(I am not a historian; rather, I approach historical facts by delving into their context and seeking to understand the motivations that guided women in history towards their chosen, – and often not-so-chosen – paths.)
She was more than just a mother; she was his unwavering ally and the steadfast pillar of his life. He knew that, in her, he had a confidante unlike any other.
Bezmialem, the mother of the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I, wasn’t content with a passive role; instead, she immersed herself in the intricate web of state affairs. She was driven by a firm commitment to safeguard her son’s interests and preserve the visionary legacy of his father, Mahmud II, devoting her entire life to protecting her son’s vision, fortifying his reformist principles, and providing him with wise counsel whenever he sought it.
Throughout the years, she remained a crucial presence in the corridors of power, a constant source of guidance and wisdom, undeterred by the complexities of ruling an empire. Her involvement in pivotal state matters continued until her passing at the tender age of 44.
Bezmialem: Rise to Power in the Ottoman Empire
Born in Georgia (between 1807 and 1809), Bezmialem’s life took a significant turn when she was chosen as a young concubine and brought into the opulent world of the Ottoman Sultan’s harem, where she received her upbringing and education.
Early in life, Bezmialem began her ascent through the ranks, first as Sultan Mahmud II’s concubine and later as the mother of the heir to the throne, Abdülmecid born in 1823. Although she had three other children, it is believed that they did not survive beyond their early years, leaving Abdülmecid as her sole surviving child.
Bezmialem’s connection with Sultan Mahmud II lasted until his passing in 1839. Upon her son’s ascension to the Sultanate, she assumed the position of Valide Sultan, a role of immense significance within the Ottoman Empire, often ranking second only to the Sultan himself.
From the moment her son ascended to the throne at the age of 16, Bezmialem, then 31 years old, devoted herself entirely to supporting her inexperienced son, especially during a critical period in the Ottoman Empire marked by political turmoil. With global powers rapidly changing, Ottoman military shortcomings, and separatist sentiments growing within the Empire’s territories, young Abdülmecid needed his mother’s guidance more than ever. After all, the responsibilities of ruling a troubled empire must have been overwhelming for a young adolescent. Always by her son’s side, Bezmialem actively engaged in state affairs, including the selection of ministers and government officials. She ensured he was surrounded by the right people who would work for him, not against him. She maintained constant communication with him, consistently conveying vital information to remain closely aware of the empire’s evolving affairs. During her son’s absence from the capital, she even assumed the Sultan’s duties in managing the capital on his behalf.
Abdülmecid’s reign was marked by the execution of unprecedented reforms, known as the Tanzimat, initially established by his father to create a united state and forge alliances with England and France, countering Russian influence. Change typically faces resistance, and the Sultan undoubtedly encountered detractors. Yet, his mother stood by his side, determined to contribute to her son’s modernisation strategy. Bezmialem indeed supported him by establishing charitable foundations, public hospitals, schools, mosques, and public fountains. These projects aimed to foster appeasement with the population and ensure the empire’s continuity. Today, her enduring legacy enriches the architectural landscape of Istanbul and beyond. Her philanthropic endeavours earned her love, respect, and admiration.
Additionally, mother and son shared a common interest. They both embraced the European way of life while remaining attached to the fundamentals of Ottoman tradition. The perfect testament to this fusion is the construction of Dolmabahçe Palace and Mosque, in Istanbul.
Dolmabahçe Palace and Mosque: Where the East Meets the West
Commissioned by Abdülmecid I in 1843, the construction of Dolmabahçe Palace marked a shift towards a focus on European architectural influences, mirroring Europe’s growing dominance in military, economic, scientific, and political realms. Dolmabahçe would become the official residence and the primary administrative center of the Ottoman sultans, following their relocation from Topkapi, up until 1887.
Perched gracefully along the iconic Bosphorus, the Dolmabahçe Palace stands as a magnificent testament to style and architecture. It is Turkey’s largest palace, boasting 285 rooms, 46 halls, and 6 hammams (traditional Turkish baths). I can’t help but wonder about Bezmialem’s involvement in the planning phases of this palace. After all, the Harem occupied two-thirds of the palace’s rooms. She must have had a significant say in its design, for the Harem was her domain where she exercised direct authority, regulating relations between the Sultan and his wives, concubines, and children.
With its 600-meter-long ornamented quay, the palace’s design is an eclectic fusion of Western architectural styles, including Baroque, Rococo, Classical, and Gothic, combined with Ottoman Islamic influences. The palace is enclosed by high walls and is accessible through two main gates: the Treasury and the Sultan’s gates. Both gates feature columns adorned with rosettes, oyster shells, leaves, branches, and strings of pearls, framed by central arches.
The interiors were decorated by the French designer Charles Séchan. Interestingly, both mother and son were avid enthusiasts of French style, as they both enlisted Séchan’s talents for the new apartments Bezmialem had at Yildiz Palace (the royal residence prior to Dolmabahçe).
The interior spaces are truly splendid, with high ceilings adorned with sectioned frescoes, an extensive collection of oil paintings gracing the palace’s walls, exquisite carpets laid throughout the building, and opulent crystal chandeliers, including the world’s largest crystal chandelier.
Adjacent to the palace stands Dolmabahçe Mosque, commissioned directly by Bezmialem. As a deeply religious individual, she prioritised the construction of a place of worship, especially for the Sultan and his court’s Friday prayers. Like the palace, the mosque offers breathtaking views of the Bosphorus and harmonises seamlessly with the palace in terms of architecture and interior design.
Unfortunately, Bezmialem would never see the completion of both buildings as she passed away of tuberculosis in 1853. Her son made sure to complete building the Palace and the Mosque in 1856.
Abdülmecid was profoundly affected by his mother’s passing and organised a grand funeral procession, attended by government officials, religious figures, and royal servants, to commemorate her life. In the annals of history, her name would forever be intertwined with his, and both the palace and the mosque stand side by side as a testament to the profound and unbreakable bond between a mother and her son.