The hamams of a palace

When you travel to Turkey the thought of a hamam, a public bath, cannot be far from your mind. After all, so much has been written about them in guide books and blogs! So when I came to the hamam of the queen mother (Valide sultan) in the harem of the Topkapi palace, I was really intrigued. This was the chamber of one of the rulers of the Ottoman empire; the Valide sultan could give orders to the vazir (the chief minister).

From the gilded screen fencing off the bath (featured photo), to the amazingly decorative niches in the wall, and the marble basin with gold highlights, everything fitted the picture one has of Ottoman royalty. Hamams typically had a hot room with dry hot air where one would sit in order to perspire, this would be followed by a bath in which water is splashed on the body, and then a period of relaxation in a cool room.

I found it interesting to compare the hamam of the queen with that of the Janissaries. They were elite Ottoman troops, and their quarters are highly decorative. The baths, however, were plain and utilitarian, as you can see in the photos above. While I was wondering about the plumbing, The Family asked, “Why are the basins so low?” It is a question with no answer until now.


The delightful doors of Topkapi

We bought our tickets to the Topkapi palace inside the first courtyard, and entered the second courtyard through an imposing gateway (featured photo) called Orta Kapi. This is Turkish for a very prosaic name: middle gate. The gate is as impressive as it looks here, with the two Byzantine-looking towers standing over it. The calligraphy on either side of the doorway is the ornate calligraphic seal (tughra) of sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Constantinople in 1452 CE and started building the Topkapi palace in 1459.

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Topkapi is not a single palace, but a complex of palaces built over the next three centuries. I found it slow going, because it is so ornate that you pause to take in the details of various rooms and pavilions you pass through. Like most Islamic art, the colourful tiles, the beautiful geometric designs of inlaid wood or lattice work, and the variations on domes and arches, are what catch the eye. But here one can see a succession of building materials, and discoveries in geometry. One example was the use of a fivefold symmetry on some doors. It seemed to have been invented in the mid-17th century, and retro-fitted into several doors. The more common three, four, and six-fold symmetries can be seen everywhere.

I end with a view of the Bosphorus from the fourth courtyard of the palace. This was my first view of the doorway between the Mediterranean and Black seas, and between Europe and Asia. The overcast sky was very dramatic. As I took photos, the mournful bass hoots of ferries was counterpointed by the mewing of gulls as they flew over us. This must be the most memorable part of the soundscape of Istanbul.

The library of the inner palace

The early 18th century was called the Tulip Period in the Ottoman empire. This era was the rule of sultan Ahmed III, a peaceful time where many changes began to take place. Printing presses, art, culture, trade, and a turn towards Europe are now not as easily remembered as the craze for tulips which gives the era its name. The Library of Sultan Ahmed (Enderûn library) in the third courtyard of Topkapi palace is said to be one of the outstanding examples of the architecture of this time. When I entered, my first impression was of light and openness, perfect for sitting down and reading (featured photo).

The number of shelves was not very large. This probably means that printing was not yet a major industry. In England at that time, the Bodelian library had entered into an agreement with printers by which a copy of every printed book came to the library, resulting in a rapid increase in its holdings. My audio guide told me that the sultan collected all the books in the Topkapi palace and brought them here to safeguard them, while making also making them easy to access.

The dome stood on an octagonal base, and was beautifully decorated. The large expanse of white and the gold paint was part of what made the library look so full of light. Apparently the extensive use of flowers in the painted patterns is a hallmark of the Tulip Period (1718 CE to 1730). It is not impossible that the library, built in 1718, influenced the art and architecture of this era fairly strongly. The light fixture that you see in the photo above was also very distinctive.

Taking books out of the library was forbidden. So a major purpose of the library seemed to be to bring together, and maintain, an imperial collection of books. To this end manuscripts were brought here from the harem, the inner treasury, and the privy room treasury. The large number of windows and doors ensured rapid circulation of air, and controlled damp. One has to climb a short flight of stairs to get to the library. If you step back to look at the building then you notice that the lower floor also has many windows. This well-ventilated basement is another technique for keeping the library dry in order to preserve the holding. Subsequent sultans kept adding to the collection, and all of it was removed to the Palace Museum Library in 1966.

I was surprised to find that sultan Ahmed erected the library over a structure called the Pool Pavilion. This had been designed and built almost a hundred and fifty years earlier by the Ottoman genius of an architect: Mimar Sinan. Istanbul is studded with buildings ascribed to him, so this was not a disaster. Nevertheless I had a faint twinge of disappointment when I read this.

In front of Enderûn library is a drinking fountain. This was built at the same time as the library. The elaborate blue and orange decorations are also said to be typical of the Tulip Period. Unfortunately it was blocked off for tourists. I needed some water, and it turned out The Family had not forgotten to carry a bottle.

To eat like a Sultan

We’d decided to take an audio guide to the Topkapi palace, but the kiosk in the second courtyard had run out of them, and took a while to get a few back from the return area. The kiosk was near the kitchens, so we decided to walk into them. There are parts of a palace which a minister or sultan would never have set foot in. The kitchen is likely to be one of these. I took perverse pleasure in spending time in this area, first built along with the rest of the palace by sultan Mehmet, and later expanded by Suleiman the Magnificent. It turned out to be an interesting place.

Posters in the kitchens told us how formal and regimented life in the palace was. Sultan Mehmet had laid down very strict rules, including one that said that the sultan has to eat alone. There were also laws about the hierarchy of servants who conveyed the meals from the kitchen to the Sultan. Amazingly no sultan is known to have eaten with another person from 1477 CE until Abdülaziz dined with crown prince Edward VII of England sometime in the 1870s. The result is that the preferences of various sultans can only be inferred from account ledgers. The cooks who worked away in these kitchens with the tall chimneys above them probably passed on details of the sultan’s likes and dislikes orally, because no written recipes have been found.

Although we know little about what the Ottoman sultans ate, on display here one finds a lot about how the sultans ate. The glazed Chinese plate with the 18th century gold Ottoman cover of the featured photo was one of the striking pieces displayed here. The clutch of ewers on display was definitely Ottoman. They were used to wash hands before and after meals. Note the bowl and the towel in the display. Hands had to be placed above the bowl while an attendant poured water over them.

I was struck by this beautiful leaf-shaped plate. If it was Indian it would definitely have held palate cleansers like paan or candied fennel seed. I don’t recall an explanation of what the plate could have been used for in the Topkapi palace. Could it have been sweets: the syrupy lokma, or the forerunner of Turkish delight, macun? The 18th century food carrier brought up a question of who it would have been used by. The population of the palace was large, and some of the lower officials could have been served from this. Food which was taken from the kitchen to the royals was re-heated before serving, if needed. I’m sure that was carried in larger amounts. It would not do to run out of food if the Sultan wanted more.

It’s all in the details

We thought we would spend a leisurely afternoon walking through the Topkapi Palace, but it became more hectic than we had expected. The building of the palace started in 1450 CE, soon after the sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul, and continued until the 17th century. The result is that there is a lot to see, and three hours may feel a little rushed. It is hard to make sense of the palace complex as a whole (a feeling I’ve also had in the Forbidden City in Beijing, and also in the palaces of India), so it is best to concentrate on parts separately. Today I thought I would post a few photos of the Imperial Hall (Hünkâr Sofası) in the harem.

The harem was the private palace of the Sultan and his family, and was controlled by the Queen Mother (Valide Sultan). Like in Indian palaces, the Topkapi Palace had multiple throne rooms, and the one here was for private audience. It was built in the 16th century, burnt down in the fire of 1666, and rebuilt immediately after that. The side gallery (featured photo), where the family sat, is an example of this. The Delft tiles and the Venetian mirror in the photo above was added in the 18th century, The gilded sofa was a present from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. I have no idea where the tall Chinese vases came from, and no photo of the gilded clock donated by Queen Victoria.

The central dome of the room is supposed to be the largest in the palace complex. In this view you can see the incredibly ornamental interior of the dome. This is original, from the rococo style redecoration of sultan Osman III, executed immediately after the fire. I looked up at it until I got a crick in the neck. The Family was engaged in a minute inspection of the tiles. This is a room which reflects the aesthetics of the whole palace: a single look cannot encompass it, you really have to examine the details.

In that spirit, I stop with details of two sets of tiles that caught my eye. This trip was my first exposure to Ottoman ceramics. It seemed to me that the first step in recognizing Iznik tiles could be to examine the bright cobalt blue, white, and red colours under a hard colourless glaze. I would get to see more of these tiles in coming days.

Window shopping

On my first day in Istanbul I had to stop every few steps to look in at the windows of sweet shops. The Family wanted to get to the Topkapi Palace at a reasonable time, and my distraction wasn’t helping.

I couldn’t stop to taste, so I did the next best thing: take a few photos. I always thought that halwa, Turkish Delight, was the main Turkish sweet. I was only just beginning to find that was a false impression. The commonest sweet in Istanbul seemed to be baklava.

Art in an ancient city

After a week seeing the natural wonders of Turkey, and the ruins of ancient cities, I thought I’d forgotten what a living city feels like. When I got off the taxi in the middle of bustling Eminönü, it felt like jumping into the shockingly cold water of a Finnish sauna. A moment of shock, and then it was wonderful. An exhibition of photos at Istanbul’s new airport had introduced me to the work of the photographer Ara Güler. As I walked through the exhibition (a selection in the gallery below; for a better view follow the link), I realized that many photos of Istanbul are influenced by his vision.

Walking through the streets I realized that Istanbul has superb street art. I’ll have more to say about this later, but a sampler is the featured photo. It could be an early Braque were it not for the fact that it was a guerilla work in a boarded off lot in Eminönü.


From the sunwashed ruins of ancient Greek towns to one of the world’s major cities, the transition was stark. After a week in small towns and villages, Istanbul was a delight: the crowds, the bad traffic, loud noises. It was like coming home! Our hotel was closer to the Topkapi Palace than I’d realized.

So we had a quick lunch at a kabab shop outside the hotel and walked up a massive gate which was the entrance to the park known as Gülhane, rose garden in translation. Lavender was in bloom (featured photo). This was more interesting than roses for us, since lavender does not grow in India. And then we discovered an interesting fountain!

Cleopatra’s pool

The hot water of Pamukkale was gathered into indoor pools in antiquity. The story that Cleopatra swam in this pool cannot be verified, although you can now pay to relax in it. She is known to have visited Tarsus and Antioch, far to the east of Hierapolis, and Rome, very far to the west. I think it is unlikely that she took time off from survival politics to come to this place. Most tourists don’t care too much for this story either, and prefer the natural pools on the white cliffs (photo above). They are attracted more by the geothermally heated waters, ie, the geology, than the history.

For good reason. The deep geology of Anatolia is amazing and recent. Just after India, Italy, and Spain collided with the newly forming Eurasian continent and pushed up the Himalayas, Alps, and the Pyrenees, the Tethys seaway was a continuous strip of sea that joined the Mediterranean to the Indian ocean. Between 20 and 10 million years ago, Africa and Arabia pushed north to cut off the Tethys sea.

As a result, the sea bed was pushed above the Eurasian continental plate, forming the Anatolian plateau. The Aral, the Black, and the Caspian seas are the last remnants of Tethys. The closing of the Tethys sea also created the major temperature fluctuations of the last 20 millions years or so, causing huge extinctions, and clearing the way for the rise of modern day mammals and birds. The continuing northward movement of Arabia, and the southwestern movement of the Aegean sea bottom still squeezes Anatolia, making this one of the most geologically active regions on the globe.

This activity not only pushed up the plateau on which ancient Hierapolis stood, but also created the fissures, called faults, which run through it. The raising of the plateau creates a cliff which faces the modern village of Pamukkale, Rain water and snow seep through the crust, are heated underground, and emerge again at various places on the plateau to form these hot springs. The waters are loaded with minerals of various kinds which deposit as the water cools. The flow of water down the cliff has formed these immense terraces of limestone called Travertine.

I’d only seen photos of white Travertine terraces, filled with pools of water. But actually there are various colours to be seen. This is natural, since the water coming out of the earth must have more than just lime in it. These other minerals give the limestone its colour. You can also see in these photos the interesting variety of textures in these deposits. I waited till a little before sunset to take these photos. Then, as the air cooled, The Family and I found our way out of the plateau through the south gate, and came down to the village.

Plutonium in Hierapolis

Passing through the city of the dead, the Necropolis, we would enter Hierapolis through the triple arched northern gate (featured photo), erected in 84 CE, when the town was rebuilt after a major earthquake, to welcome the Roman emperor Domitian. From there a kilometer long path would lead into the city where I really wanted to see the Plutonium.

But between the Necropolis and the gate there was a structure which was probably in danger of collapsing, and was fenced off from tourists. This was the Roman bath, which welcomed travelers to clean themselves after their journey and before entering the city. It is said to have been built in the 2nd century CE, and was converted into a Byzantine basilica a couple of hundred years later. It is interesting that the Romans would oil themselves before a bath, and then would remove the oil with scrapers and water while taking a bath. They picked up the idea of using cakes of animal fat as soap from barbarians. By the time this city was rebuilt, soap would have been common. After walking past the bath/basilica I realized that the fencing could have been prompted by UNESCO, whose listing of this site as a world heritage notes that the biggest conservation concern for Hierapolis is visitors.

Just inside the gate, to our left were the public toilets. The last one which we had seen was in Ephesus. There one had to guess at the structure because the walls had fallen down long ago. This one was fairly intact for a two thousand year old structure. You could see the remnants of the stalls. We’d noticed underground pipes along the road as we walked past the Necropolis. I guess that in the usual Roman fashion, water and sanitation was a major design criterion. The Romans may not have understood the microscopic reasons behind diseases, but they had enough experience to make sure that sanitation was good enough to minimize the chances of outbreaks of diseases. The baths and the toilets, so close to the city gates, were clear signals of their understanding of these principles of health.

The buildings on the other side of the road no longer stood. Some arches columns were still upright, but the rest of the structures had been reduced to foundations. Typically, there would be a market this close to the gate. The more elaborate columns at the back would have been the beginning of the city proper. There was not much to see here, and I walked rapidly through the rest of the long city looking for my target. It turned out to be away from the baths and the travertine cliffs, towards the distance where the theatre stood. I’d already seen several ruined theatres, so I wasn’t planning to walk up to it.

The Plutonium was dedicated to the god of the underworld. It is a grotto near the temple of Apollo (photo above) which emits steam and other gases from the fault beneath the horst of Hierapolis. It is said that the priests of Cybele could approach this opening to the underworld on their bellies, descend part of the way, and often come back alive. There are no priests today, and the whole area was fenced off. The hot springs that flow here are due to rainwater seeping into the faults, and then being forced out. The city is built on top of a geological fault which has slipped by a meter and a half since the late Roman times. Looking at a geological map of the fault zone I realize that the Plutonium was on it. The Romans were right, it was a glimpse into the true underworld. Unfortunately it was closed off.