Despite the passing of time, Istanbul’s historical pavilions with their crystal chandeliers and candelabrums, full-length mirrors, engravings, and gold leafs, resembling ruby broaches on the city’s collar, relate the fairy tale of a slightly enchanting and slightly mysterious imperial past. We are also a part of this fairy tale. So why not spend a weekend pursuing this dream and becoming lost in its corridors?

Istanbul conceals these invaluable jewels within its depths like a treasure chest with an unbroken seal. These heirlooms, the palaces, mansions, and pavilions that are sometimes hidden amidst greenery and sometimes adorn the blue waters are an indication of the city’s grandness and richness. This weekend,
I am visiting the pavilions that were homes to the Ottoman sultans and their families until the last century. Each of these structures sheds light on the lives of the sultans, reveals the Western perception of art of the period, and informs us about historical events. Today, as museums, they welcome visitors who want to travel a century back, and spend a day feeling like members of the Ottoman dynasty. The Mecidiye and Küçüksu Pavilions on the Anatolian side, and the Ihlamur and Maslak Pavilions on the European side are ideal for such a tour.

 

Stone Transformed into Art

The Mecidiye Pavilion in the Yalıköy district of Beykoz is a stone structure built on the most beautiful hill on the Bosphorus. This is also neighbor to the historical Kundura (shoe) Factory that today plays host to culture and art events. As you approach the pavilion that stands among magnolia trees with its arched windows and neoclassical pillars resembling a Roman forum, it appears even more grand and imposing. The pavilion, whose construction began on order of Mehmet Ali Paşa, governor of Egypt, and was completed by his son in 1854, was presented as a gift to Sultan Abdülmecid. In the early years, the pavilion was used as a hunting kiosk. Later, it was used as daily lodging quarters and for hosting foreign statesmen and ambassadors. After the Ottoman era, in the 1920s, the Mecidiye Pavilion housed an orphanage and hospital for chest diseases, and for the last two years, it has been open to the public as a museum. The pavilion is situated in a stepped, terraced landscape that begins at the sea and rising up resembles stone lacing. I enter the pavilion and as I walk up the symmetric stairs fitted with red carpets, the elegance of the crystal chandeliers with inverted tulips hanging from the ends and the engraved objects catch my eye. As I wander around the rooms furnished in the European style, I feel like a member of the dynasty. The exterior of the pavilion is just as imposing as the interior. I take a break in the café under the magnolia trees and begin to envision the scenes described in the audio guide: “On Saturday October 15, 1869, Sultan Abdülaziz gave a grand banquet in the Beykoz Mecidiye Pavilion for Eugénie, Empress of France, who came to Istanbul to visit the sultan. She watched the military parade. That day, the people of Istanbul traveled to Beykoz by land and sea to see one of the most historical parades.”

 

A Superb Example of a Sultan’s Hunting Pavilion

I travel along the Bosphorus towards Anadolu Castle to another imperial kiosk, the Küçüksu Pavilion. The coast of Dalyan in Beykoz, with its extensive Bosphorus view, is once again crowded and lively. The smell of barbeques coming from the boats selling fish sandwiches on the Paşabahçe route is so inviting, but I can’t stop. Göksu Creek, the scene of colorful entertainment throughout history, appears on the horizon. And it hasn’t changed much -this is one of the city’s unparalleled, relaxing locations with its numerous cafés and restaurants. The Küçüksu Pavilion surrounded by white, cast iron fencing that resembles white lace is on the shore of the Küçüksu Creek in a garden decorated with lilies. This pavilion was designed in 1857 in the period of Abdülmecid as a hunting lodge by Nigoğos Balyan, whose signature we frequently see in the last period of Ottoman imperial architecture. Both the interior and exterior decoration testify to the unique synthesis of Ottoman and European styles, such as Rococo and Baroque. The symmetry, which is pleasing and relaxing to the eye, is found on the exterior and continues inside. The stairs that open and fold like open arms, the single-piece Hereke carpets, and ceiling-to-floor windows that open onto the Bosphorus make me forget how time has flown by. Yachts passing in front of the landing stage bring to mind the welcoming ceremonies when the padishah arrived at the pavilion in the imperial caique. But there is another part of history that is calling me from outside -not only the Bosphorus. It is the Mihrişah Sultan Fountain. The fountain built by Sultan Selim III for his mother in 1807 is one of the symbols we come across frequently in literature and art books.

 

A Pavilion among Linden Trees

The European side of the Bosphorus is as rich in terms of imperial monuments as the Asian side of the city. Passing over from Küçüksu to Beşiktaş on the City Lines ferry also means a change of continent. This pleasant journey will end at the Ihlamur (Linden) Pavilion. The Beşiktaş landing port is lively, as always the center is thriving with people. After walking along Ihlamurdere Street, the 160-year-old hunting pavilion appears before me. The garden of the pavilion situated in the center of the city is like a linden forest. The building made of cut stone is decorated like a cute wedding cake. Seashells, flowers, leaves, rosettes, vases filled with fruits are placed in curves shaped like “C’s” and “S’s.” Here, I come across the same names: Sultan Abdülmecid and architect Nigoğos Balyan. The interior is as beautifully decorated as the outside. I am captivated by the gold leaf ceilings with wooden reliefs, the porcelain-covered fireplaces, the gatch plaster that looks like marble, and the interlocking parquet flooring that changes in each room.

When I get tired of the lively colors and designs in the rooms, I decide to go outside to take a break in the simplicity of the garden. Beside the Ihlamur Pavilion, there is another small building that was built to accommodate the people in sultan’s residence. I sit to have a rest in the garden of the Maiyet Kiosk that is currently used as a cafeteria. The smell of coffee blends in with the freshness of the greenery. The booklet I am holding in my hand reminds me of the day when Sultan Abdülmecid hosted the French poet Lamartine here in 1846. The poet’s words explain the reason I feel so at ease in this garden: “Ihlamur Pavilion was the sultan’s favorite place. He rests and performs meditation here.”

 

The Elegance of Simplicity

I am determined to add a fourth pavilion to my “imperial day.” I have the Maslak Pavilion that I can reach in 15 minutes technically, but sometimes there can be plenty of traffic in Maslak. On one hand, the skyscrapers, and on the other, the sites that extend to shopping, art, and history... After passing the plazas and the area of modern commotion, the pavilion concealed in the Maslak Park appears before me like an oasis of tranquility. There are no reliefs or designs on the wooden exterior. The pavilion, where Sultan Abdülhamid II spent his years as the son of a sultan, seems to reflect the intricacies of the sultan’s character. It is obvious that here the sultan preferred farm life rather than the customary splendor and comfort of the palace. The Limonluk Pavilion also indicates Abdülhamid II’s known interest in carpentry and rare plant species. It is somewhat surprising to see camellias here, which were imported from France in that period. Couples that have come here to have their engagement or wedding photos taken pose smiling in the outdoor spaces. The octagon Çadır Pavilion in the garden is used as a café. Gözleme (Turkish-style savory crepes) and tea are just two of the modest choices on the menu - and this is what I chose. I sit here absorbed in watching the point where the Bosphorus opens out to the Black Sea.

I decide to end this pleasant imperial day on the vast blue waters of the Bosphorus. As I head down from Maslak to İstinye, the sun has begun to disappear, spreading its rays over the ripples expanding across the water. On the landing stage, the city is transformed into a postcard scene. This sunny autumn weekend and the tea I drank from a glass cup made me feel closer to Istanbul’s past.

 

 

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