Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul : Last Days of the Ottoman Empire

posted in: History, Istanbul 32

Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, sitting on the Bosphorus European side, is an intriguing and impressive landmark. Home to the last six sultans of the abolished Ottoman Empire, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the palace museum portrays everything right and wrong about their rule and reign for over 600 years. While it is easy to admire the architecture and historical tales of their conquered lands, I had to wonder if any ruler, person, or family, regardless of whether they were a sultan, deserved to live in such luxurious and wealthy surroundings.

About the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul

Staircase and ceiling

Construction of Dolmabahce Palace took place between 1843 and 1856 when life for the average person in Istanbul was not easy or comforting. How did people of Istanbul feel when the Dolmabahce palace was finally completed with 285 rooms, 44 halls, 68 toilets and 6 Turkish baths?

Did they know 14 tons of gold decorated ceilings in gold leaves? Did they wonder how much money the pure crystals for the main staircase of the palace cost? Did they feel resentment when 131 handmade silk carpets were made in the nearby town of Hereke? There was nothing traditional about the palace.

Queen Victoria of England also decided to show off her wealth by sending a crystal chandelier as a present. This chandelier is the largest in the world, consists of 750 bulbs, and weighs a massive 4 tons. In addition, the Tsar of Russia sent bearskin carpets, and other world leaders sent expensive presents to complete the palace’s overall wealthy look.

After touring the Dolmabahce palace museum and seeing the extraordinary and extravagant luxury the last sultans lived in, I felt no sadness that their empire was carved up and abolished in 1923, while the last sultan was exiled from Istanbul and Turkey to hang his head in shame.

Crystal Chandelier

Reception Room

Dolmabahce Palace Harem

Mothers, wives, and concubines were all housed in the harem section at the back of the Dolmabahce Palace. Listen to official tour guides, and you will believe life in the palace harem was dignified and filled with happy days of sewing circles and platting each other’s hair. However, books about life in the Dolmabahce palace and Istanbul tell a different story of slaves, jealousy and an extreme amount of bed hoping. (Purchase a separate entrance ticket for this section.)


The Palace Selamlik for the Men

The selamlik, located at the front of Dolmabahce Palace is the men’s quarters and place for official business in Istanbul. More impressive than the harem section, this is where wealth and luxury are displayed. Walls display ancient paintings and halls, filled to the brim with hand-carved, antique furniture defy belief. But, unfortunately, viewing this section of the palace enforces that the last days of the Sultans were filled with greed and a need to display self-importance to visiting leaders from other countries.

Entrance to the Selamlik

Ataturk’s Deathbed

When the empire fell, the new Turkish government used the Dolmabahce Palace. The late Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was the founder of the new Turkish government and, indeed, the Republic of Turkey. Kemal died in a bedroom of the palace in 1938; hence the clock stuck at the time of his passing. The most striking aspect of the bedroom he died in is its simplicity. He could have chosen the more grand and lavish bedrooms, but he chose one that is so basic compared to the rest. Was he also disgusted at the extraordinary palace luxuries the Ottoman rulers lavished upon themselves?

Deathbed of Ataturk

Photos Are Not Permitted

Visitors cannot take photos inside this Istanbul palace, which is a great shame, as those areas are the most impressive. Dolmabahce Palace, in my opinion, is also necessary to see if you are in Istanbul. For this reason, I have sourced photos from elsewhere and given credit where needed. Also, check this site for an impressive 3D tour of the harem’s rooms, halls, and bedrooms and selamlik. Dolmabahce Palace – 3D Virtual Tour

Istanbul - Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Touring Tips and Opening Hours

Visitors cannot tour inside areas of the palace on their own. You must wait to join one of the scheduled tours that operate separately for the harem and selamlik and include a guide. The tour guides are frankly terrible at their jobs and should be sacked. To appreciate the palace, I suggest a bit of background reading before you go, on its history and the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Entrance tickets are not cheap but worth the price. Opening hours for the Dolmabahce Palace are 8am to 4pm every day except Monday and Thursdays.

Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul

Other Attractions in Istanbul

From the Bosphorus, museums, mosques, gardens and parks and famous buildings, it would take years to explore the best of what Istanbul offers fully. From the palace, take a short bus ride away, and after exploring Galata tower, you will reach the Taksim area of Beyoglu, home to Istiklal Avenue, a treasure trove of sights. Additionally, the Sultanahmet district is a must-see. Home to famous buildings like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace, like Dolmabahce Palace, it portrays the last days of the Ottoman sultans. If you plan to see many attractions, also check out the Istanbul e-ticket for savings, guided tours, and skipping queues.

Entrance to Dolmabahce palace


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Hi. I'm Natalie, a freelance travel blogger and writer specializing in the country of Turkey. I love hot summer days, historical sites and coffee.

32 Responses

  1. ilyas

    Ottoman Empire still continuing by Turks (TURKIYE)

  2. Nat

    I can see what you are saying Martin but at the time the Dolmabahce was built, the Ottoman empire was no longer important. They had lost all their power, they were bankrupt and people were still starving on the streets.

  3. Dr Martin Dudley

    I wonder if it is really helpful to judge the palaces of the Ottomans, Habsburgs, or Romanovs, or those of the British monarchy by late twentieth century standards? Historically, the splendour of the monarch gives to ambassadors and visiting foreign dignitaries a sense of the importance of the state. We don’t think that is important now; historically it was. In addition, monarchs performed important political and ceremonial roles. Today equivalent amounts of wealth are used to adorn the houses of celebrities, footballers, and oligarchs, who have no responsibilities to the state or the poor.

  4. Rick

    I Need information on the life of female and male “slaves” inside the Dolmabahce palace. How much freedom did the females have? How many rooms were they allowed to go to? Could they leave the palace with an attendant? What was the hierarchy of the male servants or slaves? Could male slaves leave the palace and go to their families?

  5. What a beautiful palace. I wish we had, had the time to visit. Another reason to visit I guess!

  6. paul

    Totally agree -the guide in main palace was quite good but the guide in Harem was a disgrace -he had only 4 facts and kept encouraging questions but answereing with the same 4 facts .

    overall though the palace was STUNNING a must for Istanbul -ant ideas who we could complain to about guides -they let the Turkish nation down

  7. Kristy

    Ok, I am totally sold now and we will totally be hitting this as well!

  8. Thanks for taking the time to question how the ordinary people must have felt with the huge contrast in wealth. It’s adds a nice thought pause for the reader.

  9. They were terrible Cheryl. The guide for the men’s section was better however I still feel that I would have done better with a guidebook and touring on my own.

  10. cheryl

    Thanks for the tips … it sucks to hear the tour guides are not good at their jobs, especially for such a beautiful and storied place. I’d definitely visit this place!

  11. Turtle

    Where can I get one of those bed covers? 🙂

  12. Ha ha Shane – What were you on? Maybe it was the Topkapi Palace

  13. Shane

    I’ve a memory of sitting outside Dolmabahce Palace watching the sun come up, except when I compare my photos to yours they look very different.

    Where the hell was I that night?

  14. I’ve lived in Besiktas for a year and never visited Dolmabahce. When we went down there last year to take a look inside it was Thursday (sigh!)

  15. Exactly Angela – They placed more importance on their own well being than that of their citizens

  16. Wow, this place looks beautiful! Wish I’d known about it when I visited Istanbul… oh well, next time! Thanks for sharing.

  17. Even Queen Victoria’s gift was sickening in its splendor when most Brits were living in poverty. I wouldn’t mind if heads of state spent their own money on such gifts…rather than the country’s money!!!

  18. I love your view on history Natalie and the introspection you take in exploring feats of architecture of the past.

  19. phil + Di marina gateway

    English history is the same people starving while the kings and queens lived in luxury i still want to go and see it one day ..xx you make it all seam so real

  20. Angela

    Very interesting post, when you see so much luxury you really understand why such empires don’t last…

  21. Yes, 14 tons of gold Abby. Quite sickening really. Fools gold!! The gardens are well kept and lovely, a stroll around them on a sunny day would be great but it was raining when I went

  22. If I was Vehdettin – I would have feared for my life as well. Read quite a bit on the presence of the British army in Istanbul during the last days of his rule and he was quite a wimp in reality. Totally different from all other rulers that had proceeded him. Thanks for the reads, looks like Yildiz Palace will go on the list of places to see when I return to Istanbul in April

  23. Abby

    14 TONS of gold?! Those gardens are stunning!

  24. Ali

    Looks like an amazing place, but it does seem irresponsible to build such a lavish place when that money could’ve been used for better things. I’ll add this to our list of possible things to see while in Istanbul in a few weeks!

  25. Sherry

    No, I have not yet been here, but it looks so majestic that I’d love to go. I’m always fascinated by their architecture. What a shame for regulating the tour so much so that people can’t enjoy it.

  26. Natalie, as usual, a fun and informative article. Did you know that the last Sultan, Mehmed VI (or Mehmet Vahdettin) was at Yildiz Palace and not at Dolmabahce?

    Vahdettin so feared for his life that he had the palace built because he believed Yildiz was the safest place for him. It is located immediately across the road from Dolmabahce and in the park up the hill.

    It is fart too frequently not on the “beaten path” and is worth a visit as is the park and the two large restaurants located in the two kiosk buildings in the park which were formerly palace buildings.

    Read this account of the last days of the last Sultan and how the British Navy smuggled him out of the country. (excerpt from From the Sultan to Ataturk: Turkey by Andrew Mango)

    Among the snippets I found interesting was this one that may interest the British in you:
    “…the (anti-Kemalist) journalist Ali Kemal (whose greatgrandson Boris Johnson, also a journalist and polemicist, was to be elected Mayor of London 85 years later) had tried to make amends by admitting that he had been wrong and the nationalists right.”

  27. Andrea

    Wow – we totally missed this one.
    Those chandeliers are spectacular!

  28. Kurt

    I can’t believe I missed this while I was there. So sad. It was closed the day I went. Nice shots. I can get the feeling of what I missed.

  29. I remember being utterly stunned by the crystal stairway when I visited the place and that’s after seeing the tomb of Alexander Nevski in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg.
    Nice post Natalie.

  30. OMG! This place looks amazing!

  31. I love exploring palaces – they’re always so sumptuous and luxurious! So annoying when they don’t allow photos, though. =/

  32. Entirely agree about the guides. Do no one any service, least of all the palace. Eventually they were scrapped in Harem at Topkap? so hopefully soon the same thing will happen here.