The Ottoman golden years are usually seen as stretching from 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II seized Constantinople from the Byzantines, to 1571, when the Ottoman navy was defeated at the Battle of Lepanto and the tide of expansion started to turn against the Empire.
That the high-water mark had been passed was not immediately obvious in the 17th and 18th centuries, but by the 19th, no one could mistake the fact, and the sultans embarked on desperate efforts to modernize/Westernize the governmental system, even going so far as to abandon their palace in Old İstanbul and install themselves in a new one on the opposite shore of the Bosporus.
It should come as no surprise, then, to find that there are fewer truly great monuments to the later years of the Ottoman Empire than there are to the early ones. The picture is not completely bleak, though. In İstanbul, their capital, the sultans continued to commission fine buildings, including a string of palaces of varying sizes and many mosques that slowly evolved in design from post-Sinan lookalikes to something more original. In particular, the talented family of architects, the Balyans, adorned the city with more fine buildings than they tend to be given credit for.
Outside İstanbul, though, there is less to show for the later years of the Ottomans. Safranbolu has a couple of fine late-Ottoman mosques commissioned by powerful grand viziers, and Konya has a distinctive mosque commissioned by Sultan Abdülaziz (r.1861-76). Otherwise, only Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909) seems to have left much of a mark on the country, adorning it with a number of small mosques and many clock towers, a symbol of the new world over which he reigned. One such pretty mosque can be seen in Söğüt, the birthplace of the Ottomans, while there’s a contemporary clock tower in neighboring Bilecik.
The Dolmabahçe Palace, between Kabataş and Beşiktaş on the northern shore of the Bosporus, is to the later Ottoman period what the Topkapı Palace in Sultanahmet was to the golden years: namely, a combination of home and center of government. Many modern visitors find it harder to appreciate the Dolmabahçe, which is perhaps odd given that it was designed as one solid building in a deliberately Western style, unlike the oriental-style collection of kiosks that makes up the Topkapı. Unfortunately, the style selected by Garabet and Nigoğayos Balyan was an incredibly elaborate Rococo that, these days, struggles to attract many fans.
Nevertheless, the building, which was completed in 1856, is superb, and its setting, right beside the Bosporus, is unforgettable. Individual items within the palace are also well-worth seeing, especially a magnificent collection of paintings that the rushed guided tours make it difficult to appreciate. The grounds are lovely, especially in spring, and the tiny Çamlı Kösk (Glass Pavilion) is a downsized treasure.
Given the importance of the Dolmabahçe Palace, it’s hardly surprising that in 1855, Garabet Balyan also designed a mosque that would be appropriate for the sultan’s very public attendance at Friday prayers. The Dolmabahçe Camii exemplifies a new-look mosque constructed with huge arched windows that let light flood into the interior. It has its match in the Ortaköy Camii (1855), a landmark mosque that sits beside the Bosporus Bridge further north along the Bosporus.
Across the water on the Asian side of the Bosporus, just before Çengelköy, the Beylerbeyi Palace, designed by Sarkis Balyan in 1865, is a Dolmabahçe in miniature, and a bit easier to appreciate just because there’s less of it. Here, too, the waterside gardens are wonderful, and will be even better once the lengthy restoration of the upper gardens is complete. The two little pavilions on the landing stage that look like stone tents make a distinctive landmark as you proceed along the Bosporus.
A short walk west of the Kapalıçarşı (The Grand Bazaar), the newly restored Laleli Camii is often overlooked amid the chaos of commerce that crowds this particular part of town. That’s a shame since it’s a fine late example of a mosque that functioned as the centerpiece to the surrounding social amenities, such as in the earlier years. Designed by Mehmed Tahir Ağa and completed in 1763, the mosque sits on a platform above an arasta (Ottoman bazaar) of small shops and must be approached via a flight of steps. But even before you mount them, it’s worth inspecting the lovely sebil beside the entrance. Sebils were staffed fountains where drinks would be dispensed to thirsty passersby. This one is decorated with tiny birdhouses, a popular feature of mosque architecture in the past.
Valide Sultan Camii, Aksaray
Laleli Camii still pays homage to the model mosque that had been perfected by Mimar Sinan. Just a short walk further west, however, the Valide Sultan Camii has scrapped all such genuflecting. Instead, it was built in 1871 in a more flamboyantly decorative and largely scorned Westernized style usually labeled Empire and exemplified by its frilly windows and dome. A recent makeover, however, has revealed the exquisite beauty of the interior of this mosque, which was always conspicuous for the elaborate fountains bookending its gateway. These are currently under restoration.
Aziziye Camii, Konya
That the home of the Mevlana in distant Konya continued to exercise a grip on the imagination of even the later sultans is shown by the impressive Aziziye Camii, built in 1874 for Sultan Abdülaziz and within walking distance of the shrine to the founder of the whirling dervish order. While its twin minarets with their elaborate balconies tend to look a little Middle Eastern, the interior looks as if it belongs in İstanbul.
Köprülü Mehmed Paşa Camii/
İzzet Paşa Camii, Safranbolu
Safranbolu is best known for its magnificent Ottoman-era houses, many of them since converted into boutique hotels. Often overlooked are its two fine mosques that belong to the later Ottoman period: the Köprülü Mehmed Paşa Camii and the İzzet Paşa Camii. Dating back to 1661, the Köprülü Mehmed Paşa Camii was built for a grand vizier (1656-61) nicknamed Mehmed the Cruel, who came from one of İstanbul’s most powerfully connected families and was also responsible for one of the mosque complexes adorning Divan Yolu in İstanbul as you walk toward Çemberlitaş. In design the mosque is a fairly standard, attractive post-Sinan model, as is the much later İzzet Paşa Camii, designed in 1796 for another powerful grand vizier (1794-98), who also restored the Byzantine aqueduct at nearby İncekaya. Surprisingly, it was one of the largest mosques built in Ottoman times.
Cakıroğlu Konağı, Birgi
Many Western Anatolian towns still retain a cluster of 18th- and 19th-century Ottoman houses in varying states of decay and/or restoration, and these days many have at least one house that is open to the public. Safranbolu tends to hog the publicity, but in fact, the finest of these open houses is actually tucked away in the tiny town of Birgi, inland from Selçuk. Here a truly splendid house that resembles an open-fronted stage with two wings was designed for Şerif Aliağa, a local merchant and bigwig, one of whose two wives was from İstanbul. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in Turkey.
İshak Paşa Sarayı, Doğubayazıt
Is it fair to ascribe the İshak Paşa Sarayı in remote Doğubayazıt near the Iranian border to the Ottomans? Probably not, since it was built for a Kurdish chieftain called Çolak Abdi Paşa and completed by his son İshak in 1784. It is, however, a reminder that by the late 18th century, parts of the Ottoman heartland had become pretty detached from what went on in a capital many weeks of traveling away. Architecturally, it’s a gloriously eclectic mash-up of Selçuk, Ottoman and Armenian elements, with nods here and there to the decorative style of Mardin. Recent restoration/rebuilding isn’t going down well with everyone, but it makes it easier to imagine what it would have been like in its heyday.
İstanbul Archeology Museum
Close to the Topkapı Palace, İstanbul’s fine Archeology Museum is partially housed in a building that exemplifies one of the main trends in architecture in the country by the end of the 19th century. Commissioned by the artist, archeologist and museologist Osman Hamdi Bey from Levantine architect Alexandre Vallaury in 1891, it completely turned its back on oriental tradition in favor of a Neoclassical style that took its cue from a Roman sarcophagus to be found inside the museum.