Beşiktaş Maritime Museum

Once the heart of Ottoman navigation, Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district today harbors within it key monuments of the city’s maritime history.

Every year from the 16th to the mid-19th century, the Ottoman fleet set sail in spring from Istanbul’s Beşiktaş harbor. Prior to setting out on these campaigns, the enormous galleys and galleons were launched with ceremony after lying at anchor for a few days just off shore. These ceremonies, which would become a venerable tradition in Ottoman navigation, ensured Beşiktaş a privileged place in the empire’s maritime history. In the 16th century, Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha had a mosque and medrese built at the mouth of the Beşiktaş river. And following his death, he was buried in a türbe (mausoluem) built on Beşiktaş Square in the classical Ottoman style by the architect Mimar Sinan. The reverence felt for this great Turkish navigator thus ensured the forging of a heartfelt bond between seamen and Beşiktaş, with the result that Turkey’s first and only Maritime Museum, which has stood at Beşiktaş since 1961, is of great significance for Ottoman maritime history.

The Maritime Museum was founded in 1897 at the behest of then Naval Minister Grand Admiral Hasan Hüsnü Pasha of Bozcaada by Lieutenant Commander Süleyman Nutki at the Tersane-i Amire (Imperial Dockyard). Originally called the Naval Museum and Library, a name that was changed to the Maritime Museum in 1934, it has the distinction of being Turkey’s first military museum as well. Original objects that had been removed from Istanbul to various locations in Anatolia during the war were put on public exhibition beginning in 1948 in the Dolmabahçe Mosque and adjoining buildings. Finally in 1961 the museum was moved to its present location on İskele Meydan in Beşiktaş next to the monument and tomb of Grand Admiral Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha. The section known as the Gallery of Caiques was opened to visitors in 1970. Exhibited here are matchless historic caiques brought from the Dolmabahçe, Topkapı, Beylerbeyi, Çırağan and Üsküdar Palaces and the Bosphorus pavilions.

This collection of historic caiques consists entirely of original pieces. Boasting 24 pairs of oars, these boats, which were used in the nearby waters by the Ottoman sultans starting from the period of Sultan Mehmed IV, were 5 meters and 70 cm in width and 40 meters long. The captain’s cabin of each galley was decorated in ivory, tortoise shell and mother-of-pearl and adorned with panels of silver and precious stones. As we are examining the caiques, we encounter Denise and Ray Marmion from Australia, and strike up a conversation with Ray, who is awed by the sheer splendor of the galleys. He sums up what he has seen here in a single word: “Magnificent!” The Australian couple explain that they have visited many cities in Turkey but that Istanbul has a special magic. Visualizing these historic caiques actually gliding over the water is a particular thrill for Denise. I immediately point out that several exact replicas have been made of one of them and are used today for touristic excursions on the Bosphorus.

Exhibited in the museum, which gives visitors a feel for maritime history and culture through the instruments used in navigation, are ships’ models, flags, paintings by such renowned artists as Aivazovsky and Hüsnü Tenküz, original items from Atatürk’s yachts the Savarona and the Ertuğrul, as well as items from the Yavuz, one of the most important ships of the Republican period. And among the objects on display in the museum garden are one of the cannons used by Sultan Selim I in his conquest of Egypt, a dredged up section of a German UB-46 submarine, and busts of the great Ottoman seafarers. In another part of the garden is a glass enclosure made specially for the yacht ‘Uzaklar’ in which Osman and Zuhal Atasoy set sail to circumnavigate the world. Weighing anchor from Sığacık Harbor on the Aegean on 24 August 1992, the Atasoys sailed westwards. The couple, whose daughter Deniz was born on the voyage, visited over 30 countries during their four years, ten months and six days on the water. Currently on display at the museum, the ‘Uzaklar’, in its pristine state, awaits visitors to whom it can tell its story.

One thing that makes this museum so moving is that all the objects on display are authentic. And the restoration experts employed by the museum subject the collection to continuous inspection. Specially trained in museology and the restoration of historical objects, these experts not only repair missing sections of maps but even touch up worn paint on the historic caiques without compromising their authenticity in any way. Due to the continuous addition of new pieces, the Maritime Museum’s current buildings are rapidly becoming inadequate, and the museum is therefore preparing for a renovation. Preparations are already in progress for implementing the prize-winning project in a competition that was held in 2005. Museum officials assure us that the new project will be translated into reality as soon as possible. Among other things, the project will include a sky simulator showing all the constellations. In addition, a three-dimensional ship handling simulator is also on the way, to appeal to young visitors in particular. Using this device, visitors will be able to command the ship of their choice.

The most outstanding testimonies to Turkey’s maritime heritage are on display at the Maritime Museum, from Admiral Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha right up to our day. It is impossible to contemplate these objects for even a moment and not be reminded of Barbaros returning triumphantly from one of his many campaigns. Listen closely and you may even catch the boom of the cannons...