Patricia Daunt extols the palatial embassiess that adorn the heights of old Pera
Cosmopolitan, trendsetting, with distractions to suit almost every taste, 21st-century Beyoğlu holds an unusual extra to whet the enthusiasm of the most jaded tourist: the pleasure of seeking out the “winter embassies” so relished by the ambassadors and envoys to the Ottoman Porte. They are the grandest diplomatic buildings of any of the imperial capitals and, with the exception of the Italian, are all more-or-less 19th-century contemporaries. Extravagantly built, referred to as “palaces”, once endowed with prisons, chapels and throne rooms, they stand in their own grounds protected by high walls and fine gates. Demoted to consulates since the embassies transferred to Ankara, all but the “German Palace” are within a stone’s throw of the Grand’ Rue de Péra – or İstiklâl Caddesi, as it became in the 1920s.
The first ambassadors to the Porte lived in Galata, but bubonic plague and overcrowding led them to decamp outside the medieval walls to the vine-clad hills of Pera – today’s Beyoğlu – where the Venetians were the first to move in 1517, renting a wooden villa tucked into the hills below what is now İstiklâl Caddesi. The French soon followed, acquiring the estate next door and enjoying the same idyllic view overlooking the Seraglio and beyond to the Islands in the Sea of Marmara. A century later, the Dutch were the first nation to receive as a gift from the sultan a parcel of land on the Grand’ Rue itself.
Before the great fires of the early 19th century, which swept through Pera time and again, the finest embassy of all was that of the Swedes, standing on the Grand’ Rue. Some say that it was completed with monies sent to Istanbul by the Protestant faithful for the buying and freeing of Christian slaves. It was reduced to ashes in 1818, but its west-facing garden with its view over the Bosphorus remained, as it still does, to “heal the spirits”. Today’s charming Neoclassical 1870 building, by the Austrian architect Domenico Pulgher, is sheltered from the bustle of the street by walls and trees…
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