In the mid-19th century Sultan Abdül Mecit I decided that the sprawling Topkapı Palace just wouldn't do anymore and ordered the construction of a new palace on land that had been reclaimed from the Bosphorus. The new palace, completed in 1856, was named "Dolmabahçe", which means "filled garden".
To design and build his new palace, the sultan turned to Garabet Amira Balyan (1800-1866) and his son Nigoğayos Balyan (1826-1856), members of an Armenian family of architects who had served the Ottoman sultans for several generations. In fact, the European side of the Bosphorus in Istanbul was largely shaped by this family. In addition to Dolmabahçe Palace, members of the family designed and built the nearby Dolmabahçe Mosque and clock tower, Büyük Mecidiye Mosque in Ortaköy and Çırağan Palace (which today is a five-star hotel). Members of the Balyan family also built several dozen other palaces, mosques, mausoleums and other public buildings throughout Istanbul.
Unlike the architects who had previously served the Ottoman sultans (such as Mimar Sinan, who built, among many other structures, the Süleymaniye Mosque and helped to restore the Aya Sophia), the Balyan family (some of whom were educated in Paris), favored western European designs and techniques. These western influences are particularly apparent in Dolmabahçe Palace, the design of which is sharp break from the traditional Ottoman style of Topkapı Palace. Gone are Topkapı's intricately patterned tiles, Islamic calligraphy and its sprawling collection of buildings and pavilions that some say were designed to emulate an Ottoman tent encampment. Gone too is the more family-sized scale of Topkapı.
In Dolmabahçe, the Balyans created a palace that would feel right at home in the great capitals of Europe. The architectural style, the floor plan, the interior décor and the furnishings all embody European tastes – though, perhaps, taking those tastes to grandiose levels that European royalty themselves might hesitate to strive for. The scale of the palace is nothing short of monumental, with one room – the magnificent domed Ceremonial Hall – capable of holding 2,500 people and boasting a 4.5 ton crystal chandelier said to be to heaviest in the world. Large crystal chandeliers are found throughout the palace and there is even the Crystal Staircase, where the balusters are made from Baccarat crystal. Many of the ceilings in the palace are, by themselves, stunning works of art. In short, no expense was spared in the construction and furnishing of the palace, which is ironic given that the Ottoman Empire was already in decline at the time and construction was largely financed through loans from foreign banks.
Although Dolmabahçe Palace is western in style, it retains one important feature of traditional Ottoman palaces – the clear distinction between the general parts of the palace and the Harem. The sultan, his ministers and foreign visitors would meet and conduct their business in the general (and more formal) part of the palace. The Harem, however, was strictly off limits to everyone but the sultan, his family (particularly his mother, wives and young children), his concubines and favorites, and designated servants. Indeed, the word "harem" comes from an Arabic word that means "forbidden". In Dolmabahçe, the rooms in the Harem are considerably less formal, though only by comparison to the opulence of the rest of the palace (anyone today who saw only the Harem would consider several of the rooms quite grand and lavishly decorated).
The sultans enjoyed the extravagance of Dolmabahçe for less than 70 years. By 1922, the Ottoman sultanate was abolished. Dolmabahçe, however, still housed at least one more Turkish leader. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), the founder of the modern Turkish republic and its first president, took up residence in the Harem section of the palace and died there on November 10, 1938 at 9:05 am. Today, visitors can see the modest room where he died and will note that all clocks in the palace stopped at 9:05 in his honor.
If your schedule allows, Dolmabahçe is certainly worth a visit, just to see the outlandish extravagance of it all. It certainly has a much different feel than the various other Ottoman landmarks throughout the city. If you decide to go, I recommend getting some local knowledge about opening days and the best time to visit. You can only visit as part of a guided tour and the crowds can be enormous.