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  • Writer's pictureJoel Butler, MA

A Brief History of Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul

What is Dolmabahçe Palace?

Dolmabahçe Palace is a 19th-century European-style imperial palace on the seafront.

Dolmabahçe Palace

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Dolmabahçe Palace History

There are two distinctive features noticeable to visitors of Dolmabahçe, both of which speak to the trajectory of modern-day Turkey through the late Ottoman and early Republican eras. The first thing to note is that it looks far more like a Western European palace, such as Buckingham or Versailles, than an Ottoman equivalent, such as the Topkapi Palace here in Istanbul. Not only was Topkapi outdated in terms of its features and fittings by the mid-19th century, but the symbolism of its architecture, as each onion-like layer brought you closer to the sultan’s inner sanctum, was deemed to no longer accurately reflect the structure of Ottoman politics. After all, this was the era of the Tanzimât Reforms, which attempted to expand Ottoman horizons, modernising and Europeanising the empire.

Therefore, this new palace blended aspects of Ottoman architecture with several Western European architectural styles, and was fitted with all the latest modern comforts, including gas lighting – eventually replaced by electricity – central heating and flushing toilets. The decoration of the palace may appear to be very Western European, with its chandeliers, burnished gold and oil paintings, but the mineral riches of the 19th-century Ottoman Empire are also represented in the palace, with stone from Egypt, as well as from Marmara and Pergamon, both in modern-day Turkey.

The second striking feature you might notice when touring the interior of the palace, if observant enough, is that one of the clocks is broken. It appears to have stopped at exactly 9:05. This is because, after the collapse of the Ottoman monarchy in 1923 and the abolition of their remaining ceremonial role in 1924, Dolmabahçe fell into Turkish state hands and became Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s summer residence. The founder-president of the Turkish Republic spent the final months of his life in Dolmabahçe receiving medical treatment until his death at 9:05 on the morning of the 10th of November 1938. For many years, all the clocks in the palace were stopped and set to 9:05, in honour of the man who most embodies modern Turkish national identity. The clocks in much of the rest of the palace have since been reset and function normally, but the one in Atatürk’s room is still forever set to 9:05. Dolmabahçe is thus as much a monument to the founder of the Turkish Republic as it is to the six sultans who inhabited the palace before him.

Dolmabahçe’s construction was expensive, and arguably a vanity project that the Ottoman Empire could ill afford during the mid-19th century. The vast expense of the palace – estimated at three-quarters of all state tax revenues – exacerbated the empire’s perilous financial standing and culminated in the Ottoman Empire defaulting on its public debts in 1875. A clue to part of the expense of the project is in the palace’s name: dolma bahçe literally means ‘filled garden’. The palace sits entirely on reclaimed land, though much of that land was reclaimed gradually over the course of the 18th century for royal gardens and pavilions.

Nowadays, around the exterior of the palace, some of the original gardens still remain, such as the Selamlik Garden in front of the public entrance, a garden within the inner walls of the palace, and the Harem Garden. You may notice ornamental birds such as peacocks and guinea fowl, a bird traded for its meat by the Ottomans and therefore originally known as the Turkey bird. When settlers in the Americas subsequently discovered a bird that looked similar to guinea fowl, they therefore also named it Turkey, which explains the curious connection between the country and the bird eaten at Christmas.

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