Turkey Travelog – Part 4 – Topkapı Palace

Here’s a link to the previous post in this series, a photo blog from Sukumar, in case you missed it.

Turkey offers many culinary delights, but none so unusual as the “Kumpir”. The insipid baked potato is elevated to an object of gastronomic delight by stuffing it with sour cream, vegetables, meat, herbs and pickles. You can tailor your Kumpir to your taste and make a hearty meal out of it.

On a very cold day with nothing to do, we found ourselves in Istanbul’s Cevahir Mall, “one of the largest malls in Europe”. “Since when is Turkey a European nation?” I asked myself, gnashing my teeth. That apart, its uncanny how much Cevahir resembles the “Express Avenue” mall in Chennai. But the resemblance is superficial. Cevahir is frequented by Turks, it has many stores that sell goods that the middle class can afford. It’s a mall with a soul, not a show-piece that’s at odds with its surroundings.

I’m yet to meet an Indian that dislikes Son Papdi. This sweet was introduced to India by the Moghuls by way of Persia. You can buy delicious Pismaniye, a close cousin of Son Papdi in the numerous sweet shops that permeate Turkey. Also called “Floss Halva” and “Candy Floss Halva”, Pismaniye is delicious. Says Sukumar who was fortunate enough to not be on a diet.

A visit to the Topkapı Palace is essential, if you want to understand the splendor of the Ottoman period. At its height, it was home to 5000 people. Spread out over 4 courts, the palace is enormous. It even has a circumcision room where princes recuperated after the, ah, surgery. It has a superb balcony where the Sultan broke the Ramadan feast. And it has a special fountain where the executioner cleaned his hands and the sword – Lest we forget the brutality of the period.

I wanted to see the kitchen that cooked for 5000 people and its famed Celadon collection. Make it kitchens – there were 4 of them, one of them called the Helvahane just to make sweets. The Chinese made (Alas, China had an edge over India in the manufacturing sector even back then) porcelain allegedly changed its color if the Sultan was served poisoned food. The Sultans were very paranoid – justifiably. “Ibrahim the Mad” went mad after being imprisoned by his own brother Murat, for 22 years. Filial piety was not in vogue back then.

The Sultan also eaves-dropped on his team of ministers. Set high in the ceiling of the Divan Salonu – where the ministers met – is a grill. Which opens into the Harem, conveniently near the quarters of the Sultan himself.

Suleiman the Magnificent is credited with introducing the Mezze platter – small servings of many items served in a plate as an appetizer or as a meal – to Turkey. The Sultan got this idea after visiting Persia. Taste slaves were asked to eat the Mezze before the Sultan had his dinner. So if anyone intended to poison the Sultan, there would be an “early warning system”.

Unfortunately, the kitchen was closed for renovation.

In the Ottoman empire, the mother of the Sultan held special powers. Called the Valide Sultan, she could even pass orders to the Grand Vizier (Prime Minister). She administered royal estates, ruled the Harem and held enormous sway over the Sultan.

Contrary to what many people think, a Harem is not a collection of wives – it simply means “private” or the family quarters of the Sultan. The Sultan, under the rules of Islam, could have 4 wives – and as many concubines that he could support. The Harem housed many slaves, all of them foreign, since Islam forbids enslaving Muslims. Girls were either bought as received as gifts. They were then taught comportment, Islam, Turkish language, make-up, music etc. And if they were lucky – or Caucasian – they usually found themselves in the bedchamber of the Sultan, as his concubine.

Interestingly enough, the Ottomans did not follow primogeniture – the 1st born son did not automatically become the Sultan. Any imperial son in theory could become the Sultan. This started malevolent power struggles in the Harem, as the mother of the Sultan would become the new Valide Sultan. After all, Roxelana, the powerful consort of Suleiman the Maginificent, started out as his concubine.

The highlight of the visit to the Topkapı palace is the Treasury. The Ottomans owned diamonds and emeralds roughly the size of Hershey’s kisses. They seemed to have as many emeralds, diamonds and rubies as there are pebbles in our front lawn. The most famous jewel in their collection is the 86 carat “Spoonmaker’s Diamond”. This lustrous gem was found in a rubbish heap and was bought for 3 steel spoons. We got goose bumps when we saw the sword of Suleiman the Magnificent.

The Sultans had different thrones for different occasions. The jewel encrusted “Nadir Shah” throne was the most spectacular. We also saw the famous “Topkapı Dagger”, set with emeralds and a watch. Seriously – a watch in a dagger? To what earthly purpose?

The Ottomans lived in Tokapi during their prime. Later on, as their power waned, they moved to European style palaces such as Dohlmabace and Ciragan. The latter is a hotel for the rich and famous now. During our Bosphorus Cruise, we saw visitors to the Ciragan Palace alighting from a helicopter. “See? That’s the hotel we should have stayed in!” said Sukumar. The hotel was on the Bosphorus. It looked ridiculously pricy. Hell, it airdrops its patrons. I silently gnashed my teeth, the characteristic (and impotent) gesture of women with expensive husbands.

Here is my next post in this series, on Cappadocia.


  1. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said January 18, 2011, 4:18 pm:

    Nice post Priya. Can never forget the Kumpir. The pisimaniye tasted heavenly compared to the ones we get in India. It is the original after all.

  2. Quote

    Thanks for your comment, Sukumar.

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