Passing through the ceremonial Bâb-üs Selâm (Gate of Salutations) leads from the I. Avlu (1st Courtyard) to the II. Avlu (2nd Courtyard) of Topkapı Sarayı. It isn’t clear when the gate was built, but an inscription above the door is dated 1542. It’s possible that it was constructed by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1468, with a design that was probably influenced by Byzantine architecture.
Since Bâb-üs Selâm was the entrance to the heart of the palace, only the Sultan was allowed to enter on horseback while all others had to dismount. This was a tradition taken from the Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors. Government officlals and foreign dignitaries were the only ones allowed to enter the palace through the gate.
Passing through the gate requires a ticket, which can be bought in the I. Avlu, and going through a security check. Once through, it’s possible to get an audioguide and see some scale models of the palace. The imperial carriages are also on display just after entering the courtyard.
To the left are the Istabl-ı Âmire (Imperial Stables) and the Beşir Ağa Camii ve Hamamı (Beşir Ağa Mosque and Bath). The stables held the harnesses of the Sultan. The mosque was built in 1736 by Hacı Beşir Ağa, the Dârü’s-saâde Ağası (Chief Eunuch of the Palace) under Mahmut I. You’ll also find the entrance to the Harem and the Zülüflü Baltacılar Koğušu (Dormitory of the Halberdiers with Tresses). It costs an extra 25TL to enter (as of September 2016) but it’s highly recommended.
The most important building in the II. Avlu is the Dîvân-ı Hümâyûn (Imperial Divan), also known as the Kubbealtı. In this building is where the Imperial Council and the viziers of the Ottoman Empire met to discuss state affairs. It’s also where foreign ambassadors would be received and the weddings of the Sultan’s daughters would take place.
The first Council Hall was built under Mehmet the Conqueror and was a simple wooden building. Major renovations took place under Süleyman the Magnificent between 1527 and 1529 and again under Selim III in 1792 and Mahmut II in 1819.
Imperial Council would meet in the Council Hall. The Grand Vizier, military officials, the treasurer, the Foreign Minister, and sometimes the Şeyhülislam (chief religious official) met four times a week. The last meeting of the Imperial Council at Topkapı Sarayı took place on August 30, 1876, when they met to discuss Murat V, who was deposed the next day after only a 93 day reign because of supposed mental instability.
The next room was the Clerk’s Office, where records were kept. The wall bears the tuğrâ (monogram) of Mustafa III.
Would the Sultan attend Imperial Council meetings? Yes, discretely from behind a window with a golden grill. When the Sultan would draw the curtain on the window or rap on the grill, it was the signal that the meeting was over and the viziers would have to meet with him one by one in private at the Arz Odası (Audience Chamber) in the III. Avlu (3rd Courtyard).
The window was accessible from the Adalet Kulesi (Tower of Justice), which was the tallest structure at the palace. The tower was meant to symbolize the Sultan’s ever-vigilant presence against injustice in his empire. Ottoman citizens could see the tower from afar, reminding them that the Sultan sees all.
The building next to the Dîvân-ı Hümâyûn is the Dış Hazine (Outer Treasury), built between 1526 and 1528 by Süleyman the Magnificent. The salaries of the Janissaries and civil servants were distributed from there, and taxes collected from Ottoman provinces were kept there. It also held the gifts to be bestowed upon foreign ambassadors. The building functioned as a treasury until the mid-19th century and now houses a collection of weapons and armor.
Across the courtyard from the Dîvân-ı Hümâyûn were the palace kitchens. The largest kitchens in the Ottoman Empire, they were modeled after the kitchens at the palace in Edirne and could feed up to 6,000 people a day. Over 800 employees worked there. The original kitchens were built in the 15th century, enlarged under Süleyman the Magnificent, burned down in 1574, and were restored by legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. Today, they display a collection of porcelain and kitchen utensils.
A few interesting things are scattered throughout the courtyard. One is a Byzantine cistern dating back to the 5th century. Another is a monument from the Fortress of Sokhumi in present-day Georgia (actually in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia). It originally belonged to a fortress built under Ahmet III and brought to Topkapı Sarayı by Abdülhamit II in 1877 during the Ottoman-Russian War.
The III. Avlu is the next section of the palace and can be reached by either passing through another monumental gate or after a tour through the Harem.