Under the sultanate of Ahmet the First, the area was filled with earth from a nearby hill to become a picnic ground reserved for the sultans. The name ‘Dolmabahce’ stems from this landfill. “Dolma” means ‘filled’ in Turkish, and ‘bahçe’, ‘garden’, therefore ‘Filled Garden’ palace. During, this period the shore area was decorated with summer palaces, mansions, and villas.
The largest of these, the ‘Eski’ (old) Palace included a wide range of rooms, functional as well as elaborately decorative, for the full court of the Sultan. Sultan Mahmut II., after a period of non-use, repaired the Old Palace as a residence, finding the Topkapi Palace confining. In 1843, Sultan Abdulmecid I ordered the razing of the Old Palace, and in its place, the construction of the present palace began under the direction of his architect Karabet Balyan.
In 1856, the Sultan took up residence in this lavishly decorated palace. The exterior appearance of the palace is dominated by its high central Reception Room, and wings left and right containing the public and private (harem) rooms, respectively. Its length parades 284 meters (925 feet) down the shores of the Bosphorus on top of a 600 meter, heavily decorated quay. The apartments of the Queen Mother project 95 meters off the harem section at right angles, attached to the harem by the apartments of the Crown Prince. The interior layout of the palace is very simple and regular, consisting of groups of rooms on a straight line, opening to a larger chamber, and forming a cohesive unit. For example, each private bedroom of the harem opens into a central living chamber. The outer grounds of the palace were completed by the additions of, first, the Mosque of the Queen Mother (of Abdulmecit) and second, the Clock Tower, built by Sultan Abdulhamit II. Additional sections and buildings were added to the complex, such as the Treasury, the Chamber of the Chief Eunuch, Glass Villa, and opposite today’s shore road, the pharmacy and the Pastry Kitchens of the palace. In addition to these, along the shore on either side of the main palace complex, supporting units of the sultan’s household stretched for almost another kilometer, such as Carriage Houses, Stables, and a special Harem for the Princes.
The palace features two highly elaborate gateways, symbolic of the empire’s magnificence. The Treasury Gate faces the Clock Tower, and the Regal Gate, the main roadway. Each columned gate focuses upon a central arch, framed by smaller side arches, within a graceful oval indentation of the palace walls themselves. Towers accentuate these ovals. Heavy ornamentation is dominated by columns, rosettes, oyster shells, leaves and branches, and strung pearls.
The pediment is decorated with roses, wreaths, and vases. Above the Treasury Gate, in green and gold, is the monogram of Sultan Abdulmecit dated 1853, below which is an inscription by the poet Ziyver dated 1857. The regal Gate carries the same monogram, dated 1854. The grounds of the palace, in accordance with Islamic social customs in the Ottoman period, are framed by high walls. In a break with tradition, the gardens are on a flat plane, unlike the traditional Turkish terraced gardens. The break is logical as the Chief Gardener and his aides during the period were Germans.
The palace was built of marble from the islands of the Marmara Sea and porphyry from Bergama, on the Aegean Sea coast. The ornate and heavy 19th-century decor none-the-less carries a flavor of traditional Turkish design. The structure of Turkish home life was the focus of the interior layout. Each section of the palace is like a separate Turkish home: a central gathering place, surrounded by smaller, and more private rooms. The exterior look of the palace is dominated by the Baroque and Eclectic style of the Renaissance period. Floor levels are clearly separated, with different styles of column capitals. Triangular pediments and marble parapets blend with a wide range of architectural motifs drawn from western design in symmetrical harmony. Interior materials are dominated by alabaster, marble, and porphyry, the work of Italian and French artists. Furnishings and interior decorate the work of the famed French designer Sechan, creator of the Paris Opera.
The balsam and mahogany doors and window frames, ornamented in richly carved and gold-leafed-relief, in combination with the frescoed ceilings, remind one of the interiors of French palaces. In the interior decor, ceilings are emphasized. They are sectioned and generally frescoed. In addition scenes of nature, and figurative compositions have been painted on canvas and stretched on the ceiling surfaces. The Queen Mother’s Bedroom ceiling is an excellent example of this treatment. Exceptions are found in the ceiling of the Holiday Reception Hall where the ceiling is of sheet Lead, the Selamlik (male quarters) Dining Room (painted wood), and the baths which have ceilings decorated in stone. The three-story palace has 285 rooms, 43 salons, 6 balconies, and six Turkish baths. Another dominant feature of the interior is the crystal. Bohemian and Baccarat chandeliers and fireplaces sparkle and tinkle, adding warmth and character to the otherwise vast spaces on the palace. 36 major chandeliers, however, pale in significance alongside the grandest of them all, the 4 and a half-ton chandelier in the Holiday Reception Hall, a gift of Queen Victoria, and the largest in the world.
The palace includes an Art Gallery with noted works of Zonaro, Fromentin, and Aivazowski, 280 Chinese, Japanese, ‘Yildiz’ (Turkish) and European vases, 156 historic and elegant clocks, 581 silver, crystal, and other candelabras, 11 silver braziers, crystal and silver stem, and flatware, and room decorations. Of particular note are the crystal balustrades in the Crystal Staircase room. In addition, there are five major staircases, 7 service staircases, and one elevator, added during the Republic Period, during the illness of Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic.
The building was originally heated with braziers and fireplaces. After Sultan Abdulhamid, it was heated with tile stoves. Finally, during the Sultanate of Mehmet Reshat V central heating and electricity were installed. Even these 20th-century functional services were made princely, by the addition of gold leaf to the radiators. The inlaid parquet floors, particularly in the rooms and salons of the Sultan’s private apartments are an additional elegant feature and unique such that they might be the subject of separate research themselves. From 1877 to 1909, Sultan Abdulhamit II., chose to live in the Yildiz Palace, leaving Dolmabahce empty and decaying. After 32 years, on ascending to the sultanate, Mehmet Reshad V. ordered the architect Vetad to repair and refurbish the palace as his residence. The palace saw very active days during the reign of Mehmet Reshat V., from 1909-1918. His successor, Vahdeddin, moved to the Yildiz Palace after only a short residence in Dolmabahce. His successor, in turn, Abdulmecid, chose again to reside in Dolmabahce, remaining here until March 3, 1924, when the palace was declared public property with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This was not in fact a departure from tradition under the sultans, as, by tradition, the sultan himself, as well as all his possessions and palaces were considered public property.
The palace is entered passing from the dominant green and white of the gardens, up gray marble staircases through a columned pediment, in all, a very grand entrance. The Foyer is decorated with matching four-meter tall mirrors on either side and French flower vases, a gift of the French to Abdulhamit.
The main parquet-floored hall is supported by four columns, with columned separations creating smaller lounges on left and right. The capitals and vertical lines of the columns are gold-plated. Ceiling spans are separated with ribs and treated in colored engravings. Off of each of the four corners are small rooms, behind the fireplaces, used on occasion as waiting areas fireplaces bases are ceramic tile, and the upper portion cut crystal. On the mantle of each is a porcelain Sevre vase bearing the monogram of Abdulmecit.
The central table is of balsam wood, also bearing the monogram of the Sultan. In the left and right lounges are tables of Italian style stone. The large vases in front of each lounge are of ‘Yildiz’ manufacture, each in four parts, with illustrations done by Turkish and French artists. Carpets and upholstery in the hall are of Turkish ‘Hereke’ manufacture. The crystal candelabra and each of the footed tables of the lounges bring the crystal effect into all corners of the Entrance Hall.
Salon of the Circular Crystal Stairs
Departing the Entrance Hall, the visitor begins to ascend a staircase into an atmosphere quite unlike that of any set of functional stairs. Although the staircases in the salon do of course serve a function, it seems incidental, as the swirl of stairs, crystal, and inlaid floors, to the vast vaulted glass dome over-head, gives a self-contained unity to the salon. All of the entry and exit doors from this grand stairwell are of mahogany, highlighted with gold-leaf.
On the left balcony of the salon, blue-based Sevre vases, and covered Japanese vases dominate. In the four corners of the salon are floor-standing crystal candelabra. Silver-based candelabra are placed in the open spaces above the curve of the stairs. On the land side lounge of the salon are located two flower vases of Indian origin, the bases of which are decorated with a lion and horse, and deer relieves, respectively. The upper portions are decorated with colorful raised stones. On the central table is a musical clock made by artisans in the Shipyard of the Golden Horn, bearing the monogram of Sultan Mahmud II., and decorated in gold, diamonds, and emeralds. At the side of each of the doors leading to the Diplomatic Audience, Suite is extravagant candelabras of solid silver and ivory, a gift of the Governor of Arabia to Abduhamit II. They serve as a frame for the Chinese porcelain vases between them.
Salon of the Diplomatic Corps
The four corners of this grand salon sparkle with fireplaces of, again, cut crystal, tiles, and gold-leaf. Their mantles hold Chinese porcelain vases and Sevre candelabras. The ceiling is ribbed and sectioned, decorated in raised gold-leafed roses. Three side lounges, separated from the main salon by twin columns, are located on the sea, garden, and landside of the room. A Baccarat crystal chandelier in the center of the room hangs as a witness to many great momentous decisions to Westernize Turkish by abolishing the Arabic alphabet and introducing Latin. In addition to the Hereke-covered furnishings, crystal and silver candelabras complete the room’s decoration. The piano on the land side of the room is French, an inlay of fine metals and wood. Salon in this room there were put. In the center of the room is a Sevre vase upon a marble table atop a Persian ‘Tabriz’ carpet. The twin-faced clock at the entrance from the Crystal Stairs is of solid Sterling silver, depicting tropical scenes of nature, and deer. The clock on the opposite side of the salon is four-faced, of Arabesque style, and also solid Sterling silver. It is engraved with a poem to the glory of Sultan Abdulhamit II.
Waiting Room of Dignitaries
The small room passed through in arriving at the waiting room was reserved for translators. Two vases of gold-leaf and deep blue enamel of Berlin origin grace the corners of the room. The central table carries Baroque-style silver candelabras. A gold-leafed raised crystal mirror is located at the right of the entrance. A pair of gold-leafed bronze clocks and candelabras on the buffet are among the other elegant furnishings of the room. The ceiling is in Gothic style, whose designs are intended to give the illusion of infinity. The basic decor of the main waiting room carries many of the rich features common to most rooms of the palace, gold-leaf, mahogany, crystal, etc. Of particular note here, however, is the effect of unity created by the careful blending of the ceiling to walls to windows by the introduction of a lacy curtain-like treatment to all of these elements. The total effect, although extremely rich, is none-the-less very satisfying. In this atmosphere, the foreign dignitary would wait for his opportunity to enter the next room and have his private audience with the Sultan.
Private Audience Chamber of the Sultan
The foreign ambassador would leave his accompanying delegation in the small room entered en route to the Audience Chamber, decorated in crimson, and filled with victorious battle scenes. The mood of the Audience Chamber is rich crimson and gold, the Sultan’s couch framed as it were by a solid cornice overhead, heavily embossed with gold-leaf. Two Russian St. Petersburg vases stand in the far corners, with a Louis XV clock opposite them. The marble table in the room’s center is topped by a set of candelabras and vases in Sterling silver. The room is completed by two red crystal fireplaces at either side of the entrance. In front of each fireplace is a small table, each gift of Napoleon, depicting Napoleon with the women in his life on one, and angels on the other. The lower panels of the walls are solid mahogany with the upper panels engraved and gold-leafed. Exiting from the Private Audience Chamber, on return to the main salon we see, in the sea-side lounge; a Japanese dragon-based vase.
Translated to English this is the ‘Two-sided’ salon, due to its overlooking both sea and garden sides of the palace. The ceiling, in three sections, uses artificial columns in gold-leaf to support its center. The whole of the ceiling itself is as well treated in gold-leaf. The parquet flooring is in an interlocking star-shaped pattern. On the seaside of the salon are found mirrors and consoles inlaid with precious metals, highlighted with embossed gold-leaf. The matching furniture and drapery fabrics are of Turkish ‘Hereke’ manufacture. On the far side of the room is a mirror-topped Bohemian crystal red fireplace. Mirrored consoles frame the fireplace, topped by gold-leafed crystal candelabras. In the center of the central section is a large Sevre vase atop a marble and gold-leafed table, all beneath a massive chandelier. Furnishings on the land side are the same as the seaside, with the addition of a piano. As well, two Syrian mother-of-pearl inlaid buffets are featured in the stair entrance. This room originally had a very religious function for the palace as the sight of prayers at religious holidays, for the dead, and wedding ceremonies. When the Sultan received ‘Tranquility’ lessons here, he sat on the seaside atop a cushioned sofa surrounded by his attendants. During the Ramazan time each year, this room was filled with prayer rugs, with a special section screened off for the women of the harem. In addition to these religious functions, the Zulvecheyn Salon was one of the best – suited large rooms in the palace for large dinner receptions.
Shortly after the ascension to the throne, two major receptions took place here, one for the Viceroy (governor) of Egypt, and one for the King and Queen of Bulgaria. During the time of last Calif (Abdulmecid) two dinners occurred here, one for the royalty and one for the Princes of the household. Under the Presidency of Ataturk, this room served as the Presidential Dining Room. During these times a Turkish musical group would entertain on the seaside end, with a western orchestra at the side of the room near the stair entrances.
Queen Mother’s Reception Room
Also called the ‘Red Room’ for its dominant color, this room is reached through a second iron gate at the end of the corridor leading to the harem section. On the left at the entrance is a high relief gold-leafed marble fireplace, whose framed oval mirror stretches to the ceiling. The heavily decorated twin entry doors frame the fireplace. An unusual French Aubusson carpet covers the floor of the entire room. Ceiling decorations are quite unique.
Within the domed or vaulted central section of the ceiling, a balconied effect is created. The four corners carry representations of ship bows, and weapons among garlands, a motif that carries into the bland gold-leaf relief that joins the ceiling to the walls. On the window, the side is vases on consoles. A massive red and white crystal chandelier completes this very rich room.
Bedroom of the Queen Mother
The Queen Mother’s bed stands on the right of the room, gold-leafed relief, and elegantly canopied. Nearby is a bronze, mother-of-pearl inlaid jewelry box, made by the shops of the Yildiz Palace 1902. Its design is in harmony with the dominant gold in the rest of the furnishing of the room. The ceiling is of hand-engraved cloth.
The Blue Salon
The dominant blue color of the curtains, ceiling, and walls of his salon gives it its name. The extensions at either end are brightened with three windows across the sea land side. Each section of the ceiling is framed by heavily decorated, gold-leaf massive frames. The panels of the ceiling were mounted after being carved. Scenes of nature and flower arrangements are featured. A red and white crystal chandelier hangs at the center. At the entrance, the visitor observes a pair of mirrored consoles at left and right. These repeat themselves on all four of the side entrances of the room. The floor-standing chandeliers in from of each of the paired mirrors throw additional life and light into the room. The sea-side lounge is decorated in a light-colored quilted fabric. Its walls are colorfully engraved, with the same composition carrying to the walls of the landside lounge. The porcelain vase in the salon’s center is of Yildiz manufacture and stands on a round gold-leaf high relief table. During the Republic Period, an elevator was for the use of the ill President Ataturk. During the Abdulmecit period, many receptions took place in the Blue Room. In addition, the sultan observed his family religious holidays here, in the company of his children and women. Abdulaziz in addition accepted many foreign dignitaries here. Both Abdulhamit II., and Mehmet Reshat V., were enthroned here, and in the late years of the Sultanate, the Harem band performed marches.
The room in which Ataturk died
When we enter the Blue Room, on the right we see two smaller rooms overlooking the sea. The first room was used by Gazi Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Founder and First President of the Republic of Turkey, as a study. The visitor notices by contrast with the rest of the palace, the simplicity of this room. The second room served as Ataturk’s bedroom, and it was here that the great revolutionary died on November 10, 1938. At the entrance to the bedroom on the right wall, there is a painting depicting the four seasons, much beloved by Ataturk. All of the furnishings are of walnut, with a medicine chest alongside the death bed, containing the medications last used by the late president. The decor is one of the stars and leaves, done in gold-leaf.
The Pink Salon
This room, named for its dominant color, was the gathering place for the women of the harem. The ceiling is of engraved plaster. The basic decoration of the room is mirrors and consoles. Gold-leaf and gold-threaded fabrics reflect in the mirrors. A bronze inlaid balsam table stands atop a huge Hereke carpet at the center of the room. The room is lighted by the central chandelier and its matching four floor-standing candelabra. The basic heating system of the room is through Sterlin silver braziers in the corners of the room. As in the rest of the palace, the gold-plated radiators and tile stoves were a later addition.
The Hall of Holiday Receptions:
The galleried hall is the central focus of the palace, both from exterior and interior. The galleries were used for seating of women of the court, foreign dignitaries, musicians, and other invited persons outside the court who would come to observe holiday festivities. The room takes its name from the traditional event of the sultan receiving a greeting for a happy holiday on the occasion of annual religious observances.
A few days before the holiday in question, the Throne of Murat III would be brought here from the Treasury of Topkapi (still to be seen today), and set up in the hall, on its garden side, facing the sea. Opposite this, a loge of chairs for foreign dignitaries was set up. After the holiday prayers, the sultan would rest in a small room in the corner of the hall. Greetings would then be accepted from royalty, his Council of Ministers, and all-male protocol members present, by their approaching him on the throne, and kissing his outstretched tassel. The two corner rooms on the land side have flat ceilings, while those by the sea are domed.
These rooms were the resting rooms of the sultans before the start of receptions. In the time of Abdulhamit II, a hidden stair was added in the left room at the landside in order that he might leave the ceremonies in secret. The hall measures 40 by 45 meters. Paired columns support semidomes, which in turn support the 36-meter high central dome. The inside of the dome is lead-lined and colorfully engraved with designs. An inscription on the stair leading to one of the galleries giving the names of three Armenians would indicate that the dome is their work. The columns are marble imitations, having been cast in a foundry.
The lighting of the salon is provided by four porphyry-based crystal candelabras in the corners of the room, column candelabras of silver in matching pairs, and the 4.5-ton central chandelier, a gift to the sultan by England’s Queen Victoria.
The hanging base of the chandelier fell during an earthquake as a reception was taking place during the time of Abdulhamid II. On weighting, it was found to a total of 700 kilograms. Heating was accomplished in this huge expanse of space by six domed furnaces beneath the floor of the hall, and hot air ducts opened at the foot of the columns. Heating began two days in advance of reception in order to bring the hall to a temperature of 18-20 degrees centigrade.
In addition to holiday celebrations, this grand hall experienced other events of historical note. In 1856, Sultan Abdulmecid gave a dinner reception here for Marschal Pelissier. A state dinner was also given for the Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef. During the final months of World War I the Austria-Hungarian Emperor Karl and his Empress were honored with a state dinner.
The first parliamentary assembly under the Ottomans took place here under Sultan Abdulhamid II. in 1877. In 1927, returning to Istanbul for the time as President of Turkey, Ataturk addressed a large gathering on the beauties of Istanbul. The group included parliamentarians, generals, and élites of the city of Istanbul. On his death, Ataturk’s body lay in state under this great dome.