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The Dolmabahce Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

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The Dolmabahçe Palace (pronounced dolma-bah-chay) was the palace of the Sultans, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, from about 1850 until the Empire collapsed in about 1920. It is located on the shore of the Bosphorus, the narrow sea channel which separates Europe from Asia, in the area of Istanbul known as Beşiktaş.

The Palace is now open to the public for guided tours. There are two tours - one of the reception rooms where the Sultan received visitors, and the other of the private rooms where he lived with his family.


The Turks conquered Constantinople, as Istanbul was then known, in the mid-15th Century and made it the capital of their Ottoman Empire. They built themselves a huge palace on the highest point of the city. This was known as the Topkapı Palace and it was inspired by the tent cities of the nomadic Turks before they had settled into a sedentary life. There were huge open courtyards surrounded by low buildings. There were airy pavilions with open doorways without doors. Most of the palace was at ground level. For four centuries the Sultans ruled the Empire from here. Most of the ceremonies at the Topkapı were held out of doors.

By the 19th Century, the Empire took in much of southeastern Europe, and the Sultans were very anxious to be considered Europeans. They wanted a palace in which they could entertain and impress European monarchs. The Topkapı was now old and decrepit, lacking the sort of luxury of a modern European palace. In addition, it was in the centre of the old city, but most business had moved north across the deep sea inlet of the Golden Horn, to the area known as Galata, and the Sultans were cut off from the life of the city.

In 1843, Abdülmecid, the 31st Sultan (reigned 1839-1861), commissioned a new palace in a low-lying area on the shore of the Bosphorus. The site had previously been a garden built on reclaimed land, hence the name: Dolmabahçe means 'filled garden' in Turkish. The site was big enough for the palace, but being confined by the Bosphorus on one side and a steep hill on the other, it did not have room for extensive landscaped gardens.

The palace was completed in 1856. It was phenomenally expensive to build, taking a significant part of the GNP of the whole Empire. The Ottomans didn't have this sort of money so they funded the palace with massive loans from Western Europe. This was certainly one of the factors that bankrupted the Empire, causing it to be known as the 'sick man of Europe'.

The palace was and still is the biggest in Turkey, although, with a floor area of 45,000m², it is smaller than Versailles in Paris or Buckingham Palace in London.

In the early 20th Century, a political movement called the Young Turks, led by Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, Father of Turks, brought about the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and replaced it with a democratic republic with Atatürk as the first President. The Sultan stepped down as ruler of the Empire but continued to be Caliph, the leader of the Muslim faith. The Dolmabahçe was abandoned, as Atatürk chose to make Ankara the capital of the new republic. In later years, though, he used the palace as his residence when he had work to do in Istanbul. He died there on 10 November, 1938. The room where he died is on display, with the clock stopped at 9:05, the time he died.

Design - Are There Any Women Present?

Turkish custom did not allow the women of the Sultan's family to mix with men other than the Sultan himself, and his sons. The palace is divided into two sections, about equal in size. The Selamlık was the reception area, where the Sultan could receive visitors, while the Harem was the forbidden area which was reserved for the Sultan and his immediate family, including his mother, his wife, his concubines and his sons and daughters, as well as servants. The Selamlık and the Harem are kept strictly separate within the one building.

This segregation between visitors and women is the only really oriental feature of the palace. The rest of the design is pure European, and is similar to other royal palaces of Europe, with lots of gold leaf, ornate columns, padded chairs and occasional tables.

The building is divided into three, and these are arranged so that the façade as seen from the sea is symmetrical:

  • In the centre is the Grand Ceremonial Hall, which is 40m by 45m and 36m high at the centre, much taller than the other two sections. It is a single room where the Sultan held official receptions with lots of visitors. It is big enough to hold a party of 2,500 people standing. The Hall has a huge dome, from which hangs a giant chandelier, possibly the biggest in Europe, weighing 4.5 tonnes. It was made in England. Around the sides of the Hall are gilt Corinthian columns1 and ornate arches. There are four balconies; three of these were sometimes used to allow the women of the Harem to watch the ceremonies below without being seen themselves. The fourth, above the Sultan's throne, was kept empty as it was not proper for anyone to be looking down on the Sultan. In the centre of the Hall is one of the largest carpets in Turkey. The upper parts of the Hall are painted in trompe l'oeil2 scenes making the room look even more impressive.

  • On the left of the Grand Ceremonial Hall is the building known as the Mabeyn-i Hümâyûn, the State Apartments, although on some signs and brochures this is simply called the 'Administrative Part'. It has two floors and has many large rooms for receiving foreign dignitaries. Of particular note is the Crystal Staircase, in which the handrail is held up by glass balusters. You can also see the Sultan's office, a traditional book-lined office with a large wooden desk. The State Apartments and the Grand Ceremonial Hall together make up the Selamlık, the section which was permitted to visitors.

  • The third part is the Harem, or 'forbidden' area, as it was out of bounds to visitors. The façade of the Harem as seen from the sea is identical to that of the State Apartments, but the Harem extends further at the back of the building and it has a basement floor as well, making it about equal in floor space to the State Reception Rooms and Grand Ceremonial Hall combined. The Sultan lived his day-to-day private life in the Harem, with his mother, wife, concubines, daughters and young sons. Older sons moved out when they reached adulthood. The Harem has plenty of fancy rooms, but they are smaller in scale. You can see the bedroom where Atatürk died, as well as a hamam or Turkish bath - there were six of these in the palace.

Visiting the Dolmabahçe Palace

The palace is open to the public between 9am and 4pm every day except Mondays and Thursdays. The Number 1 Tram will bring you from the centre of the old city to Kabataş or you can take the underground funicular from Taksim Square, the centre of the modern city, to Kabataş. From there it is only a 500m walk north along the shore of the Bosphorus to the gates of the palace. Just inside the gate there's a beautiful ornate clock tower.

Viewing of the palace is by guided tour only. Tours are available in either Turkish or English, and there are two separate tours, one doing the more impressive Selamlık reception areas, the other visiting the Harem. Each tour lasts about 45 minutes. In busy times you'll have to queue for the tour after having queued to buy your ticket, so you might not have time or the inclination to take in both tours. If you opt for one only, choose the Selamlık (Reception Areas) tour. In January 2015, the admission prices were as follows:

  • Full Palace including both tours and all areas 40TL
  • Selamlık - State Apartments and Grand Ceremonial Hall 30TL
  • Harem 20TL
  • Painting Museum 20TL

The Painting Museum is a mediocre exhibition of works of art that used to hang in the palace - not worth the admission fee, but you might consider it if you paid the Full Palace admission.

There's also a Clock Museum, good if you like clocks, and a building called the Crystal Pavilion which is a fancy conservatory. Both of these are included in all admission tickets.

Having bought your tickets, you'll have to wait or even queue for the guided tour. You must cover your shoes with blue plastic slip-ons which are provided. These protect the carpets, but may make you more liable to slip and fall, so be careful. The tours are given by taciturn individuals whose only desire seems to be to get to the end of the tour. You won't learn much from them. No photographs are allowed in the building.

Worth Visiting?

If you've seen one ornate European palace, you've seen them all.

The Dolmabahçe is rated by most of the guidebooks as one of the top ten attractions in Istanbul. This Guide would not place it so highly. Try and visit at a time of year when it is not too busy. Nightmare stories of standing in line for hours, only to finally reach another queue, are not what you want as your holiday memories. The staff are unhelpful and do little other than stopping people taking photographs. The ornate decoration is impressive: Turkish citizens must marvel at the opulence and realise how badly the Sultans were oppressing the poor in order to pay for it all. Western tourists probably want to see something different, something slightly oriental and mysterious - they won't find that here. For that, they should go to the other great palace of Istanbul, the Topkapı.

The Dolmabahçe Palace is certainly worth a visit, but confine yourself to an off-peak time, and only go on one of the two guided tours.

1Corinthian columns are one of the three types of columns used in ancient Greek temples. They have an ornate top ('capital') carved in the shape of acanthus leaves.2French meaning 'fools the eye', trompe l'oeil is a style of painting which creates the illusion of depth, eg a 'waterfall' in a pavement, which can be walked over.

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