The palace was originally begun by order of Sultan Mehmet II after his army stormed and sacked Constantinople (the old name for Istanbul) in 1453. It served as home to the sultans and the royal court until the mid-19th century. During their long reign, successive sultans built Topkapi into the huge complex it is today.
There are four inner courtyards and it was impossible to explore everything in the time we had and still see the other things on our list for Istanbul. The magnificent tile work is amazing. Colorful and detailed, it reminded me a bit of the palace we saw in Bangkok.
I can't begin to tell you what all the rooms were that we saw. Some were like buildings of their own. Of course one that made a big impression on everyone was the circumcision room. Very elaborate. Richly decorated in reds and blues with stained glass windows. Quite a room for such a delicate operation.
A large open patio-type area with a pool and a fountain in the middle was where we were told the sultan would have his breakfast. Under a canopied area, he could sit and eat and look out over the city.
Gold enhanced everything. There was no doubting that wealth built the palace.
Since the palace is a museum, there are several buildings that hold collections of artifacts including many of the gifts given to the sultans over the years. One was said to be a huge huge diamond. We didn't get to see that particular exhibit since the tour buses had by then deposited their eager visitors and the lines were way too long to stand in. We did get in to see the exhibit of religious artifacts. We saw the "rod of Moses," a jar from the house of Joseph as well as the cloak of Muhammed and something that was said to contain a clipping of his beard.
One of the other exhibits we were able to go through was the armory where sabers, decorative knives and lots of armor was on display. And yes, they looked just like the ones in all the Arabian movies--curved and jeweled.
On our way out of the palace, we noticed a commotion and our guide said that there was to be a marching band that was scheduled to play that day. We lingered a bit eager to see it. The men began lining up in traditional garb with their instruments and we were treated to the Turkish version of a marching band. It was great!
Oh yes, about the harem. Ike said it was not so much what many people fancied. There was quite a hierarchy with the sultan's mother being the head. Often the sultan was given female slaves as a gift and they would become part of the harem. It was in a sense an area of education in that the women were taught music, literature, and courtly ceremony before being presented to the sultan. Of course he did get to chose from the group his wives (four were allowed but not all sultans took that many) and concubines. Contrary to popular belief, the girls were allowed to leave after nine years of service. Many had marriages arranged for them. They were highly sought by other high officials because of their education.
I'm not sure if that disillusioned the guys in our group who perhaps had other ideas of what may have gone on in the harem. We didn't get a chance to explore that area since it was an extra entrance fee and time was getting away from us. We still had lots to see in Istanbul.