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Palaces, mosques, churches and the essentials of empire – the Balyan family’s creations epitomise the golden age of 19th-century Istanbul. A new book by Büke Uras reveals the exquisite drawings and supreme organisation behind their landmark edifices – including one that mercifully got away. By Philip Mansel
Istanbul’s 19th-century palaces are almost as distinctive as its 16th-century mosques. It is the only city in Europe to contain four major palaces built after 1800 for a reigning monarch: Dolmabahçe (1849–56), Beylerbeyi (1861–15), Çırağan (1863–71) and Yıldız (1866–98), the only one not on the shore of the Bosphorus. Their principal architects, and the subjects of this sumptuous and groundbreaking book by Büke Uras, came from the same family of Armenians: the Balyans. Their lives spanned 136 years: from the birth of the paterfamilias, Krikor, in 1764, through his son, Garabed, and grandchildren Nigoğos, Sarkis, Hagop and Simon, to 1899, when Sarkis, the last of the dynasty, died.
Armenians were then in favour with the sultans because of their architectural tradition and Ottoman distrust of Greeks since their bid for independence after 1821. They would obtain a self-governing community regulation and an assembly from 1863, 13 years before the Ottoman Empire itself was granted a constitution. Moreover, the traditional imperial Ottoman architect’s office, which had been in charge since the 16th century, was no longer in tune with the sultans’ modernising tastes. Members of the Balyan family began to work for Sultan Mahmud II after 1820. Garabed and Krikor Balyan received the title of imperial architect, and the former built for Mahmud II’s son Abdülmecid the largest of those four palaces, Dolmabahçe – “the new happy home of the Sultan”, as an inscription on its main gate proclaimed. It has a façade almost a kilometre long, and one of the most impressive throne rooms in the world, lit by a gas-powered 467-candle chandelier ordered from Britain in 1852. Despite its Classical columned appearance, the palace has separate state, ceremonial and harem sections, in the Ottoman tradition, and was and still is considered by some Turks more suitable for a monarch than Topkapı Palace. Mahmud II himself called the Topkapı, surrounded by high walls and dark trees, “dark and shameful… afraid to show its face”.
Hagop and Sarkis Balyan were responsible for the later palaces, built for Sultans Abdülaziz (1862–76) and Abdülhamid II (1876–1909). Sarkis Balyan became Chief Architect of the State by imperial order on March 31, 1878. At his funeral procession on November 9, 1899, in Kuruçeşme, an attendant carried his two Mecidiye medals, first and second class, as symbols of his successful Ottoman career. People who believe Ottoman cosmopolitanism was an illusion might consider that, despite ferocious nationalist passions inside and outside the Empire, the chief architect of the Sultan Caliph was a Paris-educated Armenian. In Istanbul, “the seat of the Caliphate”, Christians designed for a Muslim dynasty the mosques of the Çırağan, Ortaköy, Dolmabahçe, Aksaray and Yıldız as well as the Nusretiye in Tophane. The thousands working on the Sultans’ building projects used “a confusion of languages”: Turkish, French, Italian, German, Greek, Armenian, and sometimes sign language. Neo-Gothic, neo-Islamic, neo-Renaissance and neo-Louis XIV designs decorated Ottoman palaces, blending into an exuberant and elaborate neo-Ottoman style.
Arnavutköy is a characterful old village on the Bosphorus, long famed for its strawberries and lively cosmopolitan community. But for 12 days in 1987, as Jenny White recalls, nonstop snow – and an eerie silence – descended on the neighbourhood. Happily, the Neşe taverna was there to offer warmth and raki
Delicious and versatile, the tiny lentil packs a powerful nutritional punch. Possibly man’s first food crop, this legume seed is as popular in modern Turkey as it was in Neolithic times. Berrin Torolsan has her finger on the pulse
The gate guarding the Ottoman Ministry of War – today’s Istanbul University – is an eloquent example of the Orientalist style that took both East and West by storm in the 19th century. In the gate’s shadow stands the Princes’ Lodge, once the refuge of high-born officers on parade day, now an exotic refectory where professors of Istanbul University enjoy lunch. By Berrin Torolsan. Photographs by Monica Fritz
In their second Turkish adventure, the acclaimed photographer Don McCullin and the author-publisher Barnaby Rogerson travel south in pursuit of Roman treasures. Originally drawn by the lure of gorgeous goddesses in unsung museums, they discover moody Sardis, with its ruined temple to Artemis, explore Ephesus, with its magnificent library, marvel at the enchanted city of Aphrodisias, and finally reach the mountain fastness of Hadrian’s Sagalassos. Photographs: Don McCullin. Text: Barnaby Rogerson
Caroline Eden admired the Saka treasures at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where an ancient Turkic steppe civilisation revealed its secrets
The last Caliph’s passion for painting, By Andrew Finkel and Isobel Finkel
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