After a general tour of the Topkapı Palace, according to your field of interest you can go on thematic tours and discover interesting details of the palace complex. The kitchen section offers clues regarding the palace’s food culture with collections displaying artifacts from the daily culinary culture along with porcelain and unique bowls covered in jewels.
Istanbul is a city that served as the capital for three empires throughout its history. The Historical Peninsula, where we will be pursuing the traces of this multilayered past, has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1985. One of the most visited venues on the Historical Peninsula, the administrative headquarters of the Ottoman Empire for almost four centuries and the official residence of the sultans, is the Topkapı Palace. This palace was opened to the public on April 3, 1924, as the first museum of the Turkish Republic and is one of the world’s largest palace museums with its rich collection and almost 300,000 documents which serve as an archive.
Following the conquest of Istanbul, the construction of the Topkapı Palace began in 1460, and was completed in 1478. The palace served as the empire’s main administrative headquarters until this was transferred to the Dolmabahçe Palace in the 19th century. Over the centuries, this time-honored palace, whose main complex consists of huge courtyards, porticos, and numerous service buildings surrounding these courtyards, was expanded with annex buildings added later according to requirement. After the headquarters moved to Dolmabahçe in the period of Abdulmejid I in order to reflect the empire’s modernization, some sections of the palace that continued to serve were opened to visits by foreign guests in this period. This tradition continued until the founding of the Republic. The palace kitchen which had served the sultan, members of the palace, state officials, and important guests is remarkable in these terms.
The kitchen section of the Topkapı Palace, which is in an unparalleled location overlooking the sea at Sarayburnu, is situated to the right of the second courtyard after the main entrance. The palace kitchen is a huge complex aligned around a 170-meter-long courtyard with a view of the Marmara Sea. On one side there is a masjid, the kitchen sections consisting of three parts where food was cooked, and the helvahane (halva kitchen); and on the opposite side, one finds the staff’s dormitories, the pantry, a hammam, and the kalayhane (where kitchen utensils were maintained). Altogether it resembles a small neighborhood. This neighborhood is entered from the porticos of the second courtyard through three main gates: the Kiler-i Amire (Imperial Pantry), Has Mutfak (Imperial Kitchen), and the Helvahane (Halva Kitchen) Gate. There is a wooden masjid at the beginning of the street. Next to this is the three-part kitchen section with stoves where food was prepared for the sultan, the palace staff, foreign visitors, members of the divan, and guests.
After it was restored in 2014, this section, which is currently a part of the museum, was prepared as an exhibition area. The inventory from the classical period, extending from the 15th to the 18th century, was divided into the following sections: Classical Period Palace Kitchen, Imperial Kitchen, Food in the Palace, and Tableware.
The first part believed to be the kitchen section in the period of Mehmed the Conqueror has been arranged as the “Imperial Kitchen” in an exhibition concept. The first display case exhibits the celadon bowls, pitchers, and napkins bearing the tughra (calligraphic signature of a sultan) that the sultans would wash their hands with before and after eating. Immediately beside this, a classic dining arrangement of the sultans, who ate alone since the period of Mehmed the Conqueror, has been revived. In the same section there is a rich collection, especially from the classical period sultans, including celadon bowls that revealed the presence of poison, the earliest of these dating to the end of the 13th century; silver trays bearing the tughra; silver service vessels; bowls decorated with precious stones and inlaid with gold; copper cauldrons over the stoves where the meals cooked.
In the section “Food in the Palace,” there are Chinese porcelain service vessels used for larger meals such as those of the Imperial Council; celadon vessels; blue and white bowls and plates; tableware objects used by members of the harem decorated with precious stones; and details from the birth and circumcision ceremonies of the sultan’s children.
In the display cabinet themed “Tableware,” there are selections of more than 10,000 pieces of palace porcelain and other tableware, and thematic display cabinets exhibiting gold and silver decorative accessories, objects repaired with metal clamps, tombac, spoons, trays, and small pans (sahan). I would also like to point out that the Topkapı Palace is one of the world’s most important palaces in terms of its porcelain collection. In the exhibition there is a separate section where you can see a collection ranging from the 13th to the 19th century, porcelain sets used in the period of modernization, silverware, and table arrangements. On the other side of the street in the Aşağı Mutfak or secondary kitchen, there is an exhibition of equipment including leather tablecloths, sefer tasları (lunch boxes), copper trays, and leather tablemats.
The Helvahane (halva kitchen), next to the kitchens, was added to the existing building in the period of Suleiman the Magnificent. This section, which was built by architect Sinan, consists of two parts with four domes, and is the only section that has survived to the present in its original form, with its authentic counters and stoves. The Ottoman palace had a rich dessert and beverage culture ranging from the stages of preparation to presentation. Desserts including baklava, lokma (yeast fritters in thick syrup), zerde (a sweet made from saffron and rice), paluze (blancmange), kadayıf (shredded pastry), candy, sherbets, and syrups and compotes made from various fruits according to the season were prepared here. In addition, medicine was prepared under the supervision of physicians for use by the palace chemist and in hospitals. These were prepared and used in the form of pastilles and tablets. Supplies such as soap, fragrances, and candles were also produced here. All the equipment like mortars, molds, jars, jugs, incense burners, bottles, pitchers, and healing stones used for the preparation and presentation of all these desserts and ingredients till the 19th century reveal the extensive operations in the Helvahane. The second masjid at the top end of the street is also used for the display of these materials.
After the restoration works carried out in 2014, the two-story dormitories where the kitchen staff slept were dedicated to coffee culture. The setup of the display reflects all the details of the cultural dimension of coffee that had particular importance in the Ottoman palace, extending from the tools used to prepare the coffee to its cooking and presentation.
Next to the dormitories there is a hammam that once had a stream running through it. The hammam, which was opened to visitors after the restoration of the furnace and basins, was only used by the kitchen staff. The buildings in this section end with the kalayhane, the section where the cooper kitchen tools were maintained and restored. The kitchen area in the palace is a vast complex that housed many structures including a sebzehane (vegetable storage/preparation area), tavukhane (section where chicken meat was processed), a slaughter/butcher section, and a small kitchen (kuşhane) where meals was cooked for the sultan.