There are many major and minor Istanbul Palaces in and around the city. This is only a brief overview of the largest and most famous of the Ottoman Palaces; Topkapı, Dolmabahçe, Cirağan, and Yıldız. For other minor palaces, this Timeline of Ottoman Palaces in Istanbul is a very good resource. A visit to these Istanbul Palaces may give you a greater appreciation of the magnificence of the Ottoman Empire and also its decay and eventual demise.
Topkapı Palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans and seat of government for approximately 400 years from 1459 until 1856 when a series of palaces were built by successive Sultans. Construction began in 1459, ordered by Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople. The palace complex consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. At its peak, the palace was home to as many as 4,000 people. Topkapı Palace is now a major tourist attraction and contains important holy relics of the Muslim world, including the alleged cloak and sword of the Prophet Muhammed.
Because Topkapı Palace was lacking in up-to-date luxury and style, Abdülmecid decided to build Dolmabahçe Palace (1843-1856), the first European-style palace in the city. The present site of Dolmabahçe “was originally a bay on the Bosporus which was reclaimed gradually during the 18th century to become an imperial garden, much appreciated by the Ottoman sultans; it is from this garden that the name Dolmabahçe comes from the Turkish dolma meaning filled and bahçe meaning garden.”
Dolmabahçe and the other European-style palaces were constructed at a time when the Ottoman Empire was struggling under the Tanzimat, a reformation and reorganisation and was overwhelmed by the Capitulation agreements with aggressive foreign powers. The cost of construction of Dolmabahçe and the other palaces was far beyond the means of the Ottoman treasury and the sultans borrowed heavily to finance them. These debts would eventually bankrupt the Ottoman Treasury and lead to the birth of the Republic.In 1924, ownership of Dolmabahçe Palace was transferred to the Turkish Republic. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, used the palace as a presidential residence and spent the last days of his life there, where he died on November 10, 1938.
The Tanzimât, beginning in 1839, was a major reorganization of the Ottoman Empire, it ended with the First Constitutional Era in 1876. The Capitulations of the Ottoman Empire made between the Ottoman court and foreign countries, allowed foreigners resident in the Empire to only be subject to the laws of their respective countries. This meant that non-Muslim peoples were allowed autonomy in matters affecting their personal status.
Between 1854 into the early 20th Century, the Ottoman Empire was subjected to attempts by western powers to impose control. In 1875, with over half its expenditures going toward debt service, including palace construction, the Ottoman government declared its inability to make repayments and slid into bankruptcy. A Public Debt Administration was set up which subjected the Ottomans to European financial control in 1881 from which they never recovered.
Çırağan Palace (1863-1876) was built by Sultan Abdülâziz. Sultan Murad V, moved into Çırağan Palace, but lasted only 93 days when he was deposed by his brother Abdülhamid II allegedy for mental illness. Murad lived there under house arrest until his death in 1904. This was a period in which all Ottoman sultans built their own palaces rather than using those of their ancestors. Çırağan Palace is the last example of this period.
On January 19, 1910, a fire destroyed the palace, leaving only the outer walls intact. In 1989, the ruined palace was bought by a Japanese corporation, which restored the palace and added a modern hotel complex next to it in its garden. Today, it serves as luxury suites for the five-star Kempinski hotel along with two restaurants that cater to guests.
Yıldız Palace is not often on a list to visit by tourists or residents but is well worth it for a nice walk in the park and perhaps a lunch in one of the two large restaurants located in the kiosk buildings which were formerly palace buildings.
In the late 19th century, Sultan Abdülhamid II left Dolmabahçe because “he feared a seaside attack on the palace…” When he moved to Yıldız Palace (1880), it became the last seat of Ottoman government, the previous being the Eski Saray (Old Palace) in Edirne, Topkapı and Dolmabahçe. Sultan Mehmet VI Mehmet Vahdettin was the 36th and last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, reigning from 1918 to 1922. He also feared for his life and moved to Yildiz Palace because he believed it was the safest place for him. It is located immediately across the road from Dolmabahçe and up the hill in a beautiful park.
The Turkish Grand National Assembly abolished the Sultanate on 1 November 1922. Vahdettin stealthily left Istanbul aboard the British warship Malaya on 17 November.
Andrew Mango has written an interesting account of the last days of the last Sultan and how the British Navy smuggled him out of the country.
“At dawn an ambulance drew up at the gate of Yıldız palace. Vahdettin was smuggled on board. He went into exile in Malta…”