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August 10, 2012

Turkey: Istanbul, Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace’s neo-Baroque façade

After visiting the fabulous Topkapı Palace it is difficult to imagine that a replacement was needed.  Considering that in 1843, when construction was begun, the Ottoman Empire was in the midst of its decline, a new palace seems an extravagance.  Somehow it was judged that new digs were needed and thus the Empire’s 31st Sultan, Abdülmecid I, initiated the construction of the Dolmabahçe Palace.

Overlooking the water from Istanbul’s old town

No matter the need, the resulting building is impressive.  Dolmabahçe Palace is positioned along the Bosporus on a garden-like spot created on a reclaimed bay.  Indeed “Dolmabahçe” is derived from the Turkish words dolma meaning “filled” and bahçe meaning “garden.”

Stylistically the palace combines design elements of European neo-Baroque and Ottoman imperial.  The fusion of these disparate architectural elements makes Dolmabahçe intriguing.

The Dolmabahçe Palace complex is entered through a manicured garden.  From the outside the façade appears as an impressive and imposing Western-style palace. In fact the Dolmabahçe is a European palace; the complex is situated just on the European side of the continental boundary.

Most memorable on the inside is the Crystal Staircase.  This curved grand staircase includes a banister built of Baccarat crystal and mahogany.  Overhanging the stairway is a spectacular crystal chandelier.  The Crystal Staircase defines the opulence that seems to accompany the end of great empires.

(left) Doesn’t “Self Service” seem wrong at the Harem Cafe? (center) Dolmabahçe’s clocktower (right) Rays of light

The sultans of the Ottoman Empire were not that last official residents of the Dolmabahçe Palace.  After the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate and creation of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, used the palace when he stayed in Istanbul.  In fact, Atatürk’s last days were spent in Dolmabahçe.  He died in a bed in the harem.  After Atatürk’s death, Dolmabahçe was transformed to a museum, a status that it maintains until this day.  Dolmabahçe Palace remains today as glimpse of life at the top of the great Ottoman Empire just as it came to its end.

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