Extract

A Farewell to Empire

Yıldız, the last Ottoman palace

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…

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Issue 52, Spring 2015 Istanbul Unwrapped: Bosphorus Requiem
£12.00 / $16.23 / 56.70 TL
Other Highlights from Cornucopia 52
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  • City Bosphorus: The Anatolian Shore

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    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

  • Earthly Delights: the Humble Potato

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  • Seeing and Believing

    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

Buy the issue
Issue 52, Spring 2015 Istanbul Unwrapped: Bosphorus Requiem
£12.00 / $16.23 / 56.70 TL
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