Manuscripts: The Hunt for Topkapi

Getting images of manuscripts from Topkapi, Istanbul, is notoriously difficult. Here I describe how I succeeded in obtaining them. I am not saying my way is the only way. In fact, if you know of better ways, please do get in contact with me. All I am doing here is share my own experience.

The first step of that experience was to realize, after more than a year, that I was not going to do it without going there myself. I tried several connections, and some of them really went the extra mile for me, but in the end it did not work out.

So, I went there. Istanbul is great and if my readers would like to see a more general guide to manuscript hunting in Istanbul, I would be happy to write it. Please leave a response either here or on Facebook. I planned to stay for a week. This turned out to be too short. My suggestion is to be there for two weeks.

What you need to do at home is:

  • Know exactly which manuscripts you need. I have found out that the catalogue is lacking many details and contains wrong information. I suggest to use scholarly literature; you need to know about a call number from someone who has seen the manuscript itself. In my case the “Philologika” articles from Helmut Ritter were helpful. There is no reading room at Topkapi and you will not be allowed to peruse a bunch of manuscripts. You can only go there and say: “I want pictures of the manuscript with call number ####”.

What I took with me was:

  • 2 hard copies and a digital copy of the Topkapi CD Request Form.
  • 2 hard copies and a digital copy of my passport.
  • 2 hard copies and a digital copy of a letter of endorsement from my supervisor, printed on paper with university letterhead.
  • 2 hard copies and a digital copy of a letter explaining my purpose.
  • 2 passport quality photographs (did not need them).

I stayed at the Netherlands Institute in Turkey. This came in really handy as I found out that you really need to either speak Turkish or have someone at your disposal who speaks Turkish to make things happen. The librarian was kind enough to help me out. She translated the letter in which I explained my purpose into Turkish.


With her help, calling to Topkapi, I also learned that you first need to get a letter of approval from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. They are located in the Atlas Pasaji, on Istiklal Cadessi. Coming from Taksim, it will be on the left, a little before the Galatasaray Lisesi. In the Atlas Pasaji, the entrance is on the left, right next to the Tattoo Parlor (!). You will need a few Turkish words and a letter in Turkish explaining your purpose to talk yourself in. I had to go to the second floor where I was pointed to a door (they’re all bind with no signs). I opened it and saw a civil servant watching a television show on his computer. He only spoke Turkish. A colleague of him came, and his German was very good (English only limited).

The question they will ask you is: “Do you have permission from Ankara?”

The correct answer is: “I do not need to physically hold the manuscript, I only want photographs.”

With that established, they were actually very helpful. However, the letter I needed required a signature of someone who was not there. I agreed to come back the next day. Sometime in the morning, the next day, I actually received an e-mail saying the letter was signed. I went to pick it up and went to Topkapi Palace.

Once you have that letter, it is probably better to call ahead to Topkapi and make an appointment. I did not. When you are there, you can speak to the doorkeeper. You will receive a visitor’s pass and be on your way, from the entrance you take a right. I ended up talking to a lady who was, yet again, very helpful. I was asked again about Ankara and I repeated again that I only needed photographs. I asked her why it is a bit more difficult to get images from Topkapi than it is from Suleymaniye. She said that when Topkapi Palace was turned into a museum (Topkapi Palace Museum), all the manuscripts were logged as museum items, and so the library (Topkapi Palace Museum Library) uses different protocols in handling the manuscripts than other manuscript libraries do. Unlucky for me, they had not made photos of the manuscripts I was after (ergo: not all manuscripts are digitized). But I was surprised to learn how willing they were to do it, and they did not bill me any extra money.

About the money, the photos are not dirt cheap. For large quantities it is 2 liras per photo. I wanted to see three sizable manuscripts which amounted to €500,-. I think that’s a fine price, but I am just saying, it ain’t a bargain.

All of the above happened in a span of 3 days. But, of course, those photos needed to be taken, so I returned home empty-handed. She said that from here we would be able to handle it over the Internet. When I had returned home, it took several e-mails and 22 days to finally have the pictures.

In a next post, I will discuss the quality of these pictures, in comparison with other collections that offer digitalization.


One thought on “Manuscripts: The Hunt for Topkapi

  1. Thanks for this post. Topkapi is definitely not the easiest place to deal with, but the University of Istanbul is equally difficult, and I am not going to mention impossibilities of the TIEM. Good luck with your research and I look forward to the next part.

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