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Light reigns supreme Dolmabahçe Palace
2003 / March

What makes Dolmabahçe Palace so lovely is not only its magnificent architecture, painted decoration on walls and ceilings, and lavish gilding, but also the light reflected from the blue waters of the Bosphorus outside its windows. These reflections play on the ornate walls, columns and crystal chandeliers, enhancing its beauty with a dreamlike dimension. The architecture of this palace uses light almost as if it were a building material. Having spent the previous four centuries of its history in the small and relatively low lit rooms of Topkapı Palace, the Ottoman dynasty wished for a new royal residence that would be spacious, modern and light. Architects and site were settled upon. The new palace was to be designed by Garabet Balyan and his son Nikogos Balyan, and it was to be located on the shores of the Bosphorus at Dolmabahçe Bay, where several summer palaces and pavilions had been constructed in the past. Here light would flood its rooms at all times of day, and it would seem to embrace the ships entering the Bosphorus from the Marmara Sea.

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Light reigns supreme Dolmabahçe Palace
2003 / March

Construction commenced in 1842 on the orders of Sultan Abdülmecid, and was completed in 1853, becoming the new home of the Ottoman royal family. The several buildings of the palace faced the waterway, spreading along its shore for 600 metres. Although at first sight the architecture looks overwhelmingly western in style, the palace complied with traditional Eastern palaces by its division into Harem or private apartments, and Selamlık, public apartments. In all Dolmabahçe Palace has 43 reception rooms and 285 smaller rooms. Visitors are first struck by the meticulous attention to detail, whether in the inlay work, marble carving, or crystal balusters of the staircase, and the landscapes and decoration on walls and ceilings, painted in oils by French and Italian artists. In the Salon of the Ambassadors overlooking the sea you can see two easel paintings by Ayvazovski entitled Morning and Evening respectively. This famous Russian painter was a master at portraying light and the sea, and looking at these paintings we can see how he brings these two elements together in passionate embrace.

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Light reigns supreme Dolmabahçe Palace
2003 / March
The constantly changing light and rippling water of the Bosphorus are so much a part of the palace that it could belong nowhere else but Istanbul. For the wives and children of the sultans who inhabited these elaborate gilded rooms, the Bosphorus was a constant presence. But the strains of music from caiques gliding along on moonlit nights were not all the sounds that were heard here. All the upheavals and talk of war during these years echoed within its walls. Its occupants shared most of the anxieties of an empire straddling three continents in its last struggle for survival. Then the day came when the reflections of the moon rising above the hills of the opposite shore were overshadowed by gunfire from foreign ships arriving to occupy the Ottoman capital. Meetings held in palace rooms washed by the light of the Bosphorus and the decisions of Ottoman statesmen failed to save the empire, and at this palace the Ottoman dynasty withdrew from the stage of history.
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Light reigns supreme Dolmabahçe Palace
2003 / March

Many important guests were received at Dolmabahçe Palace, among them the Austrian emperor Charles I, the Empress Eugenie of France, the British kings Edward VII and Edward VIII, Emperor Wilhelm of Germany, Shah Muzafferüddin of Iran, the Russian grand dukes Constantine and Nicholay, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, and the Serbian kings Georgevich and Alexander. All witnessed the fluctuating changes of light on the Bosphorus during their stay. It was here that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk died on 10 November 1938 and the Turkish people lost a sun which had guided them through years of strife and transformation. Today as you wander down the silent corridors of the palace, you encounter a different light reflecting from the Bosphorus in each of the great salons. And as you depart from this imposing building, the light seems to whisper that it has always been the real ruler here.

* Ali Konyali is a writer on art and culture and photographer

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