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Site

Byzantine remains in the Second Courtyard.The palace complex is located on the Seraglio Point (Sarayburnu), a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, with the Bosphorus in plain sight from many points of the palace. The site is hilly and one of the highest points close to the sea. During Greek and Byzantine times, the acropolis of the ancient Greek city of Byzantion stood here. There is an underground Byzantine cistern, located in the Second Courtyard, which was used throughout Ottoman times, as well as remains of a small church, the so-called Palace Basilica on the acropolis have also been excavated in modern times. The nearby Church of Hagia Eirene, though located in the First Courtyard, is not considered a part of the old Byzantine acropolis.


Initial construction
After the Ottoman conquest and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II found the imperial Byzantine Great Palace of Constantinople largely in ruins. The Ottoman court initially set itself up in the Old Palace (Eski Sarayı), today the site of Istanbul University. The Sultan then searched for a better location and chose the old Byzantine acropolis, ordering the construction of a new palace in 1459. It was originally called the New Palace (Yeni Sarayı) to distinguish it from the previous residence. It received the name "Topkapı" in the 19th century, after a (now lost) Topkapı Gate and shore pavilion.

Layout

Scale model of Seraglio Point with the Topkapı Palace complex
Scale model of the inner part of the palace (2nd-4th courtyards)Sultan Mehmed II established the basic layout of the palace. The highest point of the promontory he_ used for his private quarters and innermost buildings. From the innermost core various building and pavilions surrounded it and grew down the promontory towards the shore of the Bosphorus. The whole complex was surrounded by high walls, some of which dated backto the Byzantine acropolis. This basic layout governed the pattern of future renovations and extensions. By an account of the contemporary historian Kritovolous of Imbros the sultan also

“ [...] took care to summon the very best workmen from everywhere - masons and stonecutters and carpenters [...]. For he was constructing great edifices which were to be worth seeing and should in every respect vie with the greatest and best of the past. For this reason he needed to give them the most careful oversight as to workmen and materials of many kinds and the best quality, and he also was concerned with the very many and great expenses and outlays.

Accounts differ as to when construction of the inner core of the palace started and was finished. Kritovolous gives the dates 1459-1465, other sources suggest a finishing date in the late 1460s.

Contrary to other royal residences which had strict master plans, such as Schönbrunn Palace or the Palace of Versailles, Topkapı Palace developed over the course of centuries, with various sultans adding and changing various structures and elements. The resulting asymmetry is the result of this erratic growth and change over time. although the main layout by Mehmed II as still preserved. Most of the changes occurred during the reign of Sultan Suleyman from 1520-1560. With the rapid expansion of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman wanted the growing power and glory to be reflected in his residence. New buildings were constructed or enlargened, The chief architect responsible in that period was the Persian Alaüddin, also known as Acem Ali. He was also responsible for the expansion of the Harem.

In 1574 a great fire destroyed the kitchens. Sinan was entrusted by Sultan Selim II to rebuilt the destroyed parts expanded them, as well as the Harem, baths, the Privy Chamber and various shoreline pavilions. By the end of the 16th century the palace acquired its present appearance.

The palace is an extensive complex with an assortment of various low buildings constructed around courtyards, interconnected with galleries and passages, rather than a single monolithic structure. Almost none of the buildings are higher than two storeys. Interspersed are trees, gardens and water fountains, to give a refreshing feeling to the inhabitants and provide places where they could repose. The buildings enclosed the courtyards, and life revolved around them. Doors and windows faced towards the courtyard, in order to create an open atmosphere for the inhabitants as well as provide for cool air during hot summers.

The palace compound when seen from a birds-eye view has the shape of a rough rectangle, divided into four main courtyards and the harem. The main axis is from south to north, the outermost (first) courtyard starting at the south with each successive courtyard leading up north. The first courtyard was the one that was most accessible, while the innermost (fourth) courtyard and the harem were the most inaccessible, being the sole private domain of the sultan. The fifth courtyard was in reality the most outer rim of the palace grounds bordering the sea. Access to these courtyards was restricted by high walls and controlled through gates. Apart from the four to five main courtyards, various other mid-sized to small courtyards exist throughout the complex. The total size of the complex varies from around 592,600 square meters to 700,000 square meters, depending on which parts are measured.


Basketmakers' Kiosk (foreground), Topkapı Palace in the back.The southern and western sides border the large former imperial flower park, today Gülhane Park. Surrounding the palace compound on the southern and eastern side is the Sea of Marmara. Various related buildings such as small summer palaces (kasrı), pavilions, kiosks (köşkü) and other structures for royal pleasures and functions formerly existed at the shore in area also known as the Fifth Place, but have since disappeared over the course of time due to neglect and the construction of the shoreline railroad in the 19th century. However, the last remaining seashore structure of the outer limits that still exists today is the Basketmakers' Kiosk, constructed in 1592 by Sultan Murad III. Thus the total area size of Topkapı Palace was in fact much larger than what it appears today.


Function
Topkapı Palace was the main residence of the sultan and his court. It was initially the seat of government as well as the imperial residence. Even though access was strictly regulated, inhabitants of the palace rarely had to venture out since the palace functioned almost as an autonomous entity, a city within a city. Audience and consultation chambers and areas served for the political workings of the empire. For the residents and visitors, the palace had its own water supply through underground cisterns and the great kitchens provided for nourishment on a daily basis. Dormitories, gardens, libraries, schools, even mosques were at the service of the court.

A strict court ceremonial codified daily life, in order to ensure imperial seclusion from the rest of world. The principle of imperial seclusion is a tradition that was probably continued from the Byzantine court. It was codified by Mehmed II in 1477 and 1481 in the Kanunname Code, which regulated the rank order of court officials, the administrative hierarchy, and protocol matters. This principle of increased seclusion over time was reflected in the construction style and arrangements of various halls and buildings. The architects had to ensure that even within the palace, the sultan and his family could enjoy a maximum of privacy and discretion, making use of grilled windows and building secret passageways.

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