In 1453, once the Turks had finally defeated the Byzantine Empire, Mehmet the Conqueror decided he needed a palace in Constantinople, so he set out to build Topkapi, which means something in Turkish. It remained the palace of the Turkish sultans until 1856, when Sultan Abdulmecid the First decided to be a cool, cosmopolitan kind of sultan and build a new, more modern and thoroughly boring palace called Dolmabahce in a hipper neighborhood on the other side of the Golden Horn (it is utterly uninteresting, don’t even bother to tell the taxi driver to slow down as you pass it). This is yet another sorry example of mankind’s race to trash what is beautiful and charming in a misguided quest for modernity. It is the same impulse that leads us to cover up cobblestone streets with asphalt and make plastic Christmas trees that dance when you clap.
But I digress.
For 400 years, Topkapi was the power center of the Ottoman empire (and therefore of a fair chunk of the world), and the power center of Topkapi was the Harem complex — a mysterious jumble of buildings, corridors and courtyards in which the royal family lived. That is to say, the sultan, his mother, his hundreds of concubines, his official wives (those concubines who had born him a son), a couple of hundred eunuchs and the odd janissary (no, these did not mop the floors — it was an elite corps of soldiers, and they were restricted to the outer buildings of the harem).
Today, you can visit the harem complex, and the best way to do so is to avoid the official harem tours and find yourself a certified freelance guide. This is easy to do, since you will be assailed by any number of them as you enter the outer courtyard of the palace. They will guess your main language and immediately speak to you in it. They rarely get it wrong, although if you happen to be multilingual, you may want to engage in the sport of language-baiting, which can always be a pleasant diversion (“Ah, vous êtes donc français?” / “Non plus. Sono forse italiano.” / “Alora italiano?” / Nein"). Avoid the young ones, the eager ones, the handsome ones, and try to find John-with-a-c.
“Your name is John?”
“That’s not a very Turkish name, is it?”
“It is a very Turkish name. It’s not spelled the same, though. It’s spelled with a squiggly c.”
Where, exactly, one is supposed to put the c, squiggly or otherwise, in the name “John” is beyond my limited Turkish, but this is unimportant, for John-with-a-c is not only a fully certified guide, he is also a fully-certified Harem guide and he has been guiding people through the harem for over thirty years. As he will gladly tell you, there are two castes of guides at Topkapi: you need to get your Topkapi certification in order to acquire the right to bother tourists at all, but if you want to lead them through the warren of the harem then you need a special harem certification. Back when the Sultan lived there, you needed to get castrated, but it would seem the certification process has been simplified somewhat.
The harem can only be visited with a guide, but most visitors use the official guides and go around in large groups bulging with Dutch and Japanese tourists speaking their terminally unmusical tongues and taking pictures of everything. John-with-a-c will take you places they don’t go, brushing off the protests of the security people with a flick of his wizened hand and squeezing through one half-opened, exquisitely carved wooden door after another in an effort to get you thoroughly and delightfully lost, all the while giving you not only the history of the place, but the half-whispered gossip of centuries past. He will show you the apartments of the Sultan’s mother — according to John-with-a-c the real power behind most of the sultanate thrones — and the courtyard of the favorites. He will take you into small rooms, large rooms, too many rooms to remember, tiled with blue ceramic and leafed with gold. Your eyes will spin, and you’ll hear the womanly voices of all those ghosts (which might actually have been the group of Dutch tourists around the corner, come to think of it). He’ll tell you, as you stand on the upper terrace near the empty pool where the concubines once bathed, how those who wished to attract the Sultan’s eye would pay attention to the way they climbed dripping out of the pool (undoubtedly in a bid to attain wifehood by enticing him to participate in a bout of hopefully male conception) and as he speaks you can see a dreamy glint in his old eye. Eventually, he’ll lead you back through the quarters of the black eunuchs, out of the harem and into the palace courtyard.
The harem tour will only last an hour or so, leaving you ample time to visit the rest of the palace, which is enormous. The Ottomans didn’t build palaces like those you’ll find in Western Europe. Palaces and castles in the west were apparently built to impress the visitor with the sheer weight of stone used: “Grovel, or we’ll drop all this rock on you” they seem to threaten. Topkapi impressed foreign ambassadors and potentates with its mystery and its sheer beauty — elegant courtyards dotted with small white buildings boasting gilded roofs; every door carved with flowing designs; window grates so delicate they seem to be made of wooden lace. This palace cowed visitors with an unavoidable impression that whoever lived there must be so much cooler than they.
Try to hang on to John-with-a-c while visiting the rest of the palace, at least for a while. He can explain everything. You can also buy a guide book at the kiosk where you get your tickets (note that the harem requires a separate ticket). After your visit, don’t hesitate to go to the restaurant, which has a terrace overlooking the Sea of Marmara and is surprisingly good as tourist restaurants go. Order the lentil soup.
Istanbul as a whole is a fantastic city to visit, especially if you’re interested in history. You’ll want to avoid the more trendy areas of the city, such as Taksim square (although do take a walk down Istiklal Cadesi one night — a street worth a column in its own right), and try to stay in the Sultenhamet district, near Topkapi, the Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, The Grand Bazaar, etc. You might want to stay at Yesil Ev, a wonderful little hotel in an historic, 19th century wooden building just behind the Blue Mosque in a neighborhood that was restored to its former glory about thirty years ago. The hotel also has a restaurant that is one of the best deals in Istanbul. The only drawback (well, in truth there are several drawbacks if you’re anywhere near picky) is that it has no air conditioning, meaning that if you go during the summer you must sleep with the windows open, and since you’re near the Blue Mosque this means that you will be awakened by the cry of the muezzin announcing morning prayers at an ungodly hour — unless you actually plan on praying then, which would make it more of a godly hour. If I had even a smidgen of omnipotence then I, for one, would immediately apply it to making sure I no longer had to get up early). Otherwise, if you’re obscenely rich, the Four Seasons is just down the street. One supposes you can close the windows there and not have to listen to the sounds of the city. Which might not be such a good idea, because it is such an interesting city after all.