Philip Mansel introduces the fin-de-siècle world of Abdülhamid II, the last Ottoman ruler to wield real power. On these pages we explore the ‘earthly paradise’ he was later forced to abandon: Yildiz Palace, its park and mosque
Istanbul in the 1890s was the natural destination for a struggling artist. Home to about one million inhabitants, it was not only capital of a great empire, but also one of the most international cities in the world. For many foreigners, Istanbul was a land of opportunity, particularly since the imperial decrees in 1839 and 1856 had made all religions, in theory, equal under the sultan. Regarding prosperity in the Ottoman Empire as more attractive than freedom in the newly independent kingdom of Greece, thousands of Greeks left to work in Istanbul. Poles and Hungarians found the empire a haven from oppression in the Russian and Austrian empires. Some Ottoman generals were Polish converts to Islam.
Born in a small town in the Veneto in 1854, Fausto Zonaro had studied and painted in Verona, Venice, Paris and Naples with little success. At 37 he turned to the Ottoman Empire, the charms of which had been popularised in Italy by Edmondo De Amicis’ book Constantinopoli (1878).
When Zonaro arrived in Istanbul in 1891, it was ruled by Abdülhamid II (1876–1909). Intelligent but autocratic, the sultan had dissolved the first Ottoman parliament and ended the brief experiment in constitutional government only two years after his succession. Traumatised by the deposition and suicide of his uncle Abdülaziz in May 1876, and the deposition three months later for mental instability of his brother Murad V, soon followed by a war that brought the armies of Tsar Alexander II within sight of the minarets of Istanbul, he reacted by concentrating power in the palace of Yıldız, on a hill above the Bosphorus outside Istanbul (some say it was called Yıldız, or star, because the stars were so dazzling a spectacle here).
Abdülhamid rarely visited the city. Instead he made Yıldız into a separate palace city, the last great power statement of the Ottoman sultans. It was at once a palace, a ministry, a military headquarters and a university. Behind the high walls were offices, barracks, museums, schools, hospitals, a theatre, a library, a furniture factory, a photography laboratory, printing press and zoo. In 1895 the French ambassador was told: “The Sultan has ended by absorbing everything… Everything is decided at the palace, the most insignificant as well as the most important affairs.” He was said to pay one half of his empire to spy on the other…
Philip Mansel’s books include ‘Sultans in Splendour: Monarchs of the Middle East’; ‘Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire’; and ‘Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean’. A founding trustee of the Levantine Heritage Foundation, he is writing a life of Louis XIV and a short history of Aleppo
Maureen Freely goes ‘Bosphorising’ with her father, John Freely, in search of her treasured childhood in Istanbul. Could it be that it was all so simple then?
Turn your back on the Old City and make for the water. Andrew Finkel takes a drive along the Bosphorus’s lower shore: from the half-abandoned docks of Karaköy, past mammoth cruise ships and hangars for modern art, to the palaces of Beşiktaş and Ortaköy
Andrew Finkel extols the charms of a trip up the western, European, shore of the Bosphorus, whether by water or by road
Over 56 pages, we cross the Bosphorus to explore the lower reaches of the Asian shore. Sailing past the ruins of stately Haydarpaşa Station, we land at the busy Kadıköy docks, wander round Moda’s old cosmopolitan backwaters and head upstream to the sparkling hilltop mosques of Üsküdar
Continuing our tour of Bosphorus villages, we cross back to a more untamed Asian shore. Heading upstream again, we start in Beylerbeyi and Çengelköy, with their grand views of the Old City, and make for the fortress of Anadoluhisari, where the Bosphorus narrows and the yalis are at their most captivating. Our journey ends on the hilltop of Anadolukavağı, with the Black Sea in our sights
The potato was a latecomer to Turkish cookery, but today it is hard to imagine life without it. The humble spud, the ultimate in comfort food, is endlessly versatile,and also comes packed with goodness. Berrin Torolsan serves up some favourite dishes
Lovely churches, a lively market, enticing ice cream, shady cafés… and they called this the land of the blind. Andrew Finkel introduces Kadıköy, and Harriet Rix mooches around the district of Moda. Photographs by Monica Fritz