1- The first gate of Topkapı Palace: Bab-ı Hümayun. The inscription over the gate reads as “This
    sacred castle was built by Sultan Mehmed Han, the son of Sultan Murad Han, the sultan of the lands
    and seas, the shadow of Allah, and the conqueror of Istanbul in November 1478.” The verse meaning
    “help from Allah and a victory soon to come” (al-Saff, 61: 13) is written right above the gate and the
    proclamation of faith on both sides of it.

After the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans, the construction of the first palace in Istanbul was completed in 1458 and began to be used as a palace. In these years, due to the successive campaigns in the Balkans and Anatolia, Mehmed II known as Fatih (Conqueror), used Edirne Palace, and administration was carried out from there. It is difficult to predict the level of use of this first palace in Istanbul as the center of administration. Nevertheless, a Divanhane (Council Hall) was built in it for the gatherings of the divan, which demonstrates the intent to use it as a center of administration. After a short while, a new palace was built on the side of the city, viewing Marmara and Galata, as this palace was considered to be more appropriately used as an administration center. The existence of the first palace, and the idea that private life could continue there, constituted the core factor in encouraging the construction of the new palace as an administrative center.

Topkapı Palace, defined as New Palace or Saray-ı Cedid, consisted of three main gates and courtyards on a horizontal designation, and was designed as units of structures, which made it suitable for an administrative center. It had been used for this purpose since 1478, the supposed year of its first use, until the end of the eighteenth century. There were two indicators of this situation. First, the original Divan-i Hümayûn (Imperial Council) was in this palace where meetings took place. Thus, it consisted of a crucial place of state administration. Second, the Sultan conducted all his official relations and correspondences in this palace that has a special area, called “Arzodası” (Chamber of Petitions), for meetings with the Sultan.

Ottoman palaces had been the sole center of administration of the empire from its foundation until the seventeenth century particularly. From the second half of the seventeenth century, some of the divan meetings began to be carried out in the palace of the grand vizier called “pasha gate” or bab-ı asafi; therefore, a second place of administration emerged. However, it was not as efficient as the palace of the Sultan. Despite the fact that this situation did not change the central administration, it was an indicator of the emergence of new boards and places due to the shift in the administrative units from the palace to other locations. Nevertheless, official meetings took place in the Divanhane. The Arzodası was used for meetings with the Sultan, and Bâbüssaâde (Gate of Felicity) was used for important ceremonies such as cülus (enthronement), festivals and departures for military campaigns. This shows that Topkapı Palace preserved its position as the center of the state until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

It is possible to analyze the palace in four parts as both the center of the administration and the residence of the Sultan. The first courtyard open to the public was Alay Meydanı (Square of Ceremonies), where all the regiments leaving the palace, lined up. The Divan-ı Hümayûn (Imperial Council), situated in the second courtyard, constituted the main structure of the Divan Meydanı (Square of the Council). The third part, where holy relics and Enderun (Inner Palace) existed, was defined as Enderun Meydanı (Square of Palace Inner Palace). The fourth part was the Imperial Harem. It consisted of units, leaning on the structures in the squares of the Divan and Enderun, expanded towards the yards. The pavilions built in the yards created the fifth part. They were used for special meetings on the administration, while the Yalı Köşkü (Shore Pavilion) was a part of the sailing ceremonies of the navy.1

There were two main architectural and functional factors enabling the use of Topkapı Palace as the center of administration, Divanhane and Arzodası, which were among the first buildings of the palace. In addition, the aforementioned three main gates and courtyards were used as administrative units. In Topkapı Palace, the units of the administration expanded to almost all areas of the palace, excluding some parts of the imperial harem.

The first, Divanhane, was rebuilt by Grand Vizier İbrahim Paşa during the period of Suleyman I, known as Kanuni (Lawgiver). At this time, the building was constructed closer to the middle gate. In the divan, people gathered daily in the fifteenth century and began to gather four days a week in the late sixteenth century; petitions were received two days a week. After the divan gatherings held on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, a number of decisions would be presented for the approval of the Sultan, called “arza çıkmak” (appearing before the Sultan)2. The Divan-ı Hümayûn (Imperial Council) used to hold gatherings in Topkapı Palace two times a month on average after the second half of the XVIII century. However, later it began to hold gatherings once a month and then less than once a month, leading to none for some time.3

Since the foundation of the Ottoman state till the fifteenth century, the sultans presided over the divan. After the conquest of Istanbul, the institution of the divan began to play an efficient role in this new palace. As stated in the code of law decreed by Mehmed II, a tower was built behind the Arzodası and Divanhane in Topkapı Palace, which demonstrated that the Sultan separated himself from the divan around these times. The Sultan, who could easily and unnoticeably follow the divan gathering from the netted window of the Adalet Kulesi (Tower of Justice) viewing Divanhane, also indicates to the hierarchically structured protocol of the state administration, such as the existence of Arzodası.4

The founding members of the divan, residing all in Istanbul, were the grand vizier, viziers, kazasker (judge of the army) of Rumeli and Anatolia, defterdar (treasurer) of Rumeli and Anatolia, and nişancı (chief chancellor). In the Teşkilat Kanunnâmesi (Institutional Law), where the seat orders of the members in the divan were stated, the founding members of the divan were also defined as such.5 The agha of the janissaries, agha of the mir-alem (state-owned land), and beylerbeyi (governors) would not participate in the Divan-ı Hümayûn on common occasions; they would only attend the divan when it be necessary and when more comprehensive gatherings were conducted. The beylerbeyi of Rumeli and Anatolia, and the kaptanıderya (Grand Admiral) could attend the divan when they were in Istanbul. Being a founding member of the divan meant the right to express ones ideas on the issues discussed in the divan. The grand vizier was accepted as the chief executive official of all administrative issues. This was expressed in the same code of law with the following statements: “The grand vizier is the chief of all. He is the absolute representative of all the matters.” The agenda, including discussions of primarily international issues and matters of provincial administration, would be read before the presence of the grand vizier by the reisülküttab (chief clerk). Among the multiple issues, the ones related to education and jurisdiction would be endued to the kazasker, the matters on economy would be given to the defterdar. The nişancı would put the Sultan’s signature (tugra) on the edicts, but his main responsibility was to keep records on land distribution and regulations, a part of the customary law. Thus, the regulations of tımar (fief), zeamet (feoff), fief-granting and their records, were under the responsibility of the nişancı. The nişancı, who was the head of the bureaucracy, was expected to know the laws very well. Actually, well-known codes of law were written by the nişancı. In short, the divan gathered in the palace from the XV century till the end of the XVI century meant that Topkapı Palace would host a crowded body of administrative officials at least four days a week.6 Each statesman would come with his attendants, and while some of them would wait in Alay Square, a few of them would wait in Divan Square. Furthermore, numerous officials would be in the palace on these meeting days despite not attending the divan in person.

2- The Sultan’s audience hall in the palace (Arz Odası)

Despite the fact that the Arzodası, built during the period of Mehmed II, was renovated several times during the reign of Suleyman I and in the following years, the building came to present-day appearance on the same grounds without much change. This building, in the form of a pavilion surrounded partially with a portico, had a door viewing the Bâbüssaâde, a door for pişkeş (gifts, presents) just next to it, and another door viewing Enderun Square. The door viewing Bâbüssaâde was the one used for the entrance and exit of the statesmen and ambassadors. In the inner part, there was broad area for the throne where the Sultan would sit.7 When the divan meetings were concluded, the statesmen would get out of the Divanhane after lunch and go to the Bâbüssaâde to get into the Arzodası. There, they would wait in the doorway. First, the agha of the janissaries, representing the military and security, would get into the Arzodası, where the Sultan would be present, and explain the current condition of the military and security. Then, they would exit without waiting in the Bâbüssaâde, but would wait outside the Bâbüssaâde. Secondly, the chief representatives of education and jurisdiction, the kazaskers, would present the matters under their responsibility and leave the chamber. The grand vizier would enter with a number of viziers, nişancı and defterdar. The defterdar would leave after presenting financial issues. During the meeting, the grand vizier and the viziers would wait standing on the right side of the Sultan. The viziers would leave the chamber after the completion of the meetings with the beylerbeyi (governors) on the agenda relevant to the high state officials, granted with a vizier position, if there were any. In the end, the Sultan and the grand vizier would discuss the general situation separately.

3- Topkapı Palace

The Enderun Mektebi (Palace School), one of the resources of the ruling class, was also in the third courtyard located in the inner part of the palace. The agha, who graduated from the Enderun, were not unfamiliar to the state issues as people who worked as direct assistants of the Sultan, who was the chief official of the state administration. Hence, that silahtar (armorer) and rikâbdar agha would be present in all the gatherings outside the palace even if they did not state their opinions. The agha of the hasoda, chief room of the pages in the Enderun, always had the chance to appear before the Sultan. The agha of the Bâbüssaâde was an informant in the process of the meetings between the Divanhane and Arzodası and partially regulated them. The relation of the agha of the Dârüssaâde (Imperial Harem) with the foundations was that both of these agha’s would wait in front of the Bâbüssaâde during the divan meetings, which reveals that these people were not just officials for private services in the palace.

The use of Divanhane and Arzodası demonstrates the role of the palace as a center of administration. Regarding the placement and the organization of the palace with a more comprehensive point of view would show that this place was built with the aim to be used for administration from the very beginning. 8 Within this context, the following could be regarded as the evidence of the intention to preliminarily use this palace as the place of administration: the existence of doorway chambers appropriate for the residence of the guards, the structuring of the monumental doors suitable for the ceremonial activities during the entrance and exit of international visitors and ambassadors. Also, the planning of buildings with a function and decoration to host the ceremonies during the entrance and the exit of the Sultan with his attendants on occasions of setting sails, migrations and the inner city visits, as well as the construction of Divanhane in the second courtyard and the organization of the structures in this courtyard accordingly. Furthermore, the planning of Bâbüssaâde as a suitable background and usage for the ceremonies, which were not related to the members of the dynasty, the existence of chambers in both sides of Bâbüssaâde, and the function of the place between these doors also indicates its intended use. Additionally, the door as a reception room for state officials and the ambassadors, and the construction of Arzodası as the most beautiful pavilion of the Enderun courtyard just to the opposite of the entrance of Bâbüssaâde, all indicate the original use of Topkapi Palace as an important structure.

The fact that the palace was the center of administration also presents a hierarchical order in the structure of the building in the Ottoman state organization. Considering the Bab-ı Hümayûn with the pavilion on its top, demonstrates the palace as a state building with a monumental reception and preliminary entrance. The existence of external treasury on the top of the pavilion door and the rooms where the troops of guardsmen were assigned for state ceremonies, as well as sergeants responsible for order and security of the administrative meetings in palaces resided, also refers to the same fact.

The palace was the administrative center means that people from all sections of the society, especially people residing in Istanbul, could visit it for several reasons. On the divan days, the number of the janissaries would increase, and this number would increase more especially on occasions of divan of the ulufe (service pay), and reception of ambassadors. A number of janissaries would wait in the second courtyard, whereas a higher number of janissaries would wait in the first courtyard in a position internally and externally surrounding the courtyard until the end of the meeting. If the ambassador reception and the ulufe distribution were on the same day, the soldiers would take their service payments, put in the pouches after being counted and scaled, and drink their soups produced by the Matbah-ı Amire (Imperial Kitchen). Then, they would get to their due places and wait until the ambassadors left the palace. The people gathering on the days of divan would wait in the first courtyard: the ones with court cases would be taken to the central courtyard and would enter with their witnesses. It is known that all the people, including women, men, Muslim and non-Muslim, would get into the palace due to such reasons. If the court case discussed in the divan resulted with a beating sentence rather than a heavy punishment, such as exile, the punishment would be executed immediately by the çavuş (guardian) in the central courtyard. This indicates that the palace was not only the place of jurisdiction; it could also be the place where the punishments would be recompensed. It is also known that the capital punishments given to the state officials were executed in the doorway chambers from time to time. On the days when the administrative officials other than the Sultan were in the palace, everyone including the people waiting in the first and the second courtyards and the soldiers, would be provided with a meal.9 Apart from this population coming to the palace transitorily from other places, a great part of the present population of the palace consisted of people with administrative positions.

Considering all these statements, it would be possible to express that almost all the units of this Ottoman Palace, located in Istanbul, were administrative buildings. Regarding the parts where the şehzade (princes) were raised, the chambers of valide Sultan (queen mother) and kahyakadın (chief of the women servants) as a kind of administrative units, would also enlarge our view on the field of Topkapı Palace as a body of an administration center.


1 For architecture and parts of the Topkapı Palace see: Metin Sözen, Devletin Evi Saray, Istanbul: Sandoz Yayınları, 1990; Gülru Necipoğlu, Architecture, Ceremonial and Power: The Topkapı Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, New York : The Architectural History Foundation, 1991; Gülru Necipoğlu, 15. ve 16. Yüzyılda Topkapı Sarayı Mimari, Tören ve İktidar, tr. Ruşen Sezer, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Kültür Sanat Yayıncılık, 2007; Nadide Seçkin, Topkapı Sarayı’nın Biçimlenmesine Egemen Olan Tasarım Gelenekleri Üzerine Bir Araştırma (1453-1755), Ankara : Atatürk Kültür, Dil ve Tarih Yüksek Kurumu Atatürk Kültür Merkezi Yayınları, 1998; Zeynep Tarım Ertuğ, “Topkapı Sarayı”, DİA, XLI, 256-261.

2 Mübahat Kütükoğlu, “Arz”, DİA, III, 438-440.

3 Fikret Sarıcaoğlu, “Dîvân-ı Hümâyûn’un Kronolojik Toplanma ve Merasim Günleri (1153-1210/1740-1795),” Osm.Ar., 2007, vol. 30, p. 100.

4 For a study on the administrative units of the architecture of Topkapı Palace see: Gül Akdeniz, “Topkapı Sarayı Resmi Toplantı Birimlerinin (Divan Yapıları ve Arz Odasının) Geçirdikleri Değişimin Araştırılması” (Ph.D. Thesis), İstanbul Teknik University, 1995.

5 Fatih Sultan Mehmed, Kānûnnâme-I Âl-i Osman, prepared by Abdülkadir Özcan, Istanbul: Kitabevi, 2007, p. 6.

6 Zeynep Ertuğ, “Osmanlı Devletinde Resmi Törenler ve Birkaç Örnek,” Osmanlı, Ankara : Yeni Türkiye Yayınları, 1999, vol. 9, pp. 133-137.

7 Semavi Eyice, “Arz Odası”, DİA, III, 445-446.

8 Gülru Necpipoğlu wrote on the harmony between the architectural structuring and state organizations in several parts of her work. For detail, see: Architecture, Ceremonial and Power: The Topkapı.

9 For more information on the imperial kitchen providing meals for crowds, including not only state officials but also to the soldiers and people coming to the palace for court cases, see: Zeynep Tarım Ertuğ, “The Ottoman Imperial Kitchens as Imarets”, Feeding People, Feeding Power: Imarets in the Ottoman Empire, edited by Nina Ergin, Christoph Neumann and Amy Singer, Istanbul: Eren, 2007, pp. 251-259.

This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.

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