Once upon a time, the Ottoman Empire was a true global power. Its armies laid siege to European capitals while at the same time roaming the Maghreb and battling the Persian Empire on different scenes of the global theatre. Societies in northern Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East and adjacent regions were influenced by the opulent sultans, the gruesome janissaries and the aspiring architects likewise. By the late 19th century, short before it seized to exist, European politicians would refer to the aging giant as “the sick man at the Bosphorus”. But even then, the pashas would reside in palaces of oriental splendor.
It’s a good time to talk about palaces in Turkey. It might have come to your attention that the current pasha, Mr. Erdogan, now resides in Turkey’s new presidential palace, usually refered to as “his” (Mr. Erdogans) palace, even in his own speeches. The entire topic is a very controversial one. The structure is the biggest government building on the globe, it’s built inside a natural reserve, no-one really knows how expensive it was, it coincidentally has the same name as the president’s former party (Ak Saray, Ak Parti; Ak meaning “white” or “pure”), etc. The general impression one would get while reading up on the whole story is that Mr. Erdogan built a pompous home for himself on everybody’s back and is not intending to ever leave it, which is kind of a worry considering that we are talking about the residence of the head of state.
In this situation, it is interesting to take a look at the Ottoman correspondence, the Dolmabahce Palace located in Besiktas, Istanbul, which later was the summer residence of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who also died in here before being immortalised by Turkey’s ongoing quest for identity.
Talking about Turkey and identity; it is not surprising that the modern day local power feels drawn to the glory of past days. Highly succesful TV-soaps about life in the Harems and a president seeing himself personally responsible for Muslim sanctuaries far away from Turkey’s national borders are only part of the picture. The Turkish-German University’s construction being postponed by months because Ottoman architectural elements are missing is another part of it. My initial response to finding out about this was to ask whether timber-frame and Prussian stucco are also envisioned. They aren’t. But in case it bothered you; if the Kemalists were in power rather than the Islamists, instead of Ottoman elements it’d be a compulsory statue of Atatürk required on the campus. And none of Adenauer.
The Dolmabahce Palace as you can see it as of today is not the one it would have been one hundred years ago. The times of the young Republic have left its traces. For example, the Harem’s* most famous room nowadays is the private chamber in which Atatürk perished. The clock still shows the time of his death and his furniture is untouched, including what apparently was his favorite painting. Naturally, it is a very emotional place for most Turks.
What was stunning for me personally though was the overwhelming abundance of space. The majority of the rooms consisted literally of nothing but Ottoman style chairs and couches, usually neatly arranged around nothing in specific. There were a few rooms which obviously had an actual purpose – such as the library or the pompous great hall (they placed a table under the giantic chandelier so that no-one would feel tempted to stand directly beneath it). Apart of these, the extensive rooms and halls of Dolmabahce were home to a strained ensemble of beautiful yet somewhat isolated furniture. So much of them, that my favorite palace game – “Point out things you’d totally have sex on” – got boring pretty quickly.
Given that the general room arrangement was just remotely similar a century ago, it becomes very clear that his palace was not as much the hardline nerve centre of an Empire, but a place for social mingle and to, well, show off. Which is fair enough for me; it’s an awesome palace and enjoyable to visit, interesting also under other aspects than the one I pointed out here. The semi-secret passages for the female residents caught my attention, for example, just as some of the stories around Atatürk and the parrot. There was a free, wild parrot!
Looking at the jewel of Ottoman empirical architecture gives you some idea about the true purpose of administrative buildings. Obviously, the residents of Dolmabahce had no need for 285 rooms and 46 halls, given that in the end, most of them were reduced to enchantingly pretty waiting rooms. Still, someone saw a need to built it this big and it does look amazing lying on the shore of the Bosphorus.
Ak Saray isn’t situated at the side of the Bosphorus. If you google for some pictures, you will even notice that all the good views are made from an arial perspective. It’s not as suitable as a tourist attraction as Dolmabahce, as it isn’t meant to be. Naturally, it misses out on the beauty of the comparably small Ottoman counterpart. All it is, is big. In fact, Ak Saray is estimated (!) to have around 2000 rooms, and I already wonder how many of them have no further use but hosting a few nice chairs and couches.
This all being said, if Dolmabahce was the charming, yet expensive coronet of the Ottoman Empire (in fact, one of them; they had several), then Ak Saray is something like the over-dimensional cowboy hat a cliche Texan likes to wear while parading his masculinity as if anybody questioned it. It’s a pretty big hideaway for something so small as a single individuals self-esteem, but then again, I can’t recall anybody saying something along the lines of “Oh boy, look what an awesome Porsche this guy is driving, I bet his package is really big”.
I like to finish this piece with a sentence I read in a book of Terry Pratchett, whom I adore. I can’t remember the exact quote, but it’s from a prince talking about his country’s monumental pyramids, constantly reminding the inhabitants of glorious eras. These pyramids, the prince senses, are pinning his country to the past. But after all, monuments are seldomly built for future generations.
* “Harem” refers to the private rooms of the sultan and has tragically little in common with the Western interpretation.