James Tressler / Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 6:26 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul
Letter From Istanbul: Last of the Sultans
Some time back there was national children’s holiday in Turkey, so the schools were closed. In the morning, you saw groups of children parading in the streets, carrying red and white balloons, their parents in tow. I had the day off from school and nothing planned, so my girlfriend Özge suggested I go to Dolmabahçe Palace, where she worked as a guide.
“Just call me around noon,” she said, as she left for work. “Then if you want to come, then maybe come about 3 o’clock. It shouldn’t be too busy then.”
I did want to go. Having lived here four years, I’d passed along the high walls many times but never gone inside. Dolmabahçe Palace was the home of the last sultans, before the Ottomans’ crushing defeat in the First World War put the lights out on the Empire forever. After the Turkish War of Independence, the last Sultan was sent into exile, and the new republic’s first president, M. Kemal Ataturk, set up residence in the palace until his death in 1938.
Nowadays, the palace is just a museum, its impressive walls stretched out along the Bosphorous near Beşiktaş on the city’s European side. During national holidays, the museum is free to Turks, and thousands come to visit the palace, to relive Ottoman splendor, and to see the room and bed where the great Ataturk died.
Around noon I found myself up at Taksim Square. I passed Gezi Park, home to last summer’s anti-government protests. The park had returned to being just a neighborhood park, but the trees looked nice, swaying full and green with the spring. The recent election results, which saw a sweeping victory for Prime Minister Erdogan’s conservative party, had been depressing. I hadn’t even felt like writing or following the news. But then seeing the park safe, intact, I felt a little better. I thought of the protesters: perhaps they’d won something after all.
I walked over to Istikklal Caddesi, went to an English bookshop and browsed the titles, selecting Hot Water Music by Bukowski. Then I went to Nevizade Pasaj and had a couple of beers and read for a while. Istikklal Caddesi was really crowded with people out enjoying the holiday. But it felt dull, and I soon got tired of reading. So about 2 o’clock I decided to walk down the hill to Dolmabahçe.
When I arrived at the palace, the lines didn’t look too bad. I called Özge, who came out to meet me at the main gate.
“You should have called at noon like I told you,” she said, a little exasperated. “Because I could have arranged to give you a tour myself.” She was already assigned to lead another group.
Inside the reception area, one group was already waiting to go in. They were Turkish, and most of the women were covered. A young woman tried to take a photo on her smart phone and was reminded by a security guard that no photos were allowed inside the palace. Özge’s friend Çağla was guiding the Turkish group, and she took them inside.
Our tour was lead by a Turkish girl named Gözde. She greeted us politely and we followed her up a wide, formal staircase onto the second floor. We entered a huge room, with high gold-leafed ceilings and wooden parquet floors. Ornate chairs, tables and vases were here and there, along with an ancient piano and a crystal chandelier that was said to weigh more than 1.5 tons, brought over from England. This room, Gözde said, was where foreign ambassadors were greeted.
Later, we went into the private quarters of the Sultan. Most of the harem rooms are closed to the public, but we were able to see the Sultan’s bedroom (actually, there was more than one bedroom, there being one for summer and winter, the winter one facing the Bosphorous). We passed through a vast Blue Room and a Pink Room, which the Sultans used to entertain family. There were dark, long corridors, musty, breathing heavily in the scent of the past.
As we continued on through the vast compound, I wondered how much all of it had cost. Certainly, the last Sultans must have been aware that in the mid-19th Century, when the palace was built, that the great Ottoman Empire was on the decline. It all began with the loss to Russia in the Crimean War, but the decline was also internal. The mighty Turk had begun to lag behind a surging Western Europe and the Industrial Revolution.
The desire to modernize, to catch up with the rest of Europe, was one of the primary driving forces behind leaving historic Topkapi Palace, which had been home to the Sultans for the better part of a millennium, and to construct Dolmabahçe. The palace, which was constructed over a 10-year period, was an enormously ambitious project.
“It was the first time the Ottomans ever got a foreign loan,” my girlfriend Özge told me later.
Anyway, the extravagance of the palace was designed to impress upon visiting 19th Century ambassadors and other visitors, the wealth and power of the Sultan, and of the Ottomans. So, I’m sure price was no object.
Later we saw Memorial Hall, a room with paintings of the Empire’s last six sultans, all of whom resided in the palace. The paintings had been given as gifts by foreign dignitaries. There were also paintings of Austro-Hungary rulers, including the Emperor Josef (the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungary empires fought on the losing side with the Germans in the First World War).
The tour concluded with the Grand Ball Room. Its vastness rivaled any such place you’ll find in the rest of Europe. The chandelier in that room was said to weigh nearly 7 tons.
“This was also where Ataturk’s body lay in state for three days upon his death,” Gözde said. “After that he was taken to Ankara, where he now rests in a mausoleum.”
Our tour group was about thirty people, and there was another group behind us. Unfortunately, we couldn’t linger as long as we might have liked to. For instance, there was Ataturk’s study, something I was keen to see. It was located next to the Sultan’s bedroom, a room that Ataturk appropriated after coming to power.
“His own room was the simplest room of all.” I was reminded of Nick Carraway’s comment, when he and Daisy see Gatsby’s bedroom at the conclusion of their tour of his fabulous mansion. Indeed, Ataturk’s study was rather prim, with a simple, elegant desk and a dozen or so chairs for visitors, a pen still in its place on the top of the desk.
His bedroom nearby was also modest, compared to the sumptuousness of most of the palace. The bed spread was red silk, bearing the Turkish flag, the bed of a soldier and patriot.
“Did you see the clock next to the bed?” Özge later asked.
I hadn’t, not wanting to hold up the tour group.
“If you had noticed,” she went on, “you would have seen that the clock is stopped at 9:05, which is where the doctors stopped it on the morning he died. Also you did you see his medicines in the bathroom, and his wheelchair?”
No, I hadn’t. “That’s what sucks about tour groups,” I complained. “There isn’t any time to see anything. You just get herded along.”
“Well, you just have to go back again,” Özge said. “But next time, let me know earlier in the day. Then I can give you the tour myself.”
Moral of the story: When your girlfriend works in a national museum, and she invites you for a personal tour, be sure to take her up on it. Otherwise, you may well end up a banished Sultan yourself!
James Tressler, a former Times-Standard reporter, is now a writer and teacher in Istanbul. His latest book, “Letters from Istanbul, Vol. 1” is available at Lulu.com