Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul: More than a museum

Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul: More than a museum

Melih Uslu
Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul: More than a museum

Sultan Abdulmejid was a statesman who set his seal upon a series of the most radical changes ever to be introduced in Ottoman history. The Sultan, brought up in Western cultural atmosphere, proclaimed a reform program, only four months after his accession to the throne, that placed the legal and administrative system of the Empire on a completely new basis and which was to have a very great influence on social life as a whole.

His attempts to open up Ottoman society to Western influences were particularly effective in the field of architecture, and the most striking example of the new approach is the remarkable building lying like a piece of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara.

All the Sultans since Mehmet the Conqueror had resided in the Palace of Topkapı. Mahmud II, however, had preferred the Palace of Beşiktaş as his place of residence, and his son Abdulmejid, having destroyed this palace and the buildings in its vicinity, summoned Balyan Karabet Kalfa and his son, the most distinguished architects of the day, and gave them instructions concerning the construction of a new palace that would combine the Empire style of the day with the distinguishing features of the old traditional Ottoman architecture.

The solution they found was indeed an interesting one, and truly artistic in its approach. The general spatial relations were arranged in accordance with the plan of the traditional Turkish house, but an enormous house of 285 rooms and reception halls. Several elements of traditional Ottoman palace architecture were employed but the building was given a definitely Western external appearance.

Decorators from France and Italy produced a scheme of decoration of remarkable harmony and magnificence, with the elegance of the building enhanced by an embankment around 600 meters in length. Completed in 1853, the palace covers an area of 64 thousand and 120 square meters.

Dependencies of the main building included a mosque, a theatre, the Imperial Stables, the Serasker Apartments and the Imperial Treasury. Immediately behind the palace lay the Aviary, the Crystal Pavillion, the apartments of the concubines and eunuchs, the Hereke weaving workshop, the apartments of the halberdiers, servants and gentlemen-in-waiting, as well as imperial kitchens capable of catering for thousands of people. The clock tower to the west of the palace was built at a later date by Sultan Abdulhamid II. Between the completion of the building in 1853 and the Proclamation of the Republic in 1923 the Palace was the residence of six sultans. All sections of the Palace are now open to the public, and the most remarkable of these is undoubtedly the great Ceremonial Hail.

This measures 44 x 46 meters, with a height of 36 meters, and a ceiling, supported by 56 columns, displaying an unparalleled wealth of decoration. Four spacious balconies were set aside for guests and the palace orchestra. Apart from this hail, the Palace is composed of the Selamlık (public rooms), the Harem (private quarters), and the Apartments of the crown prince and the queen’s mother. In addition to the two great imperial gates, the one opening on to the street, and the other on to the embankment, there are twelve very lovely gates, some opening on to the land side, others opening on to the sea.

The walls are of bluish-white marble from Marmara Island, while the floors are of wood. Nowadays practically high sections of Dolmabahçe Palace have been made available for cultural or artistic activities, so that it might be described as a centre of international culture rather than as a palace-museum.

Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul: More than a museumThrough foreign eyes

In his famous book Constantinopole, written in 1874 and translated into four languages, the celebrated ltalian writer Edmondo de Amicis gives the following description of Dolmabahçe Palace: “Dolmabahçe Palace consists of an enormous mass of marble reflected in the waters of the Bosphorus between Seraglio Point and the Black Sea, and can only be viewed as a whole from a passing caique. The facade, which is about half an ltalian mile long and looks out towards Asia, can be seen from a great distance standing out in brilliant white against the blue of the sea and the dark green of the hills behind. It is not a palace in the full meaning of the word, and displays a completely unique architectural approach consisting of an extraordinary mixture of Arab, Greek, Gothic, Turkish, Roman and Renaissance styles.

The building combines the stately magnificence of a European palace with the fragile elegance of the palaces of Seville and Granada. It might well be described as an “imperial city” like that of the Chinese emperors.

On the Bosphorus side it presents the aspect, in the words of a Turkish poet, of a line of theater and temple facades over, which a madman has strewn an incredible profusion of decoration. At first sight, it reminds one of those legendary eye-fatiguing Indian pagodas whose wall conceal the princes residing there. The rows of delicate, lance-like Doric and Ionic pillars, the windows set in ornate cornices with slender fluted columns, the arches adorned with fruit and foliage over ornately decorated doors, elegant terraces with lace-like balustrades, the rose motifs, the marble necklaces twining over the cornices, along the windows and over and under the reliefs, the network of arabesques from the doors to the pediments all combine to form a decoration that lends the complex building the appearance of a piece of extraordinarily fine fretwork that is at the same time of the greatest splendour and magnificence, an architectural spectacle, a feast of decoration.”

A British man served Istanbul

Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul: More than a museumBorn in London in 1807, the story of William James Smith in Istanbul, the capital city of the Ottoman Empire, begins with a new building planned to be built in place of the British Embassy which became unserviceable after a fire. In addition to the British Embassy building, Smith also designs a consulate building in Galata, a hospital and prison complex for British sailors, maritime offices, and St. Helena Chapel in embassy garden. Smith gains trust of Ottoman statesmen thanks to the prestige brought about by the British Embassy building and his advanced Turkish skills.

During the Ottoman architecture modernization process, he is offered proposals for large-scale projects. Smith was awarded the Sultanate medal by Sultan Abdulmejid for his services. It can be observed that the architectural projects carried out in the first 15 years of Sultan Abdulmejid’s reign are in harmony with Smith’s designs. Mecidiye Imperial Post also known as Taşkışla, is the best known example. Gümüşsuyu Military Hospital and Kasımpaşa Naval Hospital built between years 1846 and 1849, are outstanding works by Smith.

The restoration of Sultan Chamber in Selimiye Post and Tophane Imperial Pavilion are his classicist designs. The Observation Kiosk at Dolmabahçe Palace and the adjacent Winter Garden are also works of Smith. His main contribution to the Dolmabahçe Palace is undoubtedly the glass cover of the area that features a crystal staircase. He is a figure known also for his contributions to civil architecture of Istanbul. Senior Mansions, mainly that of Grand Viziers İbrahim Edhem Pasha, are examples to these projects. Another project that enhanced his reputation is the Naum Theatre Hall with an important place in the 19th century art life in Istanbul. The book “An Architect of Sultan Abdulmejid,” presented to the reader with interior and exterior views of buildings designed by Smith, contains abundant material on Ottoman Tanzimat reform era architectural culture.

Turkish museums,