Istanbul: At Topkapi, Adrift on a Sea of Tulips…Tiles, That Is

Faded grandeur: The hunkar sofasi, or Throne Room Within, where once the Sultan received family and personal guests for celebrations and entertainments. After the Harem Fire of 1666 it was redone in elaborate Roccoco style; calligraphic tiles border the room.

Faded grandeur: The hunkar sofasi, or Throne Room Within, where once the Sultan received family and personal guests for celebrations and entertainments. After the Harem Fire of 1666 it was redone in elaborate Roccoco style; calligraphic tiles border the room.

“Lamps were hung about, along with caged canaries and glass globes filled with colored water. Sometimes whirling dervishes entertained the sultan with their madly spinning dance, or girls played catch with a golden ball. And lumbering among the tulip beds were turtles by the hundreds, each with a lighted candle mounted on its shell.” A passage from Middle Eastern Food by Harry Nickles, reprinted in Barrie Kerper’s Istanbul: The Collected Traveler.
For centuries it was known simply as the New Palace, or to some, as the Grand Seraglio.

A low, sprawling place with stone walls 10 feet thick, situated on a promontory with commanding water views: the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus. Built by Mehmet the Conqueror after he sacked Constantinople in 1453; rebuilt after fires and an earthquake, each time becoming larger and more intricately laid out.

For four centuries this was the imperial residence of the Ottoman Sultans, a place of unimaginable opulence. There were exquisite gardens, singing fountains, vast sweeps of tulips that blossomed in spring. Table knives were made of gold set with diamonds, courtiers wore brilliant gold-embroidered silks and satins. Golden thrones were set with tourmalines, pearls and emeralds. Sultan Amhed’s wife wore emeralds, 200 in all, “everyone as large as a half crown piece,” wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1717.

Later the palace came to be known as Topkapi, after a gate of the same name that no longer exists. (The word means “cannon’s gate.”) At its peak 4,000 people may have lived here—concubines, janissaries, eunuchs, cooks, doctors, imams, ministers, gardeners, craftsmen, artists, ghosts. Almost all, save for the Sultan and his family, were slaves.

Those days are gone, of course. The Ottoman rulers are dead, the candle-bearing tortoises have crawled away, and tourists, many of them Turkish, daily invade the most private chambers of the royal family. Nothing much is left—apart from the famed emerald-studded dagger and other relics in the Treasury museum—except the buildings themselves….

And the riotous flower-embellished tiles that cover the walls, inside and out. Come and see….


What struck my eye first were the colors: intense blues, turquoises and greens so bright and lustrous as to be blinding, even in the shadows.


The second were the kaleidoscopic “tapestries” of blossoms, leaves and vines so intertwined and densely layered that the patterns seemed to pulsate with energy.


Many of the tiles were made in Iznik, where in the 17th century, artisans in 300 workshops turned out tens of thousands of brilliantly hued tiles for the palaces and mosques of the sultans. The techniques—involving multiple layers of quartz and complex glazes—created tiles that glowed like jewels, but secrets of how they were made have been lost.


Here a garden of cypress trees, tall as minarets and underplanted with hyacinth bells, has been immortalized on tiles in an alcove in the harem, once the most private–and forbidden–part of the palace.


In Lords of the Horizons, Jason Goodwin writes that the Ottomans “felt the geomancer’s horror of hard lines, dead spaces and sharp angles.” Even their conversation and behaviour were “elliptical.” Could this aversion to straight lines have led to the swooping, swirling pattern upon pattern of the tiles at Topkapi?L1110141topkapitilesseven-450wide

If you look closely, you can identify the tulips and carnations in these flowery urns (as well as the borders). There are so many flowers in other tiles–among them, hyacinths, roses, violets, lilies, pomegranate and plum flowers–that one writer referred to some panels as veritable “orchards.”


The Turks were crazy for tulips. The first bulbs came from Central Asia, where in spring swathes of little wild flowers with pointed petals streamed across the steppes. During the reign of Sultan Ahmed III, the gracefully nodding blossom came to symbolize wealth and privilege–and it was during his rule that for nighttime entertainments, tortoises with candles on their backs were trained to illuminate beds of tulips that flowered in April.

In “The Grand Seraglio,” a 1959 essay for Horizon, Mary Cable wrote, “Holland never heard of tulips until 1562, when a shipment of bulbs arrived from Constantinople; the word ‘tulip’ comes from tulbend, meaning ‘turban,’ a Turkish nickname for the flower.” (The entire essay is reprinted in Istanbul: The Collected Traveler.)

Even today the tulip is considered “the embodiment of perfection and beauty” in Turkey.


Why so many blues and greens? In The Development of Turkish Tile Art in Anatolia, Serare Yetkin writes that long before the Ottomans reared their formidable heads, the Turks yearned “for green in steppes of Central Asia,” a craving that found expression “in the turquoise of the tiles,” a hue achieved with copper oxide. Later, artisans mastered the complex techniques for creating a stunning coral red.

Not all the tiles are flowered of course. There are many calligraphic passages from the Koran…


And the library of the palace features tile borders adorned with the cintamani motif—a pattern, says Istanbul University professor Secil Satir, “made of patterns defined as tiger lines and leopard spots.” He continues: “It is a Buda symbol in China and Japan called ‘Tama’, it has the appearance of two rows of clouds over a triangle of three eccentric circles brought tangentially together…” (To read more, google his paper, “A Current Evaluation of the Traditional Iznik Tiles and Ceramics,” which can be seen as a pdf.)


Occasionally the eye gets a much-needed rest in unembellished spaces, such as the curiously plain Courtyard of the Concubines, which is lined with baths and laundries. (Long ago the Sultan wore silver soled slippers so that the women and eunuchs could hear his approach and vanish unless commanded to his presence.)


But turn a corner and vast walls of tiles will reappear.


My favorite spot? The beautiful Baghdad kiosk, a little universe of flowery tiles and cabinets inlaid with mother of pearl, where on a cushion, with the sun streaming through a grilled window, a girl could dream of tulips…and freedom.

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