Sultan Abdul Mejid had just one stipulation - "it must surpass any other palace of any potentate anywhere in the world." The Palace itself was rococo gone mad. Over fourteen tonnes of gold leaf were used in the decoration. Mejid spent the Empires dwindling coffers on this monstrosity. The famous extravagant last gasp of the Ottoman sultanate before its demise.
Noel Barber, Lords of the Golden Horn, 1973
Whether it is crowds storming the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, Henry VIII jealously seizing Hampton Court from Wolsey, or the Chinese revolutionaries ousting the Emperor from the Forbidden City - all the great palaces of the world have a touch of pathos about them.
This is definitely the case with Dolmabache (translated as 'filled up garden'). It was always viewed as a metaphor for the decline of the Ottoman empire. It was their last throw of the dice, their last magnificent construction. They moved here from Topkapi in 1853 (although the numerous harem girls of retirement age still remained there). The ailing empire known throughout the Victorian age as 'the sick man of Europe' could not afford its expensive construction. Millions were spent on rococo gatehouses, French furniture, English chandeliers, and expensive furnishings. It's been called "the most expensive white elephant in history". A monstrous confection of bad taste. Maybe so, but the palace has a character all of its own. A poignancy that many a glass and steel skyscraper would envy. And to cap it all, it looks absolutely gorgeous with that white and brown streaked facade stretching 200ft along the Bosphorus waterfront.
I thought the palace was fantastic. Topkapi I would put forward as the best palace in the world - but this one is no slacker. It's also a little more difficult to find being nowhere near Sultanhammet. It's still on the European side of the Bosphorus but across the Golden Horn on the Galata side of Istanbul. If you start at the Karakoy end of the Galata Bridge you can generally walk to Dolmabache. At its northern end are a number of steps down to where the cruiseliners tie up and there is a nice modern area with restaurants and souvenir shops. After passing the cruiseliners you have to leave the shore and walk down Kemadesi Caddesi with its dusty sixties buildings. At the end they still don't let you near the sea and the street bends to a couple of restaurants and Nusretiye mosque. The main street of Necabetibey Caddesi starts here and follow the tram tracks for half an hour past the university. Kabatas is where the tram terminates and luckily there is a waterfront park which leads up to the palace of Dolmabache. The entire walk takes about fifty minutes. Entrance is ten lira and another ten lira for one of the tours. Please bare in mind that the palace is closed on Thursdays and Mondays for cleaning/maintenance.
As you approach it is the great gates which makes the first impression. The main entrance is the most impressive - swirling bombastic rococo. So ostentatious and over the top that it looks like something from the imagination of a fantasy film designer. The gardens are lovely and kept in very good condition with lion statues, fountains, and topiary. Baroque fantasy mixed with Las Vegas?
I took the harem tour whose entrance was in the far courtyard. The Sultan did keep a harem here but it was small fry compared with the harems of old at Topkapi. To enter his living quarters you had to affix pink plastic coverings to you feet so not to damage the parquet floor (my feet were so big they let me off). The treasures on display were very impressive and the interior designers seemed to have an obsession with gold leaf. On show were intricately decorated ceilings, furniture and walls - chandeliers the size of small cars hung from the ceiling. The harem rooms were lavish with rolling rugs, marble fireplaces, etc. The sultans room had an enormous bed and the audience chamber had a rug the size of a cricket pitch.
At the rear of Dolmabache were a number of rooms sacred to the Turks...the rooms of Kemal Ataturk.
'Father of the Turks' spent his last days at Dolmabache. The room where he died is kept in the same state it was back in 1937. Even his medical bottles are visible in a glass case. He still is for Turks their single most important leader in post Ottoman Turkey. Still revered in 2007 his portrait stares back at you from numerous shops, restaurants, and hotels in Istanbul. The man who single handedly dragged Turkey into the modern age. He grabbed the country by the scruff of the neck and dragged it into the 20th century - fezs' were banned, the army overhauled and the economy stimulated. His features still glare back from a 10 lira note.
Ironic that the most forward thinking Turkish leader spent his last days in this overblown palace built by a irrelevant royal dynasty. But that's Dolmabache for you...a mass of contradictions.