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Dolmabahce Palace and the Age of Ottoman Tanzimat

Saturday, December 24, 2011

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The Dolmabahce Palace was the Ottoman expression of change towards modernity. Ordered by Sultan Abdulmecid, it was built between 1843 and 1856, at the late stages of the Ottoman Empire. Located at the edge of the eastern European coastline on the Bosphorus, it became the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1922, with a 22 year interruption (1887-1909) in which Yildiz Palace was used by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. It was home to 6 sultans, up until the Caliphate was abolished in 1924.

Its two main architects, Garabet Baylan and his son Nikoghayos Baylan, came from an Armenian family residing in Istanbul. The architecture of the palace is a blend of Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical styles held together with Ottoman traditional architecture. The total cost of the palace was around 500 million Ottoman Mecidiye gold coins, equivalent to 35 tons of gold! Of the 35 tons of gold, 14 were used in decorating gold leafs to gild the ceilings of the palace. The palace center hall contains the largest Bohemian crystal chandelier, which was a gift from Queen Victoria. The chandelier contains 750 lamps and weighs 4.5 tons. The palace also contains the largest collection of Bohemian and Baccarat crystal chandeliers in the world. For these reasons, all tours of the palace must be accompanied by a tour guide and photography inside the palace is prohibited!

This lavish expense on building a new palace came at a time of a great reform process throughout the Ottoman Empire, known as Tanzimat. When Sultan Mahmud II came into power in 1808, the Ottoman Empire was on a steady path of decline. The Janissaries, once the feared military arm of the Ottoman Empire, were now a liability to the empire. They exercised their military strength against inhabitants of the European provinces to extract annual taxes from them. They overthrew Sultans that did not act in their favor. In 1826, Mahmud II succeeded in forming a small army along modern European lines and through a surprise attack successfully defeated the Janissaries, where they were killed by the thousands. The rest were killed in mass executions in the White Tower, which stands to this day in Thessaloniki, Greece. Afterwards, Mahmud II abolished the Janissaries in favor of his own army and later also subdued the clergy`s influence on his administration, paving the way for serious reforms.

Mahmud II started the reforms that the Ottoman Empire was in desperate need of since the 17th century. The reforms covered all aspects of life: military, education, dress code, trade, social fabric and foreign alliances. In 1839, however, Sultan Mahmud II, died and the bulk of these reformations, called Tanzimat, would be implemented by his successor, and son, Sultan Abdulmecid, who ruled until 1861. To secure his territorial integrity, he introduced the concept of Ottomanism, in which all Ottoman subjects were equal before the law regardless of race or creed. This was also done to counteract the growing nationalist movements throughout the Ottoman Empire. These strong nationalist movements were born out of the frustration of the mismanagement of the local governors that brutally oppressed the population with the support of the Janissaries. In previous years, any attempt of improving the lives of the local population by the central government (under the Sultan`s command), was thwarted by the local rulers armed with the Janissaries. With the Janissaries defeated, Sultan Abdelmecid can now start on reforming conditions in the European provinces.

Sultan Abdulmecid introduced reforms to the legal system, introducing a wide variety of secular laws that can be applied to Muslim as well as non-Muslim subjects of the empire, modeled after the French legal system. He started a wide variety of institutions that were the hallmarks of a modern state. He initiated the first post offices, the first banknotes, the first prototype of an Ottoman parliament, a national flag and anthem, a Ministry of Education separate from the clergy, slavery was abolished, and the establishment of the first telegraphs and railway networks.

Abdulmecid`s reform process was interrupted by a costly war, in treasure and lives, with the Russian Empire. The Crimean War, which lasted from 1853 to 1856, proved to be a pivotal turning point in the Ottoman Empire`s relations with the West. After Russia`s heavy handed aid to suppressing the revolutionary movements in Europe in 1848 and 1849 (especially to the Austrian Empire), it felt it deserved to be rewarded with Ottoman territory. In 1851, Napoleon III became emperor of France and sent an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire demanding sovereignty over its subjects in the Holy Land. Russia counterclaimed with their own demand of sovereignty over its subjects in the Holy Land and effective control of the Orthodox Church. The Ottoman`s refusal to cede such a concession was used as a pretext by the Russians to invade two European provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Both France and Britain then used this as a pretext to attack Russia. The Russian navy was destroyed and their army defeated, at great human and financial cost.

For the Ottoman Empire, the outcome of the Crimean War seemed favorable. The Russian threat seems to have been neutralized, giving the Ottoman Empire a chance to concentrate on its domestic policies. In financial terms, the Crimean War was a disaster. It put significant strain on the fragile Ottoman economy, whose treasury was already drained due to the construction of the Dolmabahce Palace. This forced the Ottoman Empire to take on its first foreign loan in 1854, during the Crimean War. The negotiations following the Crimean War was a social disaster for the Ottoman Empire. It gave European powers more sovereignty over ethnic communities throughout the Ottoman Empire. This directly undermined Ottomanism principle of the Tanzimat and led to further fragmentation of the empire. In Lebanon, the French claimed protection of Maronite Christians, and the British claimed protection of the Druze.

The most disastrous of the Tanzimat reforms were the financial reforms. In 1840, Sultan Abdulmecid reorganized the financial system according to the French model. Although sound, in principle, the reforms were not made compatible with the socio-political conditions of the Ottoman Empire. It was common practice in the Ottoman Empire to simply print more money, on the expense of inflation to keep the government fiscally balanced. With little foreign trade and no foreign debt, this principle worked well for the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Between the mid 1830s up to the 1870s, however, the Ottoman Empire was forced to make economic concessions to the European powers that put it at a disadvantage. For example, in 1838, as a condition for military aid against the invading Egyptian forces, Britain forced the Ottoman Empire to increase its European imports. In 1854, as the treasury was drained by the Crimean War, the Ottoman Empire made its first foreign borrowing activity of an amount of 3 million pounds to a British investment bank. To service its piling debt, the Ottoman Empire borrowed even more money. The strain put on the economy due to the construction of the Dolmabahce Palace also put the country into further debt. Completed in 1856, it cost the Ottoman Empire the equivalent of 35 tons of gold!

The Land Reforms of 1858 were designed to make tax collection more efficient, especially in the Arab provinces. These reforms, however, had disastrous consequences in Syria and Palestine. Arabs were required to register their lands for the first time in order to pay taxes to the Ottoman central government. The peasants who lived in the region, wished to avoid taxes so they avoided registering their lands altogether. In turn, many local heads of villages were able to claim entire villages as their own. In Palestine, much of the confiscated land, in turn, was sold to Russian Jewish immigrants, forming the start of the Zionist movement in Palestine. Moreover, the Empire lacked properly trained personnel to collect tax from these lands.

The Dolmabahce Palace with all its symbolic grandeur of reform and modernization is now only a monument symbolizing the last Ottoman attempt in saving itself. Some say, that although the Tanzimat reforms were sound, they came in too late. The voices of nationalism were louder than Ottomanism, or unity. The reforms coincided with the Industrial Revolution in Western nations, in which their economies and technologies were accelerating at an exponential rate, too fast for the Ottoman Empire to keep pace with. Local Ottoman markets could not compete with the low cost of industrial manufactured goods of the West. The Ottoman government could not shield its local economy due to foreign treaties forced upon them. This destroyed the local industry, reducing the country`s economic output. This fueled the decline of the Ottoman Empire even further and there was little that could be done from stopping its decline. The decadence of the Ottoman rulers further detached them from their subjects. No reform process addressed this issue. This is especially evident in the lavish halls of the Dolmabahce Palace. Sultan Abdulmecid was known for indulging quite heavily in drinking alcohol and was a father of eight before the age of 20. In the end, the Ottoman Empire declared bankruptcy in 1875 and was finally replaced in 1924 by a Turkish nationalist state.


  • [1] Kinross, Lord. The Ottoman Centuries, The Estate of Lord Kinross: New York, 1977
  • [2] Ansary, T., Destiny Disrupted, Persues Books Group: New York, NY, 2009.
  • [3] Owen, R., The MIddle East in the World Economy, 1800-1914, New York, NY: Methuen, 1981.
  • [4] Aran, L and Aran, T., Rick Steves` Istanbul, Jackson, TN: Perseus Book Group, 2011.

  • Keywords: Turkey, Istanbul, Dolmabahce Palace, Ottoman

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