“Such a damp place! We will die here. To tell the truth, my dear mother passed away here too,” said Sultan Abdülhamid II in “My Father Sultan Abdülhamid.”
Each and every time I travel across the Bosphorus Bridge and see Beylerbeyi Palace, I seem to hear these sorrowful words. Beylerbeyi Palace became both literally and figuratively a prison for Sultan Abdülhamid II. Soon after his dethronement, Sultan Abdülhamid II was subjected to compulsory residence at Salonica Alatini Kiosk. However, due to eruption of Balkan War, about three years later he was taken to Istanbul and Beylerbeyi Palace was chosen as the new place of custody for the former Sultan. He spent his last six years there before passing on. Despite Beylerbeyi Palace's unfortunate reputation as a place of captivity, it was originally commissioned for better reasons by Sultan Abdülaziz, the uncle of Sultan Abdülhamid II.
Between the years 1861 and 1865, Beylerbeyi Palace was constructed as a summer residence and a state guest house by the architect Sarkis Balyan – the Ebniye-i Şahane Serkalfa or head master builder of the palace – who was also the brother of Nikoğos Balyan, the architect of Dolmabahçe Palace. The Balyan family served as the principle architects of the Ottoman Sultanate in the 19th century. One of the most interesting features of the palace was the orchestra that performed music to motivate the workers during the four-year construction. The interior design of Beylerbeyi Palace is a synthesis of diverse western and eastern styles. Built in neo-Baroque style, the palace has 24 rooms, six halls, one hamam (Turkish bath) and one bathroom. Owing to Sultan Abdülaziz's passion for the sea, naval themes were drawn in some frames and cartridges on the ceiling. Moreover, Sultan Abdülaziz drew sea and ship themes to show his painters what he had in mind.
The palace's floor covering come from Egypt and were used for protecting people in the palace from damp in the winter months and heat in the summer. There are large carpets and rugs, mostly made in Hereke, and beautiful bohemian crystal chandeliers, French clocks and Chinese, Japanese, French and Turkish Yıldız porcelain vases.
This imperial residence also has a beautiful fountain in one of its halls both for its calming sounds and cooling effects. One of the features which distinguishes Beylerbeyi from other Ottoman palaces of the period are the terraced gardens on the sloping hillside behind the palace, which contain many types of flowers from all over the world. The garden also contains a small bamboo forest. The bamboo trees were brought to Istanbul from exotic places upon the order of Sultan Abdülhamid II. There are also two pools and dozens of animal statues. During the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz and Abdülhamid II, the palace acquired the characteristics of a state guesthouse, beginning with its hosting of foreign state officials and presidents. The first important guest to stay at the palace was Empress Eugenie of France. This visit of the Empress was a return visit of Sultan Abdülaziz's visit to France in 1867. Other foreign guests who were entertained at Beylerbeyi Palace during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz were Joseph the Emperor of Austria-Hungary (1869); Frédéric Guillaume Nicola Charles, the Crown Prince of Prussia (1869), the Crown Prince of Italy (1869) and Nasireddin, the Shah of Iran (1873).
Foreign state guests were entertained at Beylerbeyi Palace during the period of the republic as well. Pehlevi, the Shah of Iran who visited Turkey in 1934, was entertained at the palace by Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Balkan Games Festival was organized at Beylerbeyi in 1936 and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk spent that night in the historic bed- room of the palace.
No doubt that the most notable guest of the palace was Sultan Abdülhamid II, though unfortunately he was a captive guest then. During the years he spent in the palace, he would only rarely leave the palace for fresh air and always for a limited time only. Even that was a luxury for him. He stayed in the palace with his wives but was prohibited from seeing his children who lived outside the palace. After some time he was granted permission to receive them in the palace during Eid times but for short visits only."I used to try to see my father using binoculars but it was impossible to see him from outside. Still, the walls and the stones seemed nice to me. I was always looking at the palace with so many worries and thinking about what was happening inside – which room is my father in now, where is my mother, are they fine or not?" said Ayşe Sultan, the daughter of Sultan Abdülhamid II. The Sultan spent his years studying and writing his memories as well as making new furniture for the palace, and of course worrying about the situation of the empire and its future while receiving bad news about the phases of World War I.
"We sacrificed ourselves for two ships [Goeben and Breslau]. It is unreasonable to go to war against three strong countries. I am uneasy about the fatal consequences. This is insane!" said Abdülhamid II in his memoir "My father Abdülhamid."
It seems that during those years no one understood better than Sultan Abdülhamid II just how little the country would gain and how much more it would lose in the war. While the catastrophes came one after another, people began to whisper about the beautiful days when Father Hamid ruled the throne. While all these things took place behind the great walls of the palace, on Feb. 10, 1918 Sultan Abdülhamid II passed away. It is said that the Sultan became sick from the damp of the palace building as there was not enough heating due to the palace being a summer residence. Some people claimed he died because of the stress caused by the war. With his death, a 34-year-chapter of Ottoman history was sorrowfully concluded in Beylerbeyi Palace.
"Most merciful Allah saved him from witness- ing the war ships of the allied states which anchored in the Golden Horn just nine months after his passing," said Joan Haslip in "The Sultan: The Life of Abdülhamid."
Today, the palace is open as a museum for all to see.