Topkapi Palace is a vast complex comprising many buildings and much open land in a crowded city.
For centuries, it served not only as the royal residence for the Ottoman sultans but as the effective center of government and place for scientific and philosophic discovery.
The self-indulgence, pragmatism and paranoia of many of the sultans is legendary and all are clearly on display at Topkapi.
Topkapi is the best place to get the sense of hüzün that is said to grip Istanbul. Hüzün is a complex Turkish word which roughly translates as melancholy.
The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk says that to Sufi followers of Islam, hüzün is a spiritual anguish, the inability to get close enough to Allah. But as an Istanbullu collective grief, hüzün was amplified by the decline and loss of empire, by crumbling city walls, by rotting wooden houses, by vacant lots, and ultimately by the feverous construction of apartment blocks that has obliterated the urban fabric of once-elegant neighborhoods.
A sense of loss pervades these Bosphorus hills. Pamuk calls it a black mood shared by millions of people together. But he explains that its consumed and projected by Istanbullus with pride and honor. Hüzün does not just paralyze the inhabitants of Istanbul; it also gives them poetic license to be paralyzed.
Topkapi is unique among all of the places I have visited in the world. Instead of the normal, "I wish these walls could talk", they (and even the trees) DID seem to be talking and the story was not always pleasant. The overall design of the complex seems not only to be one intended to convey power and priviledge, but to intentionally evoke strong human emotion--something that it does so well that it almost seems to have trapped the emotions.
An odd tree seems to convey exactly what I felt. It finds one species of tree literally growing inside of another. The inner tree seems to want to split the outer while the outer wants to choke the inner with neither ever gathering quite enough strength to destroy the other. Very strange...