Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Travel Tuesday - Topkapi Palace

Since Tuesday is the day for both travelling and temptations, our columnist Annie West couldn’t resist talking about a luscious temptation in the heart of one of her favourite cities: The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

I have fond memories of Istanbul. Friendly people, scrumptious food, fabulous historical sites everywhere you turn, markets full of spices and ceramics, leather, metalwork and jewellery; fresh cherry juice, ferries plying the Bosphorus on crisp Spring days and a sense of being somewhere utterly unique. It’s a city that spans two continents and thousands of years of history. It’s foreign and exotic yet in so many ways familiar.

And one of its jewels is Topkapi, the palace of the Ottoman Sultans, located on a tip of land surrounded on two sides by water. It’s a sprawling mass of buildings and gardens surrounded by high stone walls. Not a single large building like Buckingham Palace. For centuries each sultan added to the palace site as he saw fit. Topkapi is haphazard, but no less stunning with its interconnecting buildings, courtyards and gorgeous free standing pavilions set among lawns and sweet-scented roses.

Start reading a little about the place and you realise this place is the heart of so many stories: about women brought in to please a sultan and live in his harem, tales of intrigue and sinister power plays that would curdle your stomach and tales of love as well. Even the names you read as you walk around sound like something out of an old story, like the Gate of the White Eunuchs and the Gate of Felicity. Unlike many historic buildings that look as if they’ve never been lived in, this place is alive with the shades of the past, and all the richer for it.

If you enjoy organised tours, I’m sure there is one, but it’s wonderful just prowling around with a map or guide book or following the signs to discover the palace yourself.

You can see the sultan’s throne, the pavilions like tiny weekend cottages used by various rulers, rooms where state councils were held and of course the massive complex that is the harem. The latter consists of around 300 rooms and even had its own hospital. There are marble courtyards, porches, bathrooms and fantastic frescoes and tile work. You can see where the sultan, his mother, wives and odalisques lived as well as the eunuchs who guarded them.

Even the prosaic kitchens in this place are fascinating, seeing where meals for 4,000 people were once prepared, especially since those rooms are now full of gorgeous antique Chinese and Japanese porcelain.

Topkapi is a repository for the most amazing collection of riches I think I’ve ever seen (and yes, that does include the crown jewels in London). There’s antique silver ware and jewelled ceremonial armour. There are exquisitely embroidered robes of silk or velvet. How about a diamond studded dessert set on a matching gold tray? Aigrettes (bejewelled and feathered ornaments) to decorate a turban or even one, studded with an emerald, for a horse. Jewellery such as the amazing Spoonmaker Diamond (all 86 carats) or the unbelievable Topkapi Dagger with a hilt built around three massive emeralds (and sadly this picture doesn’t do it justice). There are music boxes and clocks, a massive gold throne studded with peridots and illuminated manuscripts as well.

If you’re overwhelmed by riches the sultan’s portraits are a fascinating display, especially as you try to link each character-full face to the stories you’ve heard about them. There’s also a museum devoted to the personal belongings of the Prophet Mohammed.

If you’re not into history or treasures, just wandering the enormous complex is a treat. The view out over the Golden Horn to bustling Istanbul on one side is fantastic. And on the other you can sit and enjoy a meal at an outdoor restaurant, looking at the boats slipping by on the Bosphorus.

This is a place you can immerse yourself in for a whole day (at the risk of being overwhelmed) or take in small chunks, stopping for refreshment and a million dollar view. And, take it from me, it’s the perfect setting to spark imaginings that might just take the form of a category romance.

Have you visited a place that inspired you to dream exotic stories of romance and seduction? Or where the ghosts of the past seemed so real you could almost reach out and touch them?

Parts of Topkapi Palace inspired Annie when creating Middle Eastern palaces for her stories. Gazing at fabulous jewels, secluded courtyards and luxurious pavilions was great research!

Annie’s thrilled to have two books available now. THE DESERT KING’S PREGNANT BRIDE is an April Presents Extra release in North America and BLACKMAILED BRIDE, INNOCENT WIFE is available online now before its release in UK stores on 1 May. You can read excerpts from both on her website.


  1. Oh, Annie, your post makes me want to hop a plane to Turkey pronto! What a marvellous column. Thank you! I love what you say about the palace feeling so loved in and that you could feel the ghosts of the place crowding around you as you toured. Somewhere that happened to me was another masterpiece of Islamic architecture, the Alhambra in Granada which is one of the most romantic places I've ever been. We were lucky as we were there very early in the season, early spring. I imagine a lot of the atmosphere would be spoilt by millions of tourists stomping around the gilded halls. But wandering around it when it was virtually empty and you could hear the tinkling fountains in the courtyards was an amazing experience.

  2. Hi Anna, lovely to see you here!

    I've never been to the Alhambra and would love to visit. All the pictures I've seen of it are terrific.

    Topkapi is one of my favourite places. Possibly because I'd read a lot about the sultans and their families and servants in the past. It was quite incredible exploring there. As you say, managing to avoid the hordes makes it easier to immerse yourself in the past, doesn't it?

    I count myself lucky I've been to Istanbul and I'd jump at the chance to go again.


  3. Annie I'm so jealous, it sounds absolutely amazing. I've only been to a tourist resort in Turkey, I'd love to go to Istanbul. You've just made me move it up my list of places to go!
    And I'm already imaging reading the fruits of all the inspiration!
    x Abby Green

  4. Abby, you'd love it. It's just amazing, and you're right about inspiration. I've delved into memories of that place time and again. Hope you make it there one day. Would love to hear what you make of it.


  5. Annie, the palace sound wonderful. Actually, Turkey sounds wonderful. I love the name Istanbul (but then I love the names Constantinople and Byzantium too!).

    I so want to visit now. And, uh... I LOVE emeralds. Could someone pass me that dagger please?

    Thanks for such an interesting post!


  6. Oh, Anne, I too want to jump on a plane right now and head for the palace! Thanks for the inspiration.

    The historic district of Savannah, Georgia, is one of the most romantic cities I've visited. Maybe because we got married there. We later found it's one of the most haunted places in America and that our wedding photos include an apparition. I probably touched Casper without realising it!

  7. Michelle, the names there are fascinating, aren't they?

    So you're another emerald lover are you? I hadn't realised. You'd love the museum there. You know the saying about rubies as big as pigeon's eggs? I think it came from there!

  8. Authorness,

    That's fascinating. I wonder why Savannah is so haunted? How amazing about your wedding pic having a ghost! I take it he/it didn't spoil the occasion.