No trip to Istanbul is really complete without a visit to Topkapı Palace, the seat of the Ottoman sultans from shortly after the conquest until the mid-19th century, when the court moved to the laughably decadent Dolmabahçe. However, it isn’t really a site that I can take that seriously. Except for the views; those are amazing.
Now, I do fully admit to a bias toward the Roman and Byzantine. I’ve caught myself calling later Ottoman additions to Byzantine churches “adulterations” (I am decidedly an iconodule). I wish we still had the even the ruin of the Great Palace, and would trade Topkapı for it in a minute. It may just be the pulling-for-the-underdog side of my personality. After all, I don’t cheer for the Persians when reading about Thermopylae. I don’t cheer for the Greeks when reading the Iliad. I think Constantine XI showed far more heart and character than the sultan who conquered his city.
Of course, I don’t hate Topkapı Palace, but to me it will never have the soul of a Hagia Sophia. You go to the great church for a sense of awe and amazement. You go to Topkapı to giggle at Mohammed’s beard.
No, seriously – I’d have a picture if they allowed them. Topkapı is the site of many religious relics, of which maybe one or two are even plausible fakes. They have the staff of Moses, the sword of David, and my personal favorite, the saucepan of Abraham. (Four thousand years old! Have they ever seen artifacts that are four thousand years old? I have. They look like potsherds. Largely because they’re potsherds.) They also have some formerly-Byzantine relics, like the gold and jewel-encased arm bones and skull fragment of John the Baptist. It blows my mind to think that some poor peasant who had his grave robbed more than a thousand years ago has millions of people looking at his skull every year. But the silliest thing is probably the many, many strands of Mohammed’s beard. If you laid out all the fragments of the true cross, you’d have enough telephone poles for Memphis. If you wove all the strands of Mohammed’s beard, you could knit enough sweaters for Fargo.
That said, I do think Topkapı is worth the visit. Go to giggle at the silly relics, but after that, check out the harem to see how the sultans and their women actually lived. For roughly $6 is was worth the admission. Of course, you’ll also have to see the extensive collection of enormous jewels, including ~50 and ~80 carat diamonds. They have a famous dagger fitted with massive emeralds on its hilt which a friend of mine has asked to buy for him to use as a letter opener. Despite repeated inquiries, I’m mostly met with confusion, although they sell reproductions in the gift shop. And they have gold candlesticks that weigh more than 100 pounds each. 100 pounds of gold! Each! For candlesticks!
I also really enjoyed seeing the weapons collection that the sultans accumulated over the years. There is an array of swords belonging to Mehmed Fatih – none belonging to Constantine XI, sadly – and some late medieval arms and armor of interest. There are also plenty of ceremonial weapons like jewel-encrusted axes and jade maces. To me these impractical weapons are somewhat less interesting, but they would admittedly be quite a beautiful way to kill people. If you’re into that.
Probably the best part of the weapons exhibit, though, are the 12th century Hungarian two-handed swords. These are so massive that if they were plated in gold, the sultans would have stuck candles in them. They weren’t just taller than Michelle, they were taller than me. I snuck a picture, despite this being not allowed and fairly strictly enforced. I even saw security run over to picture-takers and watch as they were made to delete their photos. So I apologize a bit for its blurriness, but otherwise I regret nothing. This picture, by the way, is not a trick of perspective. Michelle is less than a foot away from these swords. They just really are that big.
Unbelievable, right? A little ridiculous, but mostly in a good way.
Kind of like Topkapı.