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The Topkapi Palace, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and the Magic of Ottoman Constantinople (later Istanbul)


Books about Constantinople, Byzantium, Istanbul, Suleiman, and the Ottomans









Sultan Mehmet II “The Conqueror” (1429 - 1451 - 1481 (52))


Reigned from 1451 to 1481 as the seventh in the line of ten outstandingly talented Ottoman rulers, starting with Osman (1259-1326 (67)), who set up the Ottoman Empire.  He captured Constantinople in 1453, bringing to an end the 1,100 year Eastern Roman Empire (known to history but not to its participants as the Byzantine Empire), established there by Constantine in the year 324.  The city was rebuilt as the capital of an empire which lasted for nearly another 500 years until 1922.  Its name was only changed officially to Istanbul in 1930, although unofficially it had been known as Istanbul by the Turks since before the times of Mehmet.


This 1480 painting is by the Venetian painter  Gentile Bellini (1429 - 1507)

(brother of Giovanni, who was more into Madonnas).

Unlike Titian, Bellini actually did visit the Court of the Sultan in Constantinople.

However, the provenance of this little National Gallery (London) painting is not clear,

especially considering the fact that it has been completely repainted.






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The portrait of Mehmet II on the left comes from this amazing high quality good value 35x28cm book of Islamic narrative art, one of our treasures.  The painting is attributed to Siblizade Ahmed and can be found in the Topkapi Museum.


Barbarossa (c1465 - 1546 (81))


Mehmet forged a relationship with Barbarossa (c1465 - 1546 (81)), a Greek who had converted to Islam with the name Khair ad-Din,  to cement Ottoman control of the Southern Mediterranean.  Barbarossa, a military genius comparable to the best that history has produced, went on to consolidate control of the entire Mediterranean for Mehmet's successors Beyazit II, Selim I and Suleiman I.  Amongst many other conquests, he took the Puglian port of Otranto in 1537.


This miniature painting is from the official archives of the Suleiman reign, and shows the Sultan receiving Barbarossa. 


The Turkish dominance set up by Barbarossa did not outlast him by many years - on 7 October 1571 the Turkish fleet was soundly and permanently beaten by the combined forces of Venice, the Pope and Spain at the Battle of Lepanto - the last major naval battle between oared vessels.



Admiral Piri Re'is (Piri Ibn Haji Memmed,  c1470 - 1554 (84))


It was another Turkish Admiral and cartographic buff, Piri Re'is (Piri Ibn Haji Memmed,  c1470 - 1554), who produced one of the most extraordinary documents known today.   It is half of a world map (the other half being missing) with annotated comments, dated 1513 and drawn on a gazelle hide (large sheets of paper were not around then),  that  was discovered during restoration work on the Topkapi Palace in 1929.    The comments indicate that the map is a synthesis of a number of source maps held in the old Imperial Library of Constantinople, some possibly from the famous ancient Library of Alexandria and dating back to the three hundreds BC or earlier. 


The "Piri Re'is" map shows the West coast of Africa, the East coast of South America, and (it is claimed) the North (land) coast of Antarctica, all in amazingly accurate detail.  It is the last of these which if true is the most extraordinary, because the last time the Antarctic coastline was visible (i.e. before it got covered by ice and snow) was before 4000BC.  It took the modern sonar resources of the US military to confirm that the map does indeed seem to follow the underlying land coastline.   The mystery does not end there, because it is claimed that the accuracy of the map and its projection (centring on Alexandria) means that the ancient mapmakers must have known a lot of maths, and been able to calculate longitude (East-West position) accurately.  This was a skill unknown to the classic and medieval worlds - in fact it was thought to have been made possible only after the second half of the seventeen hundreds when the Englishman John Harrison made a sufficiently accurate maritime clock.


As you might expect the above interpretations have been been both disputed and also augmented with a lot of "lost civilization" speculation  (one of the the main drivers of this being Charles Hapgood and his book "Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings").  It could also be linked to the claimed Chinese explorations of the early fourteen hundreds (see Gavin Menzies' book "1421").



Link to Piri Re'is "View of Venice" 1525



Piri Reis World Map 1513 - link to larger image



The Sultanhamet area of Istanbul - The Blue Mosque is in the foreground, and behind is is Justinian's "Greatest Church in Christendom" - Santa Sophia.  The Topkapi Palace occupies the rest of the peninsular - a sprawling complex built over the centuries around a series of large courtyards. Nothing remains of the Byzantine Imperial Palace, which was located around the area of the Blue Mosque, except for some mosaic flooring that has been uncovered near the long shed structure right of centre at the bottom of the photo.  The waterway to the left is the Golden Horn, and at the top is the start of the Bosphorus.



Sultan Suleiman I (1494 - 1520 - 1566 (72)) “The Magnificent” and “The Law Giver” reigned for 46 years from 1520 as the tenth and greatest ruler of the Ottoman Empire.  His father, Selim I ("the Grim"), who ruled from 1512 to 1520, had conquered Egypt and become the first Ottoman Sultan to also take the title of Caliph.   Selim had all of Suleiman’s brothers and close male relatives put to death, thus ensuring a smooth succession (this practice was legally recognized in the Ottoman Empire).  Luckily, he chose the right guy to keep alive.


During Suleiman’s long rule (which was also the time in which the Nation State structure of Europe was firming up) the geographic bounds of the Ottoman Empire reached what proved to be their maximum extent.  The Ottomans controlled the Mediterranean and in the North their armies knocked on the gates of Vienna (but did not get in) after overrunning Hungary, and Habsburg Emperor Charles V was humiliated into signing the Treaty of Constantinople.   In the East he reached Tabriz and conquered Baghdad in 1534 - the Baghdad Pavilion in the Topkapi Palace was built to celebrate this victory.


Outside of hands-on generalship, Suleiman "The Law Giver" drove the development of a legal system which codified the rights and duties of all the citizens of his huge domains.  He promoted art and architecture, and was himself no mean poet, often writing of his love for his chief wife - Roxelana.


 This arresting portrait is a contemporary artist's workshop

 copy of one (now vanished) painted by another Venetian artist

Titian (1487 - 1576),  sometime between 1530 and 1550.

Despite its apparent realism, Titian never came face to face with Suleiman.





Roxelana (aka Hurrem) (1500 - 1558 (58)) rose from being a concubine in the imperial harem to Suleiman's very powerful chief wife.  Thought to be of Russian origin, she was also the first consort permitted to live within the walls of the Topkapi Palace.  (She moved there 'temporarily' whilst the old Harem was being renovated, and then refused to move back).


Roxelana stopped at nothing to get her own way.  When Suleiman's Grand Vizier and friend from youth, Ibrahim Pasa, became a threat to her position, she persuaded the sultan to have him strangled.  Later, Roxelana performed her coup de grace.  In 1553 she persuaded Suleiman to have his handsome and popular son and heir, Mustafa, murdered by deaf mutes to clear the way for her own son Selim to inherit the throne.


The origin of this painting is unknown and in any case,

like a Venetian woodcut of Roxelana, it is certain to be apocryphal.



Selim II “The Sot”, who reigned from 1566 to 1574, was Roxelana’s son and Suleiman’s successor (after she had organized the murder of the popular and talented Mustafa, his oldest son but by another wife).  Unlike his predecessors, Selim was neither general nor statesman, preferring drinking and harem life to the affairs of state.  Into this power vacuum stepped his principal wife Nur Banu (actually an Italian from Venice - really!), who took over effective power as the first of three chief wives / regent mothers in the so called ‘Sultanate of Women’ which lasted for several decades - the others being Kösem and her daughter in law and murderer Turhan.  Corruption and intrigue became endemic, and after Selim’s death Nur Banu is said to have kept her son, Murat III (reigned 1574-1595), distracted by the women of the harem so that she could maintain her control over imperial affairs.



Selim II "The Sot" - portrait by "Nigari" in the Topkapi Museum and the Masterpieces Book above.



The Blue Mosque (at dawn) - called blue because of the blue Iznik tilework which dominates its interior.  Built on the site of the earlier Byzantine Palace to the design of Imperial Architect Mehmet Aga in 1609 -16, after which several of the stonemasons moved off to Agra in India to help with the Taj Mahal.


The Süleymaniye Mosque, built between 1550-57 to the design of the great architect Sinan, and the final resting place of Suleiman the Magnificent.


The Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent


Tughras - The Ottoman Imperial Chancellery in Istanbul issued some of the most magnificent official documents ever produced by any civil service.  Important documents were surmounted with the Sultan’s Tughra  - his official monogram, always elaborately and intricately decorated. 


The Tughra consisted of the Sultan’s name and that of his father (here Suleiman and Selim Shah) and usually the attribute ‘al-muzaffar da’iman’ - ‘ever victorious’. 


Only the ‘S’ shaped lines at the top, on the so-called ‘tigh’ are purely decorative, the remaining strokes being part of the name and attribute.  A wooden block stamp would often be used for less important everyday documents. 


Wonderful representations of Tughras are to be seen on many of the walls and portals in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. 



And then there are the tiled and gilt finishes of the legendary Topkapi Palace itself, and the views ......


Turkish miniature painting


 is amongst the most detailed of the eastern miniature traditions, with plenty of gold leaf for scenes involving Sultans!  The three miniatures shown below are in the Topkapi Palace Museum.



"Suleiman the Magnificent hunting with Foreign Envoys".  Taken from Lokman's "Hunername" (book of accomplishments) 1584 - 1588.


"Suleiman the Magnificent, taken ill during the Szigetvar Campaign, is helped by his Grand Vizier to dismount his horse and go into his carriage".  Suleiman died on 7 September 1566 whilst besieging Sziget in Hungary.





"Sultan Selim - riding between Kutahya and Belgrade, en route to join the Imperial Army (1568-69)".  This painting is from Ahmet Feridun Pasa’s “an account of secret events on the campaign of Szigetvar” dated 1568-69.

Jewelled Topkapi Dagger

And, of course, no visit to the Topkapi Palace would be complete without sighting the famous jewelled dagger - dangling from a gold chain behind chunky sheets of armoured glass.   On the right, some turban accessories.










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This is the catalogue from a British Museum exhibition staged in 1988


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