The Imperial Pavilion

A splendid Ottoman pavilion next to the Yeni Cami (New Mosque) in the Golden Horn district of Eminönü has been restored in keeping with the original and has now joined the matchless treasures of Istanbul 2010, the European Capital of Culture.

In the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, everything happens very far away in a magical land behind a mythical mountain in the Caucasus. The adventures of sultans and princesses, giants and dwarfs, lovers and heroes transport the listener to the most exciting corners of that fairy tale realm. Istanbul too is just such a place, right under our noses, with laced with the remnants of countless civilizations, most prominently the Seljuk, the Byzantine and the Ottoman. An explorer’s paradise that put the fairy tale land of the Caucasus to shame long ago.

From London to Eminönü
The ‘Hünkâr’ or Imperial Pavilion at Eminönü is one such rare corner of Istanbul, which awakens feelings of awe in hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Now fully restored from head to toe, it has joined the city’s other epic sights. It should come as no surprise that this giant complex of structures, some three hundred years old, which include the Egyptian or Spice Bazaar, as well as a madrasa, bath, garden, pavilion and mausoleums, has been dubbed the ‘New’. For this is none other than Istanbul, where millennia-old monuments loom at every step. One of the monumental buildings that confer on Istanbul the title ‘city of mosques’, the Yeni Cami has a gate on the seaside, and the pavilion, which abuts that gate, rises over a single stone arch.

A mysterious structure over the historic passageway connecting Yeni Cami Square to Bankalar Caddesi, it has finally been opened to tourism following a restoration that took close to four years. Recently opened by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, this historic pavilion now boasts all its original faience tiles, the major part of which were recovered both in Turkey and abroad and meticulously remounted in their original positions.

One of the most opulent examples of 17th century Ottoman pavilions, the Hünkâr Pavilion, like the Yeni Cami next to it, was constructed at the behest of Suleiman the Magnificent’s granddaughter and Murad III’s wife of Venetian descent, Safiye Sultan. It mesmerizes visitors with its color calligraphy on wood, known as Edirnekâri, its doors of inlaid mother-of-pearl, its vibrant stained glass windows and its carved wooden eaves enriched with gold leaf. It is also adorned with the most ostentatious 17th century Iznik tiles, more than ten thousand of which are used on its interior walls, depicting an array of floral and vegetal motifs in turquoise, cobalt blue and red. Due to its proximity to the sea, it was built over the old Byzantine sea walls. Three stories tall, it is approached by a gently sloping ramp known as the ‘Tahtırevan yolu’ or ‘Palankeen way’. Judging by what pavilion officials relate, the sultan climbed to the end of the ramp on his horse and then stepped directly inside. Upon entering one is inside an L-shaped ‘sofa’ or hall, whose walls are encased in Iznik tiles. One end of it leads to the Apartments of the Valide Sultan or mother of the sultan. The door opening from the long corridor illuminated by two rows of windows at top and bottom was added so the sultan could proceed directly into the mosque. The pavilion was used by the sultan and his family before or after prayers and occasionally for worshipping or resting on holy days. The most opulent of its chambers is the Privy Chamber, whose carved wooden ceiling is decorated with spectacular calligraphy and whose walls are adorned with the finest examples of Iznik tiles inscribed with verses from the Koran.

A woman’s touch
The pavilion has been through the restoration process countless times since the 1940’s but for some reason was repeatedly ransacked and abandoned to its fate. Now it has been rescued from oblivion in a restoration financed by the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce at a cost of eight million Turkish Liras. Damage to the weight-bearing system of this delicate structure, which has preserved its existence since 1663, was also eliminated during the course of the restoration, which was carried out by a team of forty experts, most of them women, headed by architect Hatice Karakaya. The horizontal, vertical and diagonal connecting elements were replaced as well. The wooden sections damaged beyond repair by time’s depredations were identified, and missing doors and shutters were replaced with new ones. In the sections that were still sound, damaged textures were recreated using the same kind of wood. All wooden components were made in the interlocking kündekâri style without using nails and repaired in keeping with the originals. The mother-of-pearl inlays and ebony veneers were patiently polished by skilled hands. When the restoration was complete, the wooden components were protected with a layer of varnish and special chemicals. The leaden roof, almost all of which had been destroyed, was replaced in keeping with the original using a layer of wool insulation. The floor of the pavilion was again paved in hexagonal bricks over earth, exactly as it was in the Ottoman period.

The pavilion becomes a museum
The Hünkâr Pavilion is at last a cultural venue watched over by security cameras 24/7. Its lengthy and meticulous restoration was documented in photographs that hang now on the walls on either side of the ramp. The small rooms on the ground floor of the pavilion, which is described in some sources as a summer palace for the Ottoman sultans, are being used today as shops and workshops. A door midway up the ramp, which is covered with a hip roof, leads to a balcony set over stone consoles. This is also the best spot for viewing the eye-catching decorations under the pavilion’s eaves. The long, narrow balcony also answers the question of what is located over the stone arch that appears so striking at first glance from the exterior. Located in this section, which constitutes the pavilion’s second story, are a kitchen and pantry as well as the chambers of those who served the palace residents. A giant oil vessel and stone wash basin in the kitchen have survived from those days.

A tile fragment attached smack dab in the center of the exterior facade of the stone arch that connects the pavilion to the Yeni Cami seems to hint at the richness of the tiles inside. Meanwhile the pavilion’s mother-of-pearl inlaid doors are some of the most refined examples of the Ottoman art of woodworking. Known to be a place where the sultan rested, the Privy Chamber is situated perpendicular to the sea to afford a better view. One of the surprise features of the pavilion, which was heated by ceramic-tiled fireplaces, is the Byzantine Tower. Encircled by Byzantine defense walls, this open area is slated to be converted into a cafeteria in the near future. Remembered as a masterpiece of Ottoman civilian architecture, the Imperial Pavilion is soon to be opened as a museum and enriched with a wide range of exhibits. We learn from officials that the opening will coincide with the summer tourist season. Be sure to stop by the Hünkâr Pavilion, both to witness once again the beauty of Istanbul and to make the acquaintance of this very special venue that has been added to the city’s skyline. You’ll feel like a sultan!