Until the 17th century the area where Dolmabahçe Palace stands today was a small bay on the İstanbul Strait, claimed by some to be where the Argonauts anchored during their quest for the Golden Fleece, and where in 1453 Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror had his fleet hauled ashore and across the hills to be refloated in the Golden Horn.
This natural harbour provided anchorage for the Ottoman fleet and for traditional naval ceremonies. From the 17th century the bay was gradually filled in and became one of the imperial parks on the Bosphourus known as Dolmabahçe, literally meaning “filled garden”.
A series of imperial köşks (mansions) and kasırs (pavilions) were built here, eventually growing into a palace complex known as Beşiktaş Waterfront Palace.
Beşiktaş Waterfront Palace was demolished in 1843 by Sultan Abdülmecid (1839-1861) on the grounds that it was made of wood and inconvenient, and construction of Dolmabahçe Palace commenced in its place.
Construction of the new palace and its periphery walls was completed in 1856. Dolmabahçe Palace had a total area of over 110.000 square metres and consisted of sixteen separate sections apart from the palace proper. These included stables, a flour mill, pharmacy, kitchens, aviary, glass manufactory and foundry. Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) added a clock tower and the Veliahd Dairesi (apartments for the heir apparent), and the Hareket Köşks in the gardens behind.
The main palace was built by the leading Ottoman architects of the era, Karabet and Nikoğos Balyan, and consists of three parts: the Imperial Mabeyn (State Apartments), Muayede Salon (Ceremonial Hall) and the Imperial Harem, where the sultan and his family led their private lives. The Ceremonial Hall placed centrally between the other two sections is where the sultan received statesman and dignitaries on state occasions and religious festivals.
The palace consists of two main storeys and a basement. The conspicuous western style of decoration tends to overshadow the decidedly Ottoman interpretation evident most of all in the interpretation evident most of all in the interior plan. This follows the traditional layout and relations between private rooms and central galleries of the Turkish house, implemented here on a large scale. The outer walls are made of stone, the interior walls are made of stone, the interior walls of brick, and the floors of wood. Modern technology in the form of electricity and a central heating system was introduced in 1910-12. The palace has a total floor area of 45.000 square metres, with 285 small rooms, 46 reception rooms and galleries, 6 hamams (Turkish baths) and 68 lavatories. The finely made parquet floors are laid with 4454 square metres of carpets, the earliest made at the palace carpet weaving mill and those of later date at the mill in Hereke.
The Mabeyn where the sultan conducted affairs of state is the most important section in terms of function and splendour. The entrance hall known as the Medhal Salon, the Crystal Staircase, and the Süfera Salon where foreign ambassadors were entertained prior to audience with the sultan in the Red Room are all decorated and furnished in a style reflecting the historical magnificence of the empire. The Zülvecheyn Salon on the upper floor serves as an entrance hall leading to the apartments reserved for the sultan in the Mabeyn. These apartments include a magnificent hamam faced with Egyptian marble, a study and drawing rooms.
The Ceremonial Hall situated between the Harem and the Mabeyn is the highest and most imposing section of Dolmabahçe Palace. With an area of over 2000 square metres, 56 columns, a dome 36 metres high at the apex, and a 4.5 ton English chandelier, this room stands out as the focal point of the palace. In cold weather this vast room was heated by hot air blown out at the bases of the columns from a heating system in the basement. On ceremonial occasions the gold throne would be carried here from Topkapı Palace, and seated here the sultan would exchange congratulations on religious festivals with hundreds of statesmen and other official guests. On such traditional occasions foreign ambassadors and guests would sit in one of the upper galleries, another being reserved for the palace orchestra.
The self-contained Harem occupies two thirds of the palace, corridors linking it to the Mabeyn and the Ceremonial Hall. Access to the Harem was by iron and wooden doors, through which only the sultan could pass freely. Here are a series of salons and galleries whose windows look out onto the İstanbul Strait, and leading off them the suites of rooms belonging to the sultan's wives, the high ranking female officials of the Harem, and the sons, brothers, daughters and sisters of the sultan. Other principal sections are the suite of the Valide Sultan (sultan’s mother), the so-called Blue and Pink salons, the bedrooms of sultans Abdülmecid, Abdülaziz and Mehmed V. Reşad, the section housing the lower ranking palace women known as the Cariyeler Dairesi, the rooms of the sultan’s wives (kadınefendi), and the study and bedroom used by Atatürk. All the main rooms are furnished with valuable carpets, ornaments, paintings, chandeliers and calligraphic panels.
Restoration of Dolmabahçe Palace has now been completed and every section is open to the public. Two galleries are devoted to an exhibition of precious items of various kinds, and fine examples of Yıldız porcelain from the National Palaces collection are displayed at the İç Hazine (Privy Purse) building. Paintings from the National Palaces collection can be seen in the Art Gallery, where they are displayed in rotation in the form of long-term exhibitions. On the lower floor beneath this gallery is a corridor containing a permanent exhibition of photographs showing the bird designs which feature in the palace’s architecture and its furnishings and ornaments. Abdülmecid Efendi Library in the Mabeyn is the other principal exhibition area at Dolmabahçe.
The Mefruşat Dairesi at the palace entrance now houses the Cultural and Information Center, which is responsible for research projects and promotion activities carried out at all the historic buildings attached to the Department of National Palaces. The center contains a library, mainly relating to the 19th century, which is available for researchers.
There are cafes in the grounds near the Clock Tower, the courtyard of the Mefruşat Dairesi, the Aviary, and the Veliahd Dairesi. Items available in the souvenir shops here include books about the National Palaces, postcards, and reproductions of selected paintings from the art collection. The Ceremonial Hall and gardens are available for private receptions. Special exhibition areas have now been established, and numerous cultural and art events are held in the palace.