A Television Star at Topkapi Palace

A couple of years ago, some people from TRT asked me to be in a show in which foreigners explain the city. We spent a day going to various places, one of which was Topkapi Palace. Since it was a Tuesday, the place was closed to visitors, so we had free rein for our shoot. I had been there once before years earlier as a tourist and I had gone to a gallery show there, which was cool. And of course I remembered the film Topkapi.

Before I went to Turkey I looked for videos to inform me about this country that I knew little about. At that time there was no Google or anything else, so I combed through the local video store to find something to watch about it. I did find Midnight Express, but I found it too disturbing to watch and I knew that that would not be my experience there. However, I might add that several people, when they heard I was going to Turkey, asked if I had seen it, which indicated to me that that was what most of them thought about the country. However, I did find the film Topkapi, which I enjoyed. Recently I watched it again, this time looking more at the background to see how the city had changed since then.

Here’s some brief information about Topkapi Palace (thank you wiki). It was finished in about 1460 and used by the Ottoman sultans until about 1856. It was the scene of many intrigues, of course, and the repository of many fantastic gifts, which of course included the sultan’s emerald dagger that was the object of the film. There are huge solid gold candlesticks, giant diamonds, the hand of John the Baptist encased in gold, and many other things made of gold, silver, pearls, and other precious gems. Since it is a palace, the many buildings were used for various functions with grandeur. The grounds are very green and peaceful when there are no tourists milling around.

A short note about the harem here:  we did not go into it for the shoot, but I recall paying the extra ticket to go in and look at what has fueled many fantasies.  The rooms seemed very small, though the sultan’s bath was all marble and wonderful to behold.  We also saw the ‘gilded cage’, where often young princes were imprisoned and sometimes killed.  It is worth the extra money to go  in, if only to dispel the fake stories that men have spun about it.

The coolest thing about being there when it was serene was that it gave more room to imagine all the different kinds of people that have come through there. Now there are tourists but once it was filled with our Orientalist imagination– rich robes, turbans, gold, self-importance. I am not good at reciting the details of the buildings we were around, but some of them were very rich. The circumcision room has wonderful tiles on the outside of it, blue and white and gold. Lovely. Since I was ‘from’ Galata, I was interested to see the view of Galata from the palace. The Galata Tower actually predates the palace, by the way, as it was built by the Genoese. Also from the palace, in another direction, you can look across the Marmara Sea to the Princes Islands.

On the cekim we could move purposefully around the palace without bumping into people. Because it was TRT, the Turkish public station, we had more freedom, though we mostly stayed outside buildings. I was given pages of paper written out in Turkish for me to read as the host of this program. We had not met before, so the director hadn’t realized that I could speak Turkish pretty well, but my reading was not so great, not when it was paragraphs of dialogue. So we discussed what she was trying to say and I said it in my own charming yabanci way. In a previous visit I had not paid much attention to the gardens and walks because we tourists felt sort of hustled along. So much to see, only this much time to see it. Now we could stroll to do our work and look more. And of course at some places we stopped for a shoot, yet another opportunity to stumble through my dialogue.

As a little side story, I had a friend in Galata, an American historian. He guided Prince Charles and Camilla around Topkapi Palace. He said that Prince Charles asked good questions and they both seemed nice. Another time he guided Dick Cheney and his wife, along with their secret service entourage. I asked if he had wanted to give Cheney a good elbow poke for being so stupid. Of course he refrained.

I never did see the final version of the shoot, though some people commented that they had seen me on TV.  So much for being a star…

So dear reader, I leave you with my series of ‘I was there’ photos taken on my phone. They are in the order of the places we went. Go yourself, as it is a lovely place full of fascinating ghosts.


welcome to topkapi palace


an ancient tree on the grounds. how many sultans did it shade?


which way do you want to go?


an ancient stuimp




Galata Tower from the palace


a secret garden


wonderful tiles


a view of the ugly new bridge. sultans must be spinning in their graves


looking over to Asia, the old Chalcedon and Scutari


shoot again!


the Princes Islands

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