The language of the Dolmabahçe Palace : communicating change in the Tanzimat-Era Ottoman Empire



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The Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, stretches along the European side of the Bosphorus shore in monumental glory, opened with great fanfare in 1856. An unapologetically lavish and bold statement from an Empire that would not last another century, the palace sits at a crossroads between Ottoman and Turkish history, representing in one era optimism for the future and in another era the decaying remains of the past. Despite its construction in a time of modernization and liberalization within the Empire, current interpretations of the palace describe it as both a symptom and a cause of this decay—an exercise in international chest-thumping meant to show Ottoman strength, blind westernization, or the bankrupting capricious work of a frivolous Sultan. An understanding of the ways in which this era of Ottoman history, and thus the narrative of the palace, have been politicized reveals the bias in these perspectives and obscures the true purpose of the palace: to serve as a physical embodiment of the principles of reformation and modernization. Using the language of architecture, the palace addresses a time of great national and international change by speaking to the creation of a civic Ottoman identity, providing tangible proof of the Empire’s political commitment and drive to reform, and encouraging Ottoman citizens to take up a more modern lifestyle. The building’s eclectic and ornate style represents a synthesis of identities and outlooks that link the Tanzimat reform era and the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid to an Ottoman past, a reforming present, and an internationally-oriented future. It is the goal of this study to demonstrate how exactly the Dolmabahçe Palace communicates the architectural as political—the ways in which its forms, symbolism, and ornamental pattern language speak to an Empire and a world in the process of change.