Over nearly four centuries, twenty-five sultans ruled the vast Ottoman Empire from the sprawling 175-acre Topkapi Palace complex, built on a promontory overlooking the Bosporus. Today many of the rooms and exhibits are dazzling and the legends so exotic that it is easy to imagine the time when the palace accommodated a community of 40,000 people and was like a city in itself. Most of the treasures of the sultanate have long since disappeared, but the pieces that remain on display in the Treasury are enough to jolt your imagination into envisioning what other baubles and trinkets were used by the likes of Suleiman the Magnificent. The famous Topkapi dagger is encrusted with enormous emeralds, as is the throne of Selim I, made with more than 25,000 precious stones. The Spoonmaker’s Diamond, the fifth largest in the world, made its first public appearance on the coronation turban of Mehmet IV in 1648.
The other source of fascination in the palace is the harem (meaning “forbidden” in Arabic). The number of odalisques increased steadily with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, numbering more than 800 in the mid-19th century, when Sultan Abdulmecid I traded in Topkapi for the Versailles-like Dolmabahce Palace up the Bosporus, equally ostentatious, though in a French, not Turkish, style.
If you want to try on the pasha lifestyle for yourself, consider the Sultan’s Suite at the Cragan Palace Hotel, which for a short time in the 19th century was the home of Sultan Abdulaziz. Majestically situated on the banks of the Bosporus, about 1.5 miles north of Topkapi, the palace has been meticulously restored to its former state of unbridled opulence, with lush gardens, outdoor terrace restaurants, and a waterfront cafe. Guests not occupying the largest suite in Europe must content themselves with the standard rooms of the newer building next door, which are nothing short of regal. The hotel’s much-respected Tugra restaurant, on a terrace overlooking the Bosporus, treats everyone like royalty, serving classic Ottoman dishes while Turkish musicians perform.