"My soul is elsewhere, I'm sure of that. And I intend to end up there." -- Rumi

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Topkapi Palace, or How I Learned What "Harem" Means

The Disgruntled Hermit spreads her wings!

Yep, after pretty much a solid month of Doctor Who and various poorly-written novels, two Sundays ago I finally made myself put on real pants and go out of the house for something other than work or grocery shopping (or a beer run).  I went into Sultanahmet to check off one of the big giant touristy must-sees that I hadn't hit yet -- Topkapi Palace.  Otherwise known as the Buckingham Palace of the Ottoman Turks.

The Gate of Salutation
The palace grounds are enormous, and my guidebooks all said to budget at least two hours at the site to allow yourself time to see it all.  They did not, however, mention that you also needed to budget an hour for standing in the sun, waiting to buy your goddamed ticket.  There were automated kiosks, but I wasn't sure if they took cash and I didn't want to lose my place in the line I was already in.

(Also the length of said line should have in no way taken an hour.  But I watched a group of three women as they stood at the ticket window for at least ten minutes.  I'm not being hyperbolic.  When I say ten minutes, I don't mean three minutes that felt like ten minutes.  I mean they stood there for at least ten fucking minutes, because it was ten minutes from when I noticed and started timing them with my watch.  What on earth were they doing up there for ten minutes??  Even if they were counting out their ticket costs in pennies, it shouldn't have taken ten minutes unless they kept forgetting which number came after six.  And they weren't the only ones taking forever.  I was so confused.  When I finally got my sweaty and irritated self up to the counter, it was "Bir billet lutfen, sarayi ve harem." [One ticket please, palace and harem.]  I handed over my money, received my tickets, and was on my way.  TWENTY-FIVE FUCKING SECONDS, PEOPLE.  Thus leaving nine minutes and thirty-five seconds of giant honking unsolved mystery.)


Most of you know by now that there is not much I'll stand in an hour-long line for.  But I was determined that after my long self-imposed exile from my temporary home city, that I was going to check something off the Istanbul Bucket List that day.  I practiced my breathing, and eventually my patience was rewarded and I got to stump on through the fairytale-like Gate of Salutation, above, and into the Second Courtyard of the Topkapi Palace Complex.

A Topkapi Palace ticket costs 25 lira.  Because the palace's harem is one of the most beautiful and popular spots on the grounds, they naturally make you pay and extra 15 lira to see it.  Which makes a visit to the Topkapi Palace a slight extravagance at 40 lira.  But the harem is worth it, and in for a penny, you know.

I swung by and went through the harem first.  It was pretty impressive.

Interesting bit of trivia:  "harem" in Arabic means "forbidden."  The harem, despite the sexy connotations the word has been given in Western culture, was nothing more than the private apartments for the Sultan and his (largish) family.  And, okay, a bunch of female slaves and eunuchs,  but according to Rick Steves, the Sultan was allowed a maximum of four wives and four girlfriends, who were largely selected for him by his mother and existing wives/girlfriends.  I mean, certainly the man still had no shortage of female company after a hard day's work, but the reality of the harem was still a very different place than the picture painted by Byron's Don Juan.

After the harem, I walked through the various buildings in the third and fourth courtyards.  It was pretty crowded, and the more popular buildings had yet more lines of tourists with varying degrees of sunburn, slowly shuffling forward an inch at a time, in order to get their fifteen seconds of fame with this famous diamond or that famous dagger.  I waited in what lines I had patience for, which wasn't much.  I mostly circled around the outside of the ring, trying to get glimpses of the priceless artifacts over hats and between elbows.  Unfortunately, most of the Very Famous buildings did not allow photos inside.

View of the Bosphorus from the Treasury.
The Third Courtyard
Unsurprisingly, what I enjoyed most was the (least crowded) Fourth Courtyard and the several small but beautiful kiosks there.  No famous daggers inside, but any of these would be a simply perfect place to lounge away a hot summer afternoon.  Preferably with some wine and a nargile, of course.

Tulip garden, slightly past its peak.

I think this last picture is the Baghdad Pavilion  built by extra-fearsome Sultan Murat IV so he could have a quiet getaway from his tough-guy image and read some poetry.  Gotta love it.

The guidebooks were right, and even though one of the main features ended up being closed (the kitchens, repurposed as galleries), it still took me about two and a half hours to do my full circuit.  This included all the time waiting in various lines (but not the ticket line outside) and also some quality moments resting on benches.  The guidebooks are also right about this being an absolute Istanbul Must-See.  I enjoyed the Topkapi Palace immensely, even with the giant stupid wait to get in and the thronging masses once I was finally inside.  Utterly beautiful, and a fascinating insight into a very different culture.  I took my time with my dog-eared guidebook tucked under my arm, and even if such meticulous sightseeing is not your thing, I recommend it for a place like this.  I got so much more out of my experience by reading about each part as I was seeing it -- like that little bit about Murat IV!

And so passed the Sunday where I officially ended my Istanbul Hermitage and re-entered the grotty touristy backpackery world.  Five days later I would be off to weird and alien Cappadocia!


  1. I meant to ask and forgot on Facebook, what is that thing that looks like one of those banker pneumatic tubes built for a human in the harem? In the second photo.

    1. You mean the top photo here? That's a fireplace. The second photo is a ceiling. :)

  2. Ha yeah we all know how much you love waiting in lines. Glad it was worth it though. Looks incredible!