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Palaces of Diplomacy, Part 2

The Summer Palaces of Istanbul

When the summer heat made cool-headed diplomacy impossible, the ambassadors to the Sublime Porte retired to remarkable residences lining the Bosphorus. Patricia Daunt probes their rich diplomatic history, while Fritz von der Schulenburg captures the faded glory of the buildings and their grounds

It has been said that in the great age of diplomacy, when ambassadors lived like kings, ambassadors to the Ottoman Empire lived like kings.Swaggering Circassians, resplendant in scarlet uniforms and armed with swords and beltfuls of daggers, preceded them wherever they went. The power of the ambassadors waxed as that of the empire waned. They divided their year between winter embassies in Pera, described as ‘a kind of town where Christian Ambassadors dwell’ and summer retreats away from a thirsty city prone to earthquake, disease and fire.

By the end of the 19th century, all the embassies as well as the viceroy of Egypt had summer residences on the European shore of the Bosphorus, ‘the most lovely waterway that ever invited a sail’. Some remain: of some there are only vestiges: the Egyptian at Bebek, the Austrian at Yeniköy, the German French, Italian and British at Tarabya, and the Spanish at Büyükdere. The cosmopolitan architecture of those that have survived and the over-grown grounds of those that have not are still best viewed from the sea, though their gardens no longer run down to the water and their landing stages have been cut off by a road.

The summer yalıs of the Khedive of Egypt and his mother and of the Habsburgs, Honernzollerns, Bourbons and Romanovs now hide behind protective walls, their existence betrayed by a lodge, a gate, a glimpse of a drive, suggestion of a parterre, a turret or a steep roof. Sharing a hillside are the remnants of the embassy houses of England and France, destroyed by fires in 1911 and 1913, separated by a valley thick with sycamore and plane and protected by a belt of ancient beech. Rugged avenues of limes lead up to these ill-fated buildings, overgrown now by box, ilex and yew, studded in spring with the magenta of the Judas trees and in summer with the blue trupets of paulownia, and heavy with the scent of syringa, acacia and magnolia.

Apart from the embassy in London, the only diplomatic building belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire that passed to the Austrian Republic after the First World War was the Habsburg summer embassy on the Bosphorus. It had been presented to Emperor Franz Josef I by Abdülhamid II in 1883 in semi-ruinous condition, ‘a roof and second floor more-or-less lacking, central hall open to the skies’. For all that, it was, and still is, the most impressive of all the buildings in Yeniköy, standing in parkland which was once a vineyard belonging to the Patriarch of Jerusalem…

To read the full article, purchase Issue 6

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Issue 6, 1994 Palaces of Diplomacy II
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Issue 6, 1994 Palaces of Diplomacy II
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