The Armenian Builders of Constantinople

The Balyans were representatives of a noble Armenian family of Ottoman architects. They had a direct impact on the architectural appearance of modern Istanbul, having for a century and a half erected palaces, villas, pavilions, mosques, churches, and various other buildings in the ancient city.

On the European side of the Bosphorus, on the border of Istanbul’s Beşiktaş and Kabataş districts, one of the most famous sights of Turkey is located – the Dolmabahçe Palace. Dolmabahçe was built specifically for Sultan Abdulmejid I who wished to have a Baroque palace similar to those owned by medieval European emperors. More than 14 tons of gold were used in the construction of the palace. The great palace was built by the architect Karapet Balyan.

However, it should be noted that not only Dolmabahçe is associated with the name of the Balyan family. Many representatives of the dynasty for five generations have been the palace architects of the Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Balyans received their education in Europe, and when European architecture became fashionable in the empire, they proved to be the most brilliant and famous masters of their craft.

The founder of the dynasty was a certain Bali from the village of Belen in Karaman (Anatolia). At some point in his life, Bali moved to Istanbul where he would achieve success at the royal court as an architect. After his death in 1725, his place was taken by his son Magar. The latter was replaced by his sons Grigor and Senekerim. It’s thought that it was these two brothers who brought true glory to the Balyan family.

Having served as palace architects for four sultans, Grigor and Senekerim left the city (then called Constantinople) with a rich heritage.

Subsequently, the brothers built the Nusretiye Mosque in the Tophane district, the Bayazet Fire Tower, the Beşiktaş Palace, the Arnavutköy Valide Sultan Palace, as well as the Armenian Church of Holy Mother of God in the Ortaköy district.

The architect who built the Dolmabahçe Palace was Karapet, the son of Grigor. He was born in 1800 in Constantinople. A few years after the death of his father, Karapet gained considerable experience with his uncle Hovhannes Serveryan and took the position of palace architect.

In 1853, by the decree of the Sultan, Karapet together with his son Nikoghos built the Dolmabahçe Palace. But the famous house of the Sultans was not the only work of the talented architect.

Among the works of Karapet Balyan were the Ciragan Palace which currently serves as a five-star hotel in the Kempinski hotel chain; the Ortaköy Mosque whose construction Nikoghos Balyan also participated in; as well as the Armenian churches of Surb Nshan, the Holy Trinity, and Holy Mother of God in the areas of Beşiktaş, Kumkapı, and Kuruçeşme.

As for Dolmabahçe, it served as a palace for the Ottoman emperors, and after the fall of the empire, it became the residence of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Until 2007, the Dolmabahçe Palace served as a museum. In 2007, the Turkish authorities returned its political function, making Dolmabahçe the official residence of the Prime Minister in Istanbul.

The Balyans weren’t the only Armenians to leave their mark in Dolmabahçe. The halls of the palace are decorated with the paintings of Hovhannes Ayvazyan (Ivan Aivazovsky) which the artist painted specially for Sultan Abdulmejid.

The last Balyans to have a high status and the post of imperial architect were Sarkis (1831-1899) and Hakob (1837-1875), the sons of Karapet. They attended educational institutions in Paris and additionally studied under the guidance of their father, participating in the construction activities of the family.

The brothers worked together in most of their projects. Hakob was mostly responsible for the design itself, while Sarkis was responsible for presenting the projects to the Sultan. Their work includes the Beylerbey Palace, the Pertevniyal Valide Mosque, and the building of the maritime ministry in the Kasımpaşa district.

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