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TOPKAPI SARAYI

 
 
President of Topkapı Palace aims to ‘restore soul of palace’

Todays Zaman / Sevgi Akarçeşme

The president of Topkapı Palace, Professor Haluk Dursun, says his goal is to “restore the soul of the palace” by reviving certain traditions in the historic palace that for centuries served as the only residence and center of administration of the Ottoman Empire in İstanbul.

As a self-described romantic, he describes the move from Topkapı to other palaces as a “great betrayal.” In terms of preservation of the historic and cultural heritage in İstanbul, he believes that the damage is done and says that the “best thing to do for İstanbul is to do nothing [new to the city].” As far as the depiction of the harem in TV shows is concerned, Dursun says that contrary to the way it is often shown on TV, the harem was very private and no men aside from the sultan were allowed in the family areas of the palace.

An avid admirer of İstanbul and Ottoman culture, Dursun become president of Topkapı Palace in July 2012. He says the palace “should not be a museum based only on objects. We should be able to tell people about daily life in a palace. They should understand what kind of a place they are visiting.”

Dursun says with emotion, “When members of the Ottoman dynasty request a meeting with me, I tell them: You are the grandchildren of a generation that left Topkapı Palace and preferred the Dolmabahçe and Yıldız palaces instead.” According to him, the journey of the Ottoman state runs parallel to Topkapı Palace in terms of modernization. Until Mahmud II, there was a palace where the traditional structure was dominant and a traditional architecture and lifestyle. Following Sultan Abdülmecid, “a more global, European dynasty lifestyle was started in Dolmabahçe, something you would also see at the Palace of Versailles,” says Dursun.

“I call the neglect of Topkapı Palace the great betrayal that killed the soul of the palace, beginning with Mahmud II,” he argues. As he sees it, Topkapı Palace turned into an abandoned summer house, a palace without the sultan and his family that lost its features. When the royal family left Topkapı, all classical life ended. Even the traditional architecture of the palace says a lot, according to Dursun.

“All the gates symbolize something here. First, there is the gate of the state [Bab-ı Hümayun], then there is the gate of peace [Bab-üs Selam] and finally the gate of happiness [Bab-üs Saadet]. This is how Topkapı Palace should be understood,” he says.

He provides detailed examples: “A prayer asking for good kısmet, or good fortune in the future, and in particular a husband, is inscribed on all the gates of the harem. A woman in the harem did not necessarily become the wife of the sultan, but she married after she left the harem. On the gates of the quarters of the Janissaries is written that victory is granted by God. It reminds the soldier of that fact every time he passes through that gate. Ahmed III himself wrote most of the calligraphy on the gates. The sultan himself wrote that God is the greatest helper. These are practices that changed in the new palaces.”

Palace privy garden to be restored

Pointing out the forgotten significance of the gardens in Ottoman life and particularly in the palace, Dursun says: “In our society, the palace and every other place always had a garden. The private palace garden is called a privy garden [hasbahçe]. Gülhane is the garden outside the palace. Contrary to what many assume, Gülhane was not today’s park with that name, only established in 1912, but it refers to a private rose garden. Several varieties of rose were grown there, as well as being the source for rose oil and rose water produced to be used in the palace, harem and the palace hospital, for its disinfectant quality.”

“More importantly, the sacred mantle of the Prophet is stored here. When there was a high-ranking visitor, the whole area was washed with rose water while the sultan supervised. All the important guests were served rose water, which created a high demand for roses in the palace. We were not able to tell anyone this aspect of life in Topkapı Palace.”

This is an important palace tradition. The sacred mantle of the Prophet Muhammad is brought out only on the 15th day of Ramadan and displayed to a limited number of invitees according to the royal protocol list.

Speaking of the Sacred Trusts, several relics of the Prophet Muhammad are still housed at the palace. Dursun says it is one of the newest displays in the museum and receives a lot of interest from the Muslim world. “International relations directly influence cultural relations; even national politics influence cultural relations. Good relations with the Islamic world attract attention to the fields of Islamic culture in Turkey. We see it clearly in the Sacred Trusts section,” says Dursun. He has observed a decrease in the number of tourists from Iran, Israel and Syria as a result of the status of formal international relationships, while there has been an increase in the number of visitors from Palestine and North Africa.

‘I am able to say things a foreign minister cannot thanks to cultural heritage’

“I consider Topkapı Palace and Hagia Sophia very important for cultural diplomacy,” says Dursun as he adds that he personally experienced its impact when he hosted people ranging from the pope to US President Barrack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “As the president of Topkapı Palace, I am able to say things that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu cannot,” he says. When he recently hosted the prime minister of Senegal, he instructed him on the Sacred Trusts and the associated rituals. “I told him about Ottoman history and geography country by country, which I call cultural diplomacy. It is this place that makes me do it,” Dursun adds.

On a question on whether the large crowds harm the palace, Dursun says yes without any hesitation, but adds that there is nothing to be done about it unless you limit the number of visitors. However, he adds that “the harm to the Hagia Sophia is greater, in terms of the harm done to the mosaics there.” In Topkapı, most of the items are preserved and protected behind glass.

When asked about the current status of the palace storage areas that were in poor condition a few years ago, Dursun says there has been a huge restoration effort. Fifteen separate departments are currently undergoing restoration. “The storage areas have been under renovation since 2005, but the work is not finished yet,” he says. Refraining from commenting on the past, Dursun says that “Turkey now allocates more money to its cultural heritage with the improvement in its economic situation,” and as the revenues brought in by the palace exhibits also increase. Topkapı Palace’s revenues are now approximately TL 50 million a year.

Saying that the ministry regularly inspects the palace, Dursun adds: “There are many valuable works of art in Topkapı Palace and they keep coming in through donations and seizures. There are over 10,000 Chinese ceramic pieces alone.” It is also important to maintain the condition of many of the fragile items, controlling the heat, humidity and exposure to light. For Dursun, sometimes it is better to keep certain items in storage than to display them.

Are the grounds of Topkapı Palace occupied illegally?

In response to a question regarding squatters’ houses on the grounds of Topkapı Palace, Dursun provides an extended answer. According to him, “In order to understand whether or not there the lands are occupied, we have to check the 700,000 square meter area which originally belonged to the Topkapı Palace compound.” Although the original boundaries of the palace were specific, the lower parts of the land were occupied by the soldiers and while the Ministry of Defense vacated the land on the Sea of Marmara, they still hold some buildings in the Sirkeci area. Similarly, the Directorate of Parks and Gardens of the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality is also located in the area which originally belonged to the palace. “These are the unknown squatter buildings that are built within the palace area,” says Dursun, and adds, “The biggest squatter building within the palace compound is the Archeology Museum.” He notes, too, that some government-subsidized housing buildings which looked like squatters were destroyed.

Dursun says taking back all the land that originally belonged to the palace should be a goal to pursue. He says the goal was established under former Minister of Culture Atilla Koç and a lot of progress was made by his successor, Ertuğrul Günay. Since current Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz served in the past as the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture, Dursun believes that his knowledge of both sides helped to see the Ministry of Defense vacate many areas in the compound.

“In an effort to restore the original flora of the palace garden, we bought 50 olive trees to plant by the Sea of Marmara. We also plant a lot of Judas trees,” says Dursun as he talks about the projects that are in progress. “Beginning in April you will be able to see thousands of tulips and hyacinths in the Topkapı Palace gardens,” Dursun informs İstanbulites.

‘The best thing for İstanbul to do is nothing, but it is too late’

A true lover of İstanbul and its culture, Dursun is concerned about the panorama and the silhouette of the city. He says they must be protected, although he adds that we are at an irreversible point now. “The best thing to do for İstanbul is to do nothing [new] to İstanbul,” says Dursun, as he admits that it is a dream to protect the city with its unique structure.

Dursun says that when he gets vocal in his criticisms of the Çamlıca mosque project, the new bridge on the Golden Horn and the Taksim Square barracks reconstruction, he hears resentment from his friends within the administration.

“The best thing to do in İstanbul is to protect the old İstanbul without any discrimination -- the Hagia Sophia, the Kariye Museum, the Süleymaniye Mosque -- and not to allow the construction of new buildings within their view that are taller,” says Dursun. He hopes that virtue triumphs over the appetite for more money, and referred to a similar discussion that took place in France. However, he believes that it is “too late” for İstanbul. He cites New York as an example, noting that high rise buildings are allowed only in Manhattan, as he resentfully says that in İstanbul we are surrounded by high rise buildings; what remains of old İstanbul must be protected and maintained.

Although he talks about a growing awareness of the need to preserve cultural heritage, Dursun believes that it takes more than keeping the museums in order. “To give specific examples, there should be good access between the hotels and the museum, the taxi driver should not cheat you; when you arrive in Sultanahmet, street vendors should not bother you; the food and beverages served in and around the museum must be hygienic, and so on. These are all interconnected.”

Women of harem went on military expeditions with sultan

Historian and Professor Haluk Dursun defines the harem as “the area in which the private life of a dynasty takes place in accordance with its worldview,” and he underlines the worldview part. He criticizes popular TV shows depicting the harem as a place where all the men of the Ottoman administration could enter. “I see on the TV shows today that everyone is allowed in the harem, like the vizier, which was just impossible in the Ottoman palace,” he says. He notes that even the akağalar who were in charge of the harem were allowed only until a certain point. They would knock on a door and a female kalfa would answer. The kalfa was like today’s director of protocol and was a medium for communication because women spoke only to other women in the harem.

Dursun described the harem as having four classes: The sultans (meaning the sultan himself, his mother, wife and children), the kalfalar (the providers of services for the women), the karağalar (the team that carried out the services) and the zülüflü baltacılar (bodyguards, in order of closeness to the family).

“Have you ever heard that there are two small mosques in the harem?” Dursun asks. Women prayed together under the leadership of the imam in the palace’s main mosque. It was made possible for women in the harem to hear the imam in the men’s mosque through a window. Currently, all eight mosques in the palace are used for museum storage.

Although women had their separate world in the harem and they could only leave for special occasions such as festivals and birth ceremonies, Dursun also mentions that women went on hunting and military expeditions for months with the sultans. “There are numerous women who gave birth during expeditions,” he says. However, according to Dursun, the traditional harem life ended with the construction of Dolmabahçe Palace and Yıldız Palace. “When craftsman Balyan [the Armenian architect] built the new harem, he put in windows overlooking the other buildings, which was not acceptable according to the harem mentality,” he points out.

Profile

Born in 1957 in Kocaeli, Haluk Dursun completed his undergraduate degree at İstanbul University’s department of literature. He received his doctoral degree from the Social Sciences Institute of Marmara University in 1994, where his doctoral dissertation was titled “Ottoman-British rivalry in the Middle East in the Sultan Abdülhamid II period.” He still teaches in Marmara University’s department of contemporary history. Dursun won a press award for his series of articles titled “Elveda Boğaziçi” (Farewell Bosporus), published in the Zaman daily in 1989. He received another award, the “Travel Writer Award,” from the Writers’ Union of Turkey (TYB) for his book “Nil’den Tuna’ya” (From the Nile to the Danube). He was the president of the Hagia Sophia Museum from 2006 to 2012. An avid admirer of İstanbul and Ottoman culture, Haluk Dursun has been the president of Topkapı Palace since July 2012.

The president of Topkapı Palace, Professor Haluk Dursun, says his goal is to “restore the soul of the palace” by reviving certain traditions in the historic palace that for centuries served as the only residence and center of administration of the Ottoman Empire in İstanbul.

As a self-described romantic, he describes the move from Topkapı to other palaces as a “great betrayal.” In terms of preservation of the historic and cultural heritage in İstanbul, he believes that the damage is done and says that the “best thing to do for İstanbul is to do nothing [new to the city].” As far as the depiction of the harem in TV shows is concerned, Dursun says that contrary to the way it is often shown on TV, the harem was very private and no men aside from the sultan were allowed in the family areas of the palace.

An avid admirer of İstanbul and Ottoman culture, Dursun become president of Topkapı Palace in July 2012. He says the palace “should not be a museum based only on objects. We should be able to tell people about daily life in a palace. They should understand what kind of a place they are visiting.”

Dursun says with emotion, “When members of the Ottoman dynasty request a meeting with me, I tell them: You are the grandchildren of a generation that left Topkapı Palace and preferred the Dolmabahçe and Yıldız palaces instead.” According to him, the journey of the Ottoman state runs parallel to Topkapı Palace in terms of modernization. Until Mahmud II, there was a palace where the traditional structure was dominant and a traditional architecture and lifestyle. Following Sultan Abdülmecid, “a more global, European dynasty lifestyle was started in Dolmabahçe, something you would also see at the Palace of Versailles,” says Dursun.

“I call the neglect of Topkapı Palace the great betrayal that killed the soul of the palace, beginning with Mahmud II,” he argues. As he sees it, Topkapı Palace turned into an abandoned summer house, a palace without the sultan and his family that lost its features. When the royal family left Topkapı, all classical life ended. Even the traditional architecture of the palace says a lot, according to Dursun.

“All the gates symbolize something here. First, there is the gate of the state [Bab-ı Hümayun], then there is the gate of peace [Bab-üs Selam] and finally the gate of happiness [Bab-üs Saadet]. This is how Topkapı Palace should be understood,” he says.

He provides detailed examples: “A prayer asking for good kısmet, or good fortune in the future, and in particular a husband, is inscribed on all the gates of the harem. A woman in the harem did not necessarily become the wife of the sultan, but she married after she left the harem. On the gates of the quarters of the Janissaries is written that victory is granted by God. It reminds the soldier of that fact every time he passes through that gate. Ahmed III himself wrote most of the calligraphy on the gates. The sultan himself wrote that God is the greatest helper. These are practices that changed in the new palaces.”

Palace privy garden to be restored

Pointing out the forgotten significance of the gardens in Ottoman life and particularly in the palace, Dursun says: “In our society, the palace and every other place always had a garden. The private palace garden is called a privy garden [hasbahçe]. Gülhane is the garden outside the palace. Contrary to what many assume, Gülhane was not today’s park with that name, only established in 1912, but it refers to a private rose garden. Several varieties of rose were grown there, as well as being the source for rose oil and rose water produced to be used in the palace, harem and the palace hospital, for its disinfectant quality.”

“More importantly, the sacred mantle of the Prophet is stored here. When there was a high-ranking visitor, the whole area was washed with rose water while the sultan supervised. All the important guests were served rose water, which created a high demand for roses in the palace. We were not able to tell anyone this aspect of life in Topkapı Palace.”

This is an important palace tradition. The sacred mantle of the Prophet Muhammad is brought out only on the 15th day of Ramadan and displayed to a limited number of invitees according to the royal protocol list.

Speaking of the Sacred Trusts, several relics of the Prophet Muhammad are still housed at the palace. Dursun says it is one of the newest displays in the museum and receives a lot of interest from the Muslim world. “International relations directly influence cultural relations; even national politics influence cultural relations. Good relations with the Islamic world attract attention to the fields of Islamic culture in Turkey. We see it clearly in the Sacred Trusts section,” says Dursun. He has observed a decrease in the number of tourists from Iran, Israel and Syria as a result of the status of formal international relationships, while there has been an increase in the number of visitors from Palestine and North Africa.

‘I am able to say things a foreign minister cannot thanks to cultural heritage’

“I consider Topkapı Palace and Hagia Sophia very important for cultural diplomacy,” says Dursun as he adds that he personally experienced its impact when he hosted people ranging from the pope to US President Barrack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “As the president of Topkapı Palace, I am able to say things that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu cannot,” he says. When he recently hosted the prime minister of Senegal, he instructed him on the Sacred Trusts and the associated rituals. “I told him about Ottoman history and geography country by country, which I call cultural diplomacy. It is this place that makes me do it,” Dursun adds.

On a question on whether the large crowds harm the palace, Dursun says yes without any hesitation, but adds that there is nothing to be done about it unless you limit the number of visitors. However, he adds that “the harm to the Hagia Sophia is greater, in terms of the harm done to the mosaics there.” In Topkapı, most of the items are preserved and protected behind glass.

When asked about the current status of the palace storage areas that were in poor condition a few years ago, Dursun says there has been a huge restoration effort. Fifteen separate departments are currently undergoing restoration. “The storage areas have been under renovation since 2005, but the work is not finished yet,” he says. Refraining from commenting on the past, Dursun says that “Turkey now allocates more money to its cultural heritage with the improvement in its economic situation,” and as the revenues brought in by the palace exhibits also increase. Topkapı Palace’s revenues are now approximately TL 50 million a year.

Saying that the ministry regularly inspects the palace, Dursun adds: “There are many valuable works of art in Topkapı Palace and they keep coming in through donations and seizures. There are over 10,000 Chinese ceramic pieces alone.” It is also important to maintain the condition of many of the fragile items, controlling the heat, humidity and exposure to light. For Dursun, sometimes it is better to keep certain items in storage than to display them.

Are the grounds of Topkapı Palace occupied illegally?

In response to a question regarding squatters’ houses on the grounds of Topkapı Palace, Dursun provides an extended answer. According to him, “In order to understand whether or not there the lands are occupied, we have to check the 700,000 square meter area which originally belonged to the Topkapı Palace compound.” Although the original boundaries of the palace were specific, the lower parts of the land were occupied by the soldiers and while the Ministry of Defense vacated the land on the Sea of Marmara, they still hold some buildings in the Sirkeci area. Similarly, the Directorate of Parks and Gardens of the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality is also located in the area which originally belonged to the palace. “These are the unknown squatter buildings that are built within the palace area,” says Dursun, and adds, “The biggest squatter building within the palace compound is the Archeology Museum.” He notes, too, that some government-subsidized housing buildings which looked like squatters were destroyed.

Dursun says taking back all the land that originally belonged to the palace should be a goal to pursue. He says the goal was established under former Minister of Culture Atilla Koç and a lot of progress was made by his successor, Ertuğrul Günay. Since current Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz served in the past as the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture, Dursun believes that his knowledge of both sides helped to see the Ministry of Defense vacate many areas in the compound.

“In an effort to restore the original flora of the palace garden, we bought 50 olive trees to plant by the Sea of Marmara. We also plant a lot of Judas trees,” says Dursun as he talks about the projects that are in progress. “Beginning in April you will be able to see thousands of tulips and hyacinths in the Topkapı Palace gardens,” Dursun informs İstanbulites.

‘The best thing for İstanbul to do is nothing, but it is too late’

A true lover of İstanbul and its culture, Dursun is concerned about the panorama and the silhouette of the city. He says they must be protected, although he adds that we are at an irreversible point now. “The best thing to do for İstanbul is to do nothing [new] to İstanbul,” says Dursun, as he admits that it is a dream to protect the city with its unique structure.

Dursun says that when he gets vocal in his criticisms of the Çamlıca mosque project, the new bridge on the Golden Horn and the Taksim Square barracks reconstruction, he hears resentment from his friends within the administration.

“The best thing to do in İstanbul is to protect the old İstanbul without any discrimination -- the Hagia Sophia, the Kariye Museum, the Süleymaniye Mosque -- and not to allow the construction of new buildings within their view that are taller,” says Dursun. He hopes that virtue triumphs over the appetite for more money, and referred to a similar discussion that took place in France. However, he believes that it is “too late” for İstanbul. He cites New York as an example, noting that high rise buildings are allowed only in Manhattan, as he resentfully says that in İstanbul we are surrounded by high rise buildings; what remains of old İstanbul must be protected and maintained.

Although he talks about a growing awareness of the need to preserve cultural heritage, Dursun believes that it takes more than keeping the museums in order. “To give specific examples, there should be good access between the hotels and the museum, the taxi driver should not cheat you; when you arrive in Sultanahmet, street vendors should not bother you; the food and beverages served in and around the museum must be hygienic, and so on. These are all interconnected.”

Women of harem went on military expeditions with sultan

Historian and Professor Haluk Dursun defines the harem as “the area in which the private life of a dynasty takes place in accordance with its worldview,” and he underlines the worldview part. He criticizes popular TV shows depicting the harem as a place where all the men of the Ottoman administration could enter. “I see on the TV shows today that everyone is allowed in the harem, like the vizier, which was just impossible in the Ottoman palace,” he says. He notes that even the akağalar who were in charge of the harem were allowed only until a certain point. They would knock on a door and a female kalfa would answer. The kalfa was like today’s director of protocol and was a medium for communication because women spoke only to other women in the harem.

Dursun described the harem as having four classes: The sultans (meaning the sultan himself, his mother, wife and children), the kalfalar (the providers of services for the women), the karağalar (the team that carried out the services) and the zülüflü baltacılar (bodyguards, in order of closeness to the family).

“Have you ever heard that there are two small mosques in the harem?” Dursun asks. Women prayed together under the leadership of the imam in the palace’s main mosque. It was made possible for women in the harem to hear the imam in the men’s mosque through a window. Currently, all eight mosques in the palace are used for museum storage.

Although women had their separate world in the harem and they could only leave for special occasions such as festivals and birth ceremonies, Dursun also mentions that women went on hunting and military expeditions for months with the sultans. “There are numerous women who gave birth during expeditions,” he says. However, according to Dursun, the traditional harem life ended with the construction of Dolmabahçe Palace and Yıldız Palace. “When craftsman Balyan [the Armenian architect] built the new harem, he put in windows overlooking the other buildings, which was not acceptable according to the harem mentality,” he points out.

Profile

Born in 1957 in Kocaeli, Haluk Dursun completed his undergraduate degree at İstanbul University’s department of literature. He received his doctoral degree from the Social Sciences Institute of Marmara University in 1994, where his doctoral dissertation was titled “Ottoman-British rivalry in the Middle East in the Sultan Abdülhamid II period.” He still teaches in Marmara University’s department of contemporary history. Dursun won a press award for his series of articles titled “Elveda Boğaziçi” (Farewell Bosporus), published in the Zaman daily in 1989. He received another award, the “Travel Writer Award,” from the Writers’ Union of Turkey (TYB) for his book “Nil’den Tuna’ya” (From the Nile to the Danube). He was the president of the Hagia Sophia Museum from 2006 to 2012. An avid admirer of İstanbul and Ottoman culture, Haluk Dursun has been the president of Topkapı Palace since July 2012.

  President of Topkapı Palace aims to ‘restore soul of palace’