.
Another favorite of mine is the Mustafa Pasha Kiosk. It is a pretty late addition to the Topkapi and has a lot of European influence. It has a real modern, almost mid-century feel to it.
When you are heading to or from a tourist destination such as the Topkapi, you become a target for the many young men who look for people just like you. They approach you with a big smile and good English and invite you to come for tea to their shop, “just to look”. If you have the time, it’s fun to actually go, but beware, the sales tactics of the shop owners are very, very sophisticated. Before you know it, you may buy something you did not want to, and for sure did not need…
At the bottom of the Topkapi is a lovely old cafe set up in a small alley with soft glowing lamps and tasteful decor. An ice-cream vendor within sight performed his tricks with the children. They are ice cream acrobats! That is thanks to the very different consistency ice cream has in Turkey. It is much stickier and needs to be worked on constantly. It is very tasty though and has been my afternoon snack every day.
I would have loved to post a little video here, but the blog notice I get is that it is too large… I have to work on posting videos. Not possible for now. :-(