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Topkapi Palace + Archaeology Museums

Tuesday 18th May

We had realised the night before that the Topkapi Palace isn't open on Tuesdays, so we thought we had screwed up and missed out on seeing it (unless we got a chance at the end of the trip). But we headed off to the Topkapi complex anyway, to visit the archaeology museums.

When we got to Topkapi there there were flocks of school girls, some all in black, some with coloured headscarves, and others going in, so we went over to the ticket counter and discovered it was open after all, because it was going to close the next day for a national holiday. This meant that not only did we get to see the palace, but we got to do it with no real crowds at all!

Topkapi gardens, approaching the palace
a witches coven?
the Topkapi library

There are various rooms of "treasures", showcasing the memorabilia the Ottomans collected over the centuries. This includes religious relics such as beards of the prophet, cases for mantles of the prophet and earth from Medina, garish jewelry, weapons and military awards given to (one of the more martial?) sultans by the rulers of Russia, France, and so forth. And there are some nice buildings and good views over the Bosphorus or Golden Horn in places, but overall the complex was a bit disappointing, lacking a real unifying vision.

a "kiosk" (the origin of the English word)
Topkapi Palace

We had lunch in the (overpriced) restaurant, which did at least have good views, and then visited the Harem (which was an extra 15 lira). There were some nice rooms here — the nicest by Sinan, as usual — but most of it was fairly run-down and/or garish.

a restaurant under the Blue Mosque
After that Gabi went back to the hotel while I wandered through the Astana Bazaar area — possibly the most touristy area of Istanbul — and had lunch in a back yard restaurant where I could look up at the Blue Mosque while eating.

In the afternoon we went back to Topkapi to visit the archaeology museums. We started with the Museum of the Ancient Orient, which has middle-eastern antiquities — Egyptian, Sumerian, Hittite, etc. These include some striking pieces, but the British Museum and the Ashmolean have very similar material, with better interpretive displays. The second was the small but fascinating Tiled Kiosk, which has displays of the different periods of Ottoman ceramics.

detail from a relief in the Sidon Necropolis
We left to last the largest of the museums, the Archaeology Museum, which was the most exciting by far. We started with the reliefs and sarcophagi from the Sidon Necropolis, some of which are really striking, dramatic tableaux; these were so impressive we barely had time to look at anything else. There's a floor of displays on the Roman and Byzantine archaeology of Constantinople. There's a floor of displays on the history of Troy and Anatolia. And there's a floor of Lebanese/Syrian/Cyprian displays which I never got to at all!

an Ottoman mausoleum
Leaving Topkapi we looked at some of the Ottoman mausoleums in the Aya Sofya complex.

For dinner we wandered up Divan Yolu — the "main drag" — and ended up in a "Mexican" restaurant — except that we had Turkish dishes and ignored the separate Mexican menu, and ended up with an excellent meal — I had eggplant kebab, which is eggplant interspersed with lamb.

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