Gülhane: A park for all seasons
Over the last 18 months, much has been said about the lack of green spaces in İstanbul. Statistics have been rolled out to make the case. Yet Gülhane Park rarely gets a mention despite the fact that it is nestled right in the heart of busy Sultanahmet, the throbbing heart of the city's tourism industry.
The reason for the park's relative anonymity isn't hard to find. It started life as the outer garden of Topkapı Palace, which meant that high walls had to shield it from the gaze of plebeian passers-by. Even today there are only a few gaps in those walls, so many visitors rush past without thinking to glance behind them. Yet, for my money, an hour or so spent wandering around the park can be one of the most rewarding, inspirational experiences of a trip to İstanbul.
Gülhane is a true park for all seasons. While it's true that it peaks early when the tulips bloom during the April Tulip Festival, their passing is soon forgiven when roses flower in the marble-lined flowerbeds at the back of the park. In autumn, when the leaves start to fall, the park takes on an air of melancholic grandeur. Even in winter this is a great place to come to stroll between the ghostly white trunks of the trees marching along both sides of the main path and to observe the frantic activity in the centuries-old heronry filling the canopy.
The park is a place to come to relax and listen to parakeets that screech across the sky. It's a place to bring children to play in surprisingly imaginative play areas. And it's a place to admire temporary art pieces that pop up from time to time.
Those tourists who do drop into the park often do no more than stroll up and down the main thoroughfare. But the park keeps its cards close to its chest. To discover all that it has to offer you need to get away from that magnetic main path. Do that and you'll discover two small museums, two minor historic monuments and even a statue with a history behind it.
Alay Köşkü (Parade Pavilion)
The nicest way to get to the park is to stroll down Söğütçeşme Sokağı, a cobbled street of pastel-colored houses that runs between the walls of Topkapı Palace and the back of the Hagia Sophia. The second nicest way is to wander downhill from the first courtyard of the palace, passing the İstanbul Archeological Museum. In either case, you'll find yourself at the congested main entrance to the park where hawkers gather to sell corn on the cob and cotton candy to visitors.
Once you've passed the barrier leading into the park you should turn sharp left and mount the ramp that runs alongside the wall. This leads up to what is now the Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar Edeyibat Müze Kütüphanesi, a small literature museum and library (closed at ???ON??? weekends) named after Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-62), one of Turkey's most revered writers, whose “The Time Regulation Institute” was recently published in English.
Long before it became a library, this little gazebo built right onto the walls was the Parade Pavilion, from which the sultans could watch the city's many festivities, including the colorful Procession of the Gilds, memorably described by 17th-century Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi. Çelebi writes, for example, of the furriers parading with “the furs of sable, ermine, marten, red squirrel and Russian silver fox… the neck furs of duck, swan and goldfinch… and the furs of astrakhan lambskin, all worth hundreds of thousands of kuruş [Ottoman currency].” It's likely that the original was built for Sultan Mehmed II, the Conqueror of Constantinople, although the current model dates back only to 1819, when the reforming Mahmud II was sultan.
Even if you're not much interested in Turkish literature, it's worth coming up here to get a sultan's-eye view through the windows at the enormous roofed gateway on the other side of the tramlines. This was the Sublime Porte, where visitors hoping to see the grand vizier would wait to be received with the result that ambassadors came to be described as accredited to the Sublime Porte rather than to the Palace. The current gateway dates back to circa 1840.
Museum of the History of Islamic Science and Technology
If you leave the library and continue walking around the park wall in a clockwise direction, you will pass a small lake with a bridge -- which makes a popular posing platform -- and then an electricity box decorated with some of the typically swirling miniatures that were the hallmark of the late Nusret Cölpan (1952-2008).
Eventually you will arrive at the Museum of the History of Islamic Science and Technology (closed Tuesdays), which is housed in what was originally a stable block. The subject matter might sound of rather specialist interest, but the museum is worth visiting not least for its beautiful presentation. Come here, too, to learn the history of the İstanbul Rasathane, the observatory that today plays a big role in earthquake preparation. It was originally the handiwork of a Syrian called Takiyüddin (1526-85), who founded the first such space in Tophane in 1574 before being obliged by the religious authorities to move on.
If you cross the park and head uphill towards the Setüstü Çay Bahçesi, you should come to a clearing with, in the center of it, one of the city's four remaining Roman memorial columns. An inscription on the base of the column refers to a victory over the Goths without indicating which one, leading historians to postulate that it could have been erected during the reign of Claudius II Gothicus (r. 268-70) or Constantine the Great (r. 306-37). One historian recorded that it had been topped with a statue of Byzas, the founder of Byzantium, which would make perfect sense given that the Topkapı Palace was built over the site of the original Byzantine one.
If not much can be said with any conviction about the Goths Column, even less can be said about a cluster of unexcavated ruins that you'll find if you head back down towards the main path through the park. Broken columns, tumbled capitals and heaped-up stones might suggest that this was the site of a small Byzantine church, perhaps dating back to the reign of Constantine. How odd that it should sit there virtually ignored.
First statue of Atatürk
After pausing for tea at Setüstü, it's worth following the perimeter of the park counterclockwise and downhill to the exit on the Bosporus side at Sarayburnu (Seraglio Point). Here amid a great deal of building paraphernalia stands the very first statue ever built of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It was erected in 1926, three years after the founding of the Turkish Republic. There he stands gazing across the water towards Kadıköy and the site of the original settlement of Chalcedon, founded by the Megarans in circa 635 B.C. Given that Islamic tradition frowned on representation of living things, the statue was the work of Austrian sculptor Heinrich Krippel.
Çinili Köşkü (Tiled Pavilion)
If, instead, you leave Setüstü and continue to follow the walls of the park in a clockwise direction, you will find yourself passing behind the elegant Çinili Köşkü, built in 1472 for Sultan Mehmed II, probably so that he could watch bouts of cirit, a Turkish sport not entirely unlike polo. While not nearly as lovely as the front, which offers access to a part of the Archeological Museum, the back of the building is nevertheless studded with beautiful turquoise tiles that reek of Central Asia.
The main entrance to the park faces the Zeynep Sultan Cami on Alemdar Caddesi. It's open daily from dawn to dusk.