By the late 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was in terminal decline, beset by violence, infighting and constant shrinkage of its domains. Yet every time a chunk of the empire disappeared it seems the sultans cheered themselves up by building a new palace in Istanbul (then Constantinople).
Being sultan was a treacherous business with only so-so odds of survival, and it’s not surprising that some of the titleholders were a little edgy. Even so, Abdul Hamid II, who came to the throne after deposing his even more mentally unstable brother in 1876, stands out as one of history’s most paranoid rulers. He wore a steel-lined fez, ordered official documents to be baked in an oven before being presented to him (in case they were coated in poison) and refused to live in the enormous Dolmabahce Palace, built just 20 years previously, because its Bosphorus-side location made it vulnerable to attack.
Instead he moved inland to plant his power base in Yildiz, on higher ground where he felt safer. There he built a rambling complex on extensive grounds but such was his paranoia that the numerous architects and designers were never allowed to consult each other – only the sultan was to know the overall layout.
The result is a building with a multiple personality disorder, the décor ranging from elegant Turkish tiles, alabaster and wooden pavilions to gaudy, gilded appropriations of Western European styles of the time. Although only a comparatively small part of the complex is open to the public, it’s well worth seeing the furniture-stuffed salons, narrow corridors and secret passageways by which the sultan tried to elude his attackers, real or imagined.