My Stray Cat Expedition in Istanbul, Turkey – Day 3, part 1 (continued from Day 2, part 2)
Dr. Arnold Plotnick
(click pictures to enlarge)
Dr. Arnold Plotnick
(click pictures to enlarge)
Today turned out to be one of the most exhausting days of the trip. We decided to tackle the famous Topkapi palace. This is the place where the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror decided to set up shop after capturing Constantinople. It ended up serving as the sole administrative palace for Ottoman sultans for more than 400 years. It housed several thousand people, a city within a city. Not too shabby a place to store one’s stuff.
The day started out nicely enough, with me noticing a woman using her headphone cord to play with a kitten on a bench in Sultanahmet Park. Cute!
A short walk through the park and past Hagia Sophia, and there it is. The palace is huge! There are four courtyards, as well as the harem. After going through the Imperial Gate, you find yourself in the first courtyard. This courtyard is a wide space that was reserved for public officials, civil servants, and service personnel. As you continue through this courtyard to the actual palace, you pass Hagia Irene, an early Christian church. This church, on the Topkapi Palace grounds, served as the main church of Constantinople until Hagia Sophia was built. The church supposedly has a stark and beautiful interior, but alas, it is not open to the public.
As I continued the rest of the way through the first courtyard to the main palace entrance, I spotted a couple of pretty well-fed cats sunning themselves on the grass. I finally came up to the Gate of Salutation, also known as the Middle Gate.
Reminiscent of European castles from the Middle Ages, this is where you buy your ticket. Once you go through, you’re in the palace complex’s second courtyard. This courtyard was a ceremonial courtyard, host to centuries of coronations, successions, and other major benchmarks.
The Harem is one of the most popular sections of the palace.
My guidebook said that if there is no line at the Harem entrance, we’d be wise to visit it now. So we did.
The word “harem” refers to two things: the wives, favorites, and concubines of the sultan, and the part of the palace where they lived. Contrary to the images in the heads of most westerners, the Harem was not the site of a round-the-clock orgy. In fact, it was a carefully administered social institution that ensured the longevity of the Ottoman Empire. It also required an additional, separate 15 lira fee to get in. Hmmph!
Next to the Harem was a small café/restaurant. Hovering around the entrance were a few cats. While purchasing my entry ticket, I watched one of the café workers put down a saucer and fill it with milk. Another instance of kindness toward the strays.
The cats lapped up the milk excitedly. Actually, the alpha cat (the calico) ended up drinking first, while the others waited for her to finish. What a diva.
The Harem tour was a one-way route that allowed good glimpses of about 20 rooms, letting us gawk at the stunning tile work, the wives’ and concubines’ courts, the mother sultan’s private apartment, and the grand reception hall. After that, we finished perusing the rest of the second courtyard, including the Divan (the council chamber where the viziers got together to discuss state affairs) and the Imperial treasury’s armory (a very interesting collection of weapons).
Next on the tour was the third courtyard, which had the Reception Hall, the Library of Ahmet III, and the Imperial Treasury. By this time, my feet were killing me. The palace is immense, and it really becomes sensory overload after a while. The treasury, however, was pretty neat. It contains a drool-worthy collection of the sultan’s riches, including the famous Topkapi dagger, lying on a burgundy pillow. This dagger was created in the palace workshop as a gift for the shah of Iran, but the shah was killed in an uprising, so it never got to him. The dagger is covered with diamonds and three huge emeralds. The plot of the 1964 film “Topkapi” ,with Peter Ustinov, centers around the theft of this dagger. Photos weren’t allowed, but of course I managed to sneak one when the guard wasn’t looking.
We finally finished touring the treasury, only to be confronted with…the fourth courtyard! By this time, we had our fill with the palace, and we were starving. So we breezed through the fourth courtyard, which included the circumcision room , the kiosk, the Baghdad pavilion, the Revan pavilion, and the tulip garden. Finally…lunchtime!
I had read about a restaurant called Cankurtaran Sosyal Tesisleri, with outdoor tables affording a great view of the Bosphorus and the Asian side of Istanbul. The restaurant was an easy walk downhill from the palace. The restaurant was a gem. It had excellent food, great prices, a lovely outdoor courtyard with the promised great view, and to top it all off, a few kittens dashing around the grounds. I ordered their signature dish, the Topkapi kabob, a mixture of chicken, veal, mushrooms and tomatoes, topped with cheese. While waiting for my dish to arrive, I ended up befriending one of the cutest cats of the entire trip, an adorable black kitten maybe 11 or 12 weeks old. He was very playful and trusting and came right over when I called. He sat on my lap during part of my lunch, with me sneaking him an occasional piece of my kabob.
After lunch, we headed back uphill to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. This was a great museum, with intricately carved sarcophagi, tons of Greek and Roman sculptures, beautiful Iznik tiles, and an actual chunk of the chain that the Byzantines stretched across the Golden Horn. I liked the way the museum is laid out. It is divided into three parts: the Museum of Archaeology, the Tiled Kiosk, and the Museum of the Ancient Orient.
The weather was beautiful, and the walk to the museum was truly lovely. It was situated just on the edge of the first courtyard of the Topkapi palace. Walking through the grassy courtyard to the museum allowed me to encounter many cats on the way, including this sleeping black and white beauty. Notice where I’m pointing: at her ear. It’s snipped! Evidence that they do indeed practice trap-neuter-release in Istanbul.