Despatches from Istanbul 5: Topkapi Palace, the Imperial Harem and the Archaeological Museum


Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the main home for the Ottoman sultans and their courts during the 400 years between the mid-fifteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, seems to have had a vibe to it resembling that of the castle in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels.  According to the palace’s Wikipedia entry, its inhabitants “rarely had to venture out since the palace functioned almost as an autonomous entity, a city within a city… 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.  Attached to the palace were diverse imperial societies of artists and craftsmen…  A strict, codified, ceremonial daily life ensured imperial seclusion from the rest of the world.”  (


If that description – well, apart from the mention of the mosques – doesn’t describe the situation of the Groan dynasty in the Gormenghast books, simultaneously rulers, prisoners and slaves (to centuries of ritual), I don’t know what does.


Unlike the massive castle in Gormeghast, however, Topkapi Palace has nothing imposingly gothic about it.  Huge though it is – in its heyday, it was capable of accommodating 4000 people – little of it rises higher than two storeys.  Rather than towering upwards, it sprawls outwards, as a complex of low buildings, courtyards, terraces, passageways, galleries, gardens and fountains.




It is, inevitably, mobbed by tourists and my explorations of the main part of the palace were confined mostly to looking at the (admittedly beautiful) exteriors, rather than venturing into the crowded interiors.  I did brave the Imperial Treasuries, which involved being shunted along in a dense line of people, around the walls of several rooms and past a great many glass exhibit boxes, and trying to study the priceless artefacts within the boxes in the space of a few seconds – for a few seconds was all I got, before the human conveyor belt I was part of nudged me on to the next box.  Wow, I thought, there’s the Topkapi Dagger – but five seconds later the weight of bodies behind me had propelled me beyond sight of it.  And wow, I thought, there’s the Spoonmaker’s Diamond – cue another tantalising but unsatisfying five seconds of scrutiny before I was shifted further on.  It was so frustrating that in comparison it made the shuffle-around in the Crown Jewels section of the Tower of London seem good.


Oh well.  At least, from the terrace outside, you got a great view of the Golden Horn.



The Imperial Harem on the palace grounds, for which you have to buy a separate ticket, offers a slightly less stressful tourist experience.  Historically, this area was strictly off limits to anyone who wasn’t a sultan, or a prince, or one of the sultan’s favoured consorts, or a concubine, or a eunuch – the eunuchs had the job of guarding the place – or the queen mother.  (That last detail seems a little bizarre, admittedly.  If you were a sultan and had a harem at your disposal, the last person you would have granted access to it would be your own mother-in-law.)  Anyway, the tiles, stained glass, lattice-work and architecture generally in this part of the palace are superb.



I spent a good part of a day wandering about the palace, but you can probably spend a large chunk of another day in the archaeological museum that is also on its grounds – again, you need to buy a separate ticket for it.  The most striking thing here is the collection of sarcophagi – not sarcophagi of the man-shaped Egyptian variety, but grand, imposing, sculpted ones – which were gathered from Crete, Durazzo, Ephesus, Sidon, Thessalonica, Tripoli and Tyre under the Ottoman Empire.  The surfaces of these are lavishly adorned with griffins, sphinxes, lions, peacocks and at least one weird eagle-headed man.  In the case of the marble Alexander Sarcophagus, its sides are decorated with graphic battle and hunting scenes – including one detail where a lion tears flesh from a horse’s breast with horror-movie savagery.  (This sarcophagus is so named because Alexander the Great is supposed to feature in one of the scenes, although it actually belonged to the Sidonian king Abdalonymos.)  However, the greatest sarcophagus in the museum is surely the Sidamara Sarcophagus from the late third century.  As big as a caravan, its sides are an epic marble tapestry of horses, horsemen, lions, maidens, youths and sagacious-looking old men and it looks more like a small temple than a burial container.



Elsewhere in the museum’s sarcophagi department is an extensive collection of marble and limestone grave stelae.  Wandering among them, you feel you’re exploring a huge indoor cemetery.


Incidentally, in another exhibition room, you’ll find something that was once inside a sarcophagus.  The remains of Sidonian King Tabnit from about 500 BC represent about the most hideous-looking mummy I’ve ever seen.  Resembling a grotesque hybrid of skeleton and petrified tree trunk, the mummy’s chest is now burst open with the ribs on either side grasping upwards like talons, while his revealed innards are so withered they look like a heap of decayed leaves.



Finally, on the museum’s second floor, I felt strangely happy to encounter a statue of the Emperor Hadrian.  As my family live just a little way above the great wall he built across Northumbria and Cumbria in northern England (in order, no doubt, to protect Scottish civilisation from incursions by English barbarians) and as I’m also familiar with the Antonine Baths whose construction he started at Carthage in Tunisia, seeing him there was like bumping into an old acquaintance.



The Antonine Baths at Carthage

Carthage is a remarkable neighbourhood a few miles up the coast from Tunis.  It’s dotted with ruins, excavated sites and museums pertaining to the Phoenician, Punic and Roman civilisations, which were the main players in this region’s early history.

In the year-and-a-half that I’ve lived in Tunis, I’ve managed to visit most of the historical and archaeological attractions of Carthage – the Musee de Carthage on top of Byrsa Hill, the amphitheatre, the Roman villas, the Basilica of Dermech and the Sanctuary of Tophet.  It wasn’t until five days ago, however, that I made it to the Antonine Baths in the district’s north-eastern corner.

In their day, the Antonine Baths were a leisure complex of saunas, pools and gymnasiums, which ranked as one of the largest such establishments in the Roman Empire.  Their ruins stand on a site that slopes down from the TGM railway line and Avenue Habib Bourguiba to the Mediterranean coast.  A garden covers the site’s upper half while what remains of the baths themselves occupies its bottom part.  The site’s southern side is bordered by a street called Avenue des Thermes d’Antonin, while overlooking its northern side are the grounds and buildings of the Presidential Palace.

(Until last January, presumably, this palace was where ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and his numerous Trabelsi-family in-laws spent their evenings, unwinding after their hectic and stressful day jobs, which consisted of plundering the country’s resources and pocketing its wealth.)

The upper-level gardens are pleasant enough.  Criss-crossed with paths and shaded by palms, eucalyptus trees and tangled cacti, they contain underground vaults, a kiln and the ruins of a necropolis and an early Christian chapel.  Here are a few pictures of carvings and sculptures that I discovered in the subterranean chambers.


But the baths themselves, ranged along the shore, are the main attraction.  Even though the most intact parts of them now are their foundations – an impressively labyrinthine network of vaults, archways and corridors extends below ground-level – there are enough ruins standing above to give you a sense of the complex’s original dimensions.  Indeed, one column has been re-erected to its original height of 15 metres, which suggests how its roof must have loomed over the sea.


Construction of the baths started during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, the man responsible for the great wall that ran across the far north of England and protected Roman-held territory from unruly Scots and Picts.  Did any legionary, during his military career, have the experience of being posted to both these testimonies to Hadrian’s ambition?  Imagine the contrast.  One year you’re guarding the Antonine Baths, beside the sparkling Mediterranean, in the sultry heat of Carthage.  The next, you’re stuck on the top of Hadrian’s Wall in windswept, rain-lashed Northumbria, fearfully on the lookout for marauding hordes of woad-covered, mud-splattered Scots.  I know which posting I’d have preferred.

The complex was razed by the Vandals in 439 AD (with the Arabs using much of the stone later in the building of Tunis).  Unfortunately, you don’t have to wander far before you notice traces of modern graffiti on the ruins and artefacts here – evidence that not all the Vandals died out in the fifth century.

The item in this last picture might look like a pre-revolutionary relic that was taken from the Presidential Palace – a Michael Jackson-style suspended animation capsule, in which the Trabelsi family kept the moribund and barely-sentient Ben Ali like a cling-film-wrapped pork chop in a freezer.  It’s not, however.  It’s actually a plastic dome that houses a model of the baths when they were in their post-Hadrian, pre-Vandals, intact and glorious prime.