Dolmabahçe Palace at 150 years

Ensconced in one of the loveliest bays on the Bosphorus, Dolmabahçe Palace is celebrating its 150th birthday in a series of special events in Turkey and abroad.

During the close to six-hundred-year history of the Ottoman Empire, the capital of the ruling state and the ‘palace’ or residence of the sultan was transferred in 1453 to Istanbul following its original location at Bursa and then Edirne. The first palace built in Istanbul when it became the capital city was the Saray-ı Atik-i Âmire or ‘Old Palace’. This initial seat of government was followed by the Saray-ı Cedîd-i Âmire (‘New’ Palace), aka Topkapı Palace. In subsequent years, Topkapı, Old Çırağan, the Beşiktaş Waterside Palace and the Old Beylerbeyi Palace were used in turns until the completion of Dolmabahçe Palace in 1856, when the seat of government was transferred there. In 1877 it changed places again when Sultan Abdülhamid II moved to the Yıldız Palace, where he remained for the rest of his sultanate. Then, from 1909 until the abolition of the sultanate in 1922, Dolmabahçe Palace was again the seat of government. Even Atatürk used the palace as his residence when he stayed in Istanbul, and died there in room no. 71 on 10 November 1938. It was from there that his remains were transferred to Ankara following a public visitation.

Completed in 1856, Dolmabahçe Palace is the third largest palace of the Ottoman sultans in Istanbul. It exhibits an architectural integrity that reflects to an important degree the cultural composition, social and artistic influences, trends and changes in the palace organization in the period. Dolmabahçe Palace, construction of which was commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecid to architect Garabet Balyan and his son Nikoğos Balyan as a prestigious structure at the entrance to the Bosphorus, transformed the skyline of the fast-growing city in the 19th century when Ottoman relations with the West were intensifying. Here, in place of a group of buildings that evolved over time and in keeping with needs as in the case of Topkapı Palace, a design was first conceived based on a novel approach. The emphasis was on a group of self-sufficient structures consisting of a main building, parallel with the shore and surrounded by high walls, and a series of annexes to meet the requirements of the entire palace administration as well as providing living quarters. In the main building, the traditionally separate Men’s and Women’s Quarters were united in a new concept under a single roof and these spaces then connected with the centrally situated Ceremonial Hall. These structures were followed by the Palace of the Crown Prince, which appears to be an extension of the same architectural mass in the direction of the water.
Western architectural elements were incorporated into the plan without abandoning arrangements based on the Ottoman architectural tradition and way of life. At the same time, contrary to custom, a predominantly Western, and rather elaborate, ostentatious style was chosen for the interior and exterior decorations.

The sources indicate that Séchan, the decorator of the Paris Opera, worked on the decorating and furnishing of the palace. As Théophile Gautier points out, one of the halls of the palace was furnished with Louis XIV-style furniture designed by Séchan in work Gautier himself claims to have seen under way in the artist’s atelier at Turgot. The palace furnishings are generally of European origin and exhibit a variety of different styles. Some of the furnishings were made during the construction of the palace, while others arrived in the form of gifts from various European countries as well as from countries like Egypt, China and India. All the upholstery and drapery fabrics are of Turkish origin, most of them of pure silk produced at the palace’s Hereke Factory.
A total of almost 4500 square meters of carpets (142 carpets and 115 prayer rugs) cover the palace’s decorative parquet floors, most of them also products of the Hereke Factories, with valuable specimens of Feshane, Kayseri, Uşak and Iranian carpets as well.

One of the most outstanding features of the palace is the widespread use of crystal, most notably in the form of Bohemia and Baccarat chandeliers and, more rarely, chandeliers made at the Ottoman glass factory at Beykoz. Besides the chandeliers, of which the palace boasts a total of 36, footed candlesticks as well as some of the fireplaces, balustrades and, of course, all the mirrors in the palace are also made of crystal. Apart from all these, each one of the Turkish and European-made clocks that complete the decorations, and constitute a very valuable collection in themselves, has its own unique character.
Paintings on various subjects and in diverse styles by Turkish and foreign painters grace the walls of the palace’s salons and chambers. A major part of the collection was assembled during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz. The purchase of paintings in this period was made possible through the painter Şeker Ahmet Pasha, who was the sultan’s art consultant. Among them are works by artists such as Daubigny, Schreyer, Fromentin and Gérome. The palace collection also includes 30 oil paintings by Ayvazovsky, who was in Istanbul prior to and during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz, and 20 works in various techniques by Fausto Zonaro, Sultan Abdülhamid II’s Chief Palace Painter. Besides the works of painters of military origin such as Captain Ali Rıza, Lieutenant Commander Hasan Behçet and Şeker Ahmet Pasha, those of other artists like Halife Abdülmecid, Osman Hamdi Bey and Hikmet Onat, all well-known pioneers in the art of Turkish painting, have also been added to the collection.
As a palace-museum attached today to the Department of National Palaces of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, Dolmabahçe Palace, which is being preserved for future generations with all its original furnishings, is marking its 150th anniversary in a series of special events. As part of the festivities, an exhibition, ‘From the Ottoman Palace Collection’, culled from the Dolmabahçe Palace collection, is being held in the capital, Abu Dhabi, of the United Arab Emirates 1-24 November in a cooperation between the Turkish Department of National Palaces and the Abu Dhabi Association for Cultural Heritage ADACH).

We would like to thank the TBMM Department of National Palaces for the visuals used here.