When I, a museum employee, told my colleagues that I would spend the weekend visiting four museums in Istanbul, they were quite surprised. However, just as we’re interested in listening to the stories of people we’ve just met or have known for years, we also enjoy listening to the history of a city.
Istanbul is a seasoned city which has experienced many incidents, happy and sad. It’s the custodian of an immeasurable historical heritage from maritime traditions to culture and arts, precious treasures to tools of warfare and archaeological artifacts and ruins. To learn about this story from the beginning, I head out to explore the museums of the city, in other words, its roots.
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
Sultanahmet Square is as colorful, lively, and vivacious as it has ever been -people taking pictures, looking for an address, or lining up in front of historic gates. Trying not to scare away the pigeons flocking to the ground for breadcrumbs, I slowly walk towards the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts inside Ibrahim Pasha Palace.
I am greeted by the photographs of the museum founders at the entrance of the palace of Ibrahim Pasha, the Grand Vizier of Suleiman the Magnificent. After this friendly welcome, I begin my march through the passage of civilizations. In the rooms turned into galleries, I examine various artifacts from many states stretching from the early Islamic periods in Raqqa or Samarra to the late Ottoman years. I spend minutes admiring the 800-year-old giant ornamented cast gate of the Grand Mosque of Cizre. Like other guests of the museum, I am mesmerized by the unfading colors and patterns of the unique manuscripts from the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. The Salawat I hear makes me realize that I am getting closer to the Sacred Relics of Islam. After seeing the footprint and hair from the beard of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), I walk into the main attraction called the Divanhâne, which is the palace's ceremonial hall. I end my first tour of Istanbul museums by gazing at precious carpets from the Sultanate of Rum and the Ottoman periods.
I head out but feel like I’m still in the museum as I’m in front of the Byzantine Obelisk of Theodosius, the Serpent Column brought from the Temple of Apollo, and the Walled Obelisk. History and life are inseparable and continue their forward march despite the cold weather. I can smell the roasted corncobs and chestnuts, but I opt for salep. Its rising steam warms the air, and the cinnamon on top warms my body. I really need this because my next stop is Topkapı Palace, a structure which used to raise statesmen like Ibrahim Pasha and currently serves as a museum.
Topkapı Palace Museum
The Topkapı Palace was the headquarters of the Ottoman Empire which ruled three continents over the course of three and a half centuries. Also the residence of the sultan and his family, the palace is a 700,000-square meter complex with three gates and four courtyards. I enter through the magnificent Bâb- Hümâyun (Imperial Gate) which symbolizes the power of the state. The crowd inside does not surprise me as this is the most-visited museum in Turkey. I get a ticket, an audio guide and a map, and begin my journey into history. I leave behind Bâb-ü’s Selâm (Gate of Salutation) where no one, except for the sultan, could ride on horseback. I wander around the recently renovated royal kitchens. I am awestruck by the variety of tools they have in these rooms, where they would cook for nearly 4,000 people every day. Inside the cellar, it is not hard to imagine the culinary culture of the Ottoman period with the numerous objects on display from a mincing machine to knives, tools to roast and serve coffee, and Chinese and Japanese porcelain jars and pots.
I am in front of the Tower of Justice, the most visible part of the palace from outside. I could spend hours under this tower which represents the sovereignty of law above all else and at Kubbealtı (Domed Chamber) where the Imperial Court held its meetings, but there is one more courtyard I need to visit. I walk through the last gate, Babüssaâde (Gate of Felicity), into the third courtyard, which is also called Enderun Courtyard. Enderun is known as the place where statesmen studied. In the 15th and 16th centuries, there were 100-150 young male students here. The goal of those who finished their studies with success was to be assigned outside the palace to earn experience in the rural areas and rise through the ranks in order to become a pasha -or even a grand vizier.
As I gaze from the courtyard towards the sea, I think of someone who achieved this dream, despite his background outside Enderun: Chief Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa. Suddenly, the compass turns toward the City Line ferries, historic galleys, and boats because I intend to visit the Naval Museum next. Before leaving Topkapı Palace, I listen to the last notes of the audio guide about the janissaries’ preparation for battle at Divan Square, the royal cooks’ hurry to prepare meals, or the celebrations for a newborn prince.
The pier where I arrive is named after Hayreddin Barbarossa, the famous Ottoman pasha who ruled the seas. I see his monument after a few steps into the district center of Beşiktaş, which is also home to his mausoleum. I walk by the mausoleum built by architect Sinan for the chief admiral and enter the Naval Museum. The first thing I see is a giant galley. Used by the Ottoman navy in nearby waters, the 24 Çifte Kürekli Kadırga (galley with 24 twin-oars) is known as the only surviving example in the world.
The museum hosts the gilded sultanate boats and piyade boats, and other vessels used by the palace residents. There’s also the 14-meter-long figurehead which belongs to Orhaniye Frigate and is the world's biggest, and the Byzantine chain used to block the Golden Horn during the conquest of Istanbul. It’s worth seeing the cannon balls, rifles, guns, bombs, torpedoes, mines, navigation instruments, and flags used in battle. The museum is laden with the material vestiges of our maritime history from oars to galleys. I ask myself why it took me so long to walk through this door which I pass by every day. I recharge my batteries with a short break at the museum café decorated with historical artifacts because my next stop, the Military Museum, will be complementing what I have learned here.
This is one of the world’s most prominent museums in terms of the richness and variety of its collection. Dating back to the 15th century, the museum greets me with cannon balls, tanks, planes, and helicopters in the garden, which also displays the first tank in the Turkish army, a statue of the heroic soldier Corporal Seyit, and a bomber. I feel like I’m visiting the set for a war movie. The interior is more impressive. The guns, military uniforms, ensigns, flags, and tents are categorized based on periods and topics. As I walk through a long corridor, I notice a gallery filled with visitors. This is the class where Atatürk studied during his years at Harbiye. Wearing a red fez and a uniform, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is sitting behind a wooden desk with his friends in a history class. The room still looks alive with its heating stove, velvet curtains, books, and study tools.
You can spend a day at the adjacent halls of the Military Museum. I do not realize how time passes as I am lost among swords, shields, armors, and helmets until people start rushing towards Atatürk Hall at 3 p.m. Like all guests, I take my seat to listen to the Mehter (Janissary Band) concert. The kös (giant kettledrum) was put into position, the members walked out on the stage carrying tuğs (a decorative pole that serves as a banner) and sang marches which made us imagine scenes on the battlefield.
The continuing tunes of "Hücum Marşı" (Attack March) in my mind intertwine with people’s footsteps. I surrender to the crowd flowing from Harbiye to Nişantaşı, replacing the museums objects I’ve examined all day with art, fashion, and showcases. It’s time to bid farewell to history, I think, as Istanbul charmingly stands before me on this sparkling street.