Topkapı Palace, this palace was a setting for numerous and important state occasions and royal
entertainments and is a major tourist attraction as well. Today, it houses the most holy relics of the
Muslim world such as the Prophet Muhammed’s cloak and sword.
Topkapi may be considered a trans-cultural focal point in which a holistic civilization was created from
the nomadic culture of Turkish tribesmen whose forefathers had set out from Central Asia and reached
Asia Minor with stopovers in Persia and Mesopotamia. Within the historically short period of two centuries, the Ottomans rose from a small, feudal principality to become a major world power, yet
at the same time they possessed a court tradition and culture of their own that was over a thousand
years old. Undoubtedly, Topkapi involved a synthesis of Byzantine elements but what grew up on the
peninsula by the Golden Horn cannot possibly be divorced from its predecessors in Ottoman history.
With their conquest of Bursa in 1326, the Ottomans developed a new concept of a palace situated
within a citadel in their new capital. Although no definite historical information is available about
this palace’s formal and functional organization, it may be assumed that it was here that the social
organization and components of future palaces were shaped.
Palaces evolving around courtyards in the course of their historical development existed in both oriental
and occidental cultures long before the Ottoman experiment. Spatial organization principles considering
courtyards as “unit spaces” constituted a common design vocabulary that quite often was implemented
as both an integrating and segregating spatial constraint.
The use of walls and courtyards and of clear and strong transitions between and among them is one
way of expressing domains. The spatial system of a palace (or of any other structure for that matter) is
an expression of a human behavioral system. In this context, unwanted behavior and interaction that
can be prevented (or controlled) through rules (manners, hierarchies, avoidance) can be reinforced
through architecture that creates areas (zones) that are arranged hierarchically and occupied by various
groups creating a balance of power among them, which in turn makes it possible to create the “system”
through which group identities are formed, maintained, and integrated.
These individual requirements led to the formation of homogeneous, self-contained clusters that
evolved around smaller courtyards since this was dictated by the formative systems of the social and
functional groups, corps, classes, and institutions that occupied them. These clusters are not isolated,
however, but are linked to and aligned with the main courtyards creating a self- contained microcosm
that perfectly mirrors the state it housed.
Today, Topkapi Palace functions as a museum and only a very small part of its original domain and
environment can be appreciated. The ravages of time have resulted in the destruction and the
demolition (through new building) of many of its original structures. Despite this, the original 15th
century spatial organization based on a triple courtyard order that integrates, segregates, and defines
the palace’s residential, ceremonial, and functional requirements has remained remarkably intact.