In the easternmost district of Turkey, very close to the Iranian border, perched on a steep rock, sits one of the most magnificent historical buildings of the country. It is known as Ishak Pasha Palace, an unexpectedly intricate pearl of architecture, contrasting its beauty with a mountainous and drab landscape. It still manages to surprise the travellers with its grandeur, but it must have made an even stronger impression on the weary merchants following the Silk Route. Across the valley, on a higher ridge, sits a much older structure - Doğubayazıt Fortress.
Archaeological research conducted to the west of Doğubayazıt Fortress revealed some stone finds dating as far back as the Urartian era. Therefore, it is usually assumed that the earliest settlement in the area goes back to around 800 BCE. Moreover, a well-fortified town existed there at least since the 4th century CE. In the middle of the 14th century, the region was controlled by the Jalairids. They were a Mongol dynasty that ruled over Iraq and western Persia after the breakup of the Mongol Khanate of Persia. Their domination was disrupted by Timur's conquests and the revolts of the Kara Koyunlu Turkmen.
Doğubayazıt area became a part of the Ottoman Empire in 1514. Soon afterwards, the old Doğubayazıt Fortress was abandoned and its walls were partly demolished. Most probably, some of the materials were later used for the construction of Ishak Pasha Palace. At the head of Bayazit Sanjak stood an official with the title of mütesarrıf, appointed directly by the sultan. This position became hereditary within the Kurdish family dynasty of Çildıroğulları.
The building of the palace started around the year 1685, on the orders of Çolak Abdi Pasha. The palace was erected very slowly, and its construction was supervised by the generations of the Çildıroğulları. Another member of this family was İshak Pasha who held the position of a vizier in 1723, and the next year was appointed the governor of Tbilisi. His grandson Hasan became the governor of Çıldır in 1760-1761. Another İshak, also the governor of Çıldır, finished the long process of the palace construction. The date of the completion is given by the inscription located above the portal to the harem. It provides the Islamic year 1199, corresponding to 1784-1785 CE. At the time of the construction of the palace, the town expanded in the plain below the palace hill.
It is assumed that last pasha of Çildıroğulları dynasty, who inhabited the entire palace, was Mahmut. He is the only member of the family whose tomb is located in the burial chamber below the palace courtyard. The date of his death is illegible on the gravestone, but now it is known that he died in 1805. His successor, Behlül, moved his residence from the palace to the fortress. He resided there when the Russians arrived during the Russo-Ottoman War of 1828. The Russian occupation lasted just one year but much of the wooden structure of the palace was destroyed in that period. The harem doors, plated with gold, as well as documents from the library of the palace were plundered and taken to Russia. It is a great shame as these documents could provide precious information about the construction of the complex.Moreover, an earthquake in 1840 caused severe damage both to the palace and the fortress. By 1860, some rooms had been restored, but the next Russo-Ottoman War erupted in 1877. The palace served as a military shelter, and it was damaged again. This time, the Russians occupied the region until the First World Was when they used it as a military post. Further damage to the palace was made by gunfire, as the city was fought over because of their strategic position between Russian and Turkish troops.
In the early days of the Turkish Republic, the palace served as the administrative centre for Ağrı Province and the Bayazıt District. In 1926, the provincial administration moved to the city of Ağrı, and the administration for Bayazıt District relocated into the plain below. Then the palace was used as a cavalier military post, to 1937. Until the early 1930s, the palace was surrounded by the town now called Eski (Old) Bayazıt, originally an Armenian settlement. It was demolished by the Turkish army after a Kurdish uprising, also known as Ararat Rebellion, in 1930. In the following period, the palace was further damaged when stone blocks from its walls were removed as the construction material for nearby mansions.
The first western visitor of the palace was Pierre Amédée Jaubert, a French diplomat, academic, orientalist. However, his stay in the place was not voluntary as he was imprisoned in the palace's dungeon for four months. He was Napoleon's orientalist adviser who was sent on a mission to Persia in 1805, to seek an alliance with the Shah Fat'h Ali. Jaubert was captured and imprisoned before he even reached Persia and was only released after the Pasha of Doğubeyazıt, Mahmut, died. Afterwards, he wrote a travelogue from this mission as "Voyage en Arménie et en Perse". This book, published in 1821, enabled the scholars to determine the date of Mahmut's death. It was a groundbreaking discovery as Mahmut was the last pasha who lived in Ishak Pasha Palace. Moreover, the book also featured a sketch of the palace.
Charles Texier, a French historian, architect, and archaeologist, visited the palace in 1830. He reported admiringly on the palace's architecture and equipment, especially of the reception room. Other European travel reports followed his visit, including the one prepared by the British consul in Erzurum in 1838. More detailed descriptions were written by Turkish authors in the first half of the 20th century. The first report in Turkish was by Yusuf Mazhar Bey in 1928, and it contained three photographs and some sketches. They demonstrate that the palace was then in poor condition. Mazhar Bey compared Ishak Pasha Palace with Topkapı Palace in Istanbul while another Turkish author, Ali-Salm Ülgen, found some parallels to Edirne New Palace.
In 1956, Turkish Monument Protection Agency authority initiated the first systematic investigation of the palace. The structures were measured, and drawings were prepared. The director of the works, Mahmut Akok, published a detailed report in 1960. Cleaning of the site followed, and in 1966 the restorations on the eastern and southern boundary walls were completed. More research was conducted in the years 1978-1979, and three years later a monograph devoted to the palace was written by Yüksel Bingöl. Some small-scale renovations were made until 1984.
In 1992, the Ministry of Culture initiated extensive restoration programme for the palace. Not everything went exactly as it had been planned and in 1994 some major revisions of the restoration plan were introduced. The wall sections, which had been previously supplemented with concrete, were removed and replaced with the more appropriate lime mortar and hewed field stones. Moreover, the heightened walls of the harem section were reduced to their original size. Finally, all parts of this section with the exception of the ceremonial hall were covered with a sheet roof supported on a wooden construction. The renovation, cleaning, and reconstruction lasted till 2004. In this period, in the year 2000, the palace was inscribed onto UNESCO Tentative List of World Heritage.
However, the difficult restoration process of the palace was not over. In 2004, it was discovered that incorrectly inserted steel anchors led to the damage of the outer walls. Moreover, the cracks in the mosque walls had to be sealed. It was also discovered that the structural parts of the protective roof were not strong enough to carry the weight of the roof when it was covered with snow. Thus, just three years after the previous renovation was was finished, another project was announced. Surprisingly, the tender process resulted in the selection of the same contractor that botched the previous restoration.
The most important change of the most recent renovation was the erection of a new roof structure over the palace. In 2009, a barrel-vaulted wooden and glass construction was installed to shelter some parts of the palace. It covers an area of 3000 square meters and it was constructed on the support of beam made of Siberian spruce wood. The cover is provided by tempered, filtered glass that isolates the buildings of the complex from rain, snow, and thermal effects. Also this newest solution has been criticised, as it changes the aesthetic perception of the historical building.
Ishak Pasha Palace was built in the location overlooking Sariova Plain where the modern city of Doğubayazıt is now situated. Old Doğubayazıt stood to the northwest and the south of the palace. The Doğubayazıt Castle stands to the north-east of the palace. The plateau of Sariova is surrounded by the mountains, including Ararat, Little Ararat, Pamuk, and Ziyaret ranges.
The palace was erected on an artificially levelled platform, arranged along the east-west axis. The effect of the level ground was achieved by the creation of the basement under a part of the structure. The cellar reaches 15 meters at its deepest place. The foundations of the palace rest on a rocky and hard ground. Three sides of the hill - north, west, and south - are very steep and the only suitable approach is from the east where the only entrance is situated. The palace has an irregular shape, and its dimensions are approximately 115 to 50 meters.
Due to its location in the borderland, the palace's architecture is a creative mixture of Seljuk, Ottoman, Persian, and Armenian styles. Six different types of local stone were used to build the palace. Palace's decorations are mainly stone carvings, representing floral motifs, geometric shapes, and arabesques. Wood was also used, especially for the roof structure and columns but most of the original wooden roofing has disappeared. Wood was also used as a decorative material to build cantilevers that supported a balcony in one of the rooms in the men's section of the palace. According to Nurgün Erdin and Kamile Tırak, the three-dimensional wooden sculptures that decorated the beams carried a symbolic meaning in Turkish art. The figures represented a human, a lion, and an eagle, and their design is unique for the palace. The old gilded wooden gates of the palace were removed under the Russian rule at the beginning of the 19th century, and are now displayed in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
The elaborate portal of the palace, built of cut stone blocks, displays the features of the Seljuk art with its muqarnas decorations. The palatial complex consists of two courtyards, with numerous rooms and structures situated around them. The visitors first reach the outer courtyard (birun) which in the past was open to merchants and guests. The inner courtyard (enderun) can be accessed from the first one through a gigantic portal. Finally, the last section of the palace is the harem section, reached through another, elaborately decorated gate. Thus, the plan of the palace follows the pattern of the traditional tripartite division of Ottoman buildings. According to Yüksel Bingöl, the palace covered 7600 thousand square meters and originally counted 366 rooms.
The first courtyard has been preserved in far-from-perfect condition as some of its structures were destroyed. It measures 50 to 30 meters and is surrounded by guardrooms and storage spaces. The entrance to the basement level and the palace's dungeons can be found in the far right (northern) corner of the yard. There is also a beautifully decorated fountain on the eastern wall as well as some private chambers. Three small rooms in the enclosure wall on the northern portal side were probably toilets. The elongated buildings on the northern and southern side housed stables and rooms for the servants.
The function of the outer courtyard corresponded to that of the first courtyard of Topkapı Palace. Here the everyday business was settled between the traders and local rulers. The warehouses stored wood, grain, horse-drawn carriages, and armaments. The portal gate was opened at the first prayer call of the day and closed at midnight on the lastest.
The sightseeing path leads through the second portal, also of impressive dimensions but simply designed. It is situated on the opposite wall of the main entrance but not precisely along the same axis. In the area of the second courtyard, the southern perimeter wall runs outwards and widens the palace area. The second courtyard, measuring 35 to 20 meters, is much more impressive than the first one. This part of the palace was only available for its inhabitants. The mosque and the madrasa rise over the northern corner, servant quarters and stables are situated along the southern wall, and two-storied guardrooms are to the east, on both sides of the entrance.
The northern section is higher than the southern one. On this side, the second courtyard is bordered by the broad facade of the mosque and the selamlik, that is the portion of the palace reserved for men and their guests. The men's area, which has been well preserved except for the original roof, consists of several rooms where the men lived, worked, and received guests. One of the rooms housed the library of the imam of the mosque. The entrance to the selamlik is through a portal in the northern wall. It is flanked by over two-meter high double columns that carry a pointed-arched muqarnas vault. The side walls contain flat windows.
The selamlik portal leads through a seven-step staircase into an antechamber with a barrel vault. Next to it, to the right, there is a spacious room, called the Courtyard of Welcome, where the pasha received guests. The corridor starting on the left side of the antechamber leads to the mosque and adjoining rooms.
The reception room of the selamlik measures 19 to 8 meters. According to Charles Texier's description, its ceiling was painted with fantasy birds, and in the rectangular niches, painted glass panels with floral patterns were visible. The ceiling collapsed later, because of the Russian bombardment, and only the vaulted ceilings of the corridors have been preserved. The floor was laid of basalt blocks. At the western end of the reception hall, there is a buffet niche (şerbetlik). One of the selamlik rooms was equipped with the balcony supported on wooden beams that had been mentioned previously.
On both sides of the selamlik portal, a series of windows set into arch-shaped wall depressions divides the courtyard façade. Above each window, there is a different braiding pattern in the high relief. The five windows to the east of the portal illuminate the reception room, and two, slightly larger windows belong to two rooms on the other side.
In the second courtyard, just in front of the north wall, a small mausoleum of the Seljuk kümbet style clings to the wall of the mosque. It is a slender octagonal tower with a conical roof. Its corners are formed by triple columns. The lower wall panels contain frames with a pineapple in the middle. In the wall fields above, a plant with many-leafed curved branches grows out of a round pot. Inside, a twelve-stepped staircase leads down from the door in the eastern side to a vaulted room, roughly 5 by 2.5 meters in size. It is a burial place of many members of the Çildıroğulları dynasty. In the courtyard, two stone cottages that look like dog kennels, are actually ventilation and exposure openings for the burial chamber.
The mosque in the second courtyard occupies the area between the open space in the centre and the northern enclosure wall. It has one minaret with a balcony. The minaret has a circular plan, and it was built with alternating red and light stone layers. The square prayer hall in the south is arched by a high dome with the inside diameter of mere than eight meters. The traces of ornamental painting are still visible inside the dome. The prayer hall has a column-supported gallery for women. The mosque's interior is decorated with reliefs, including the trees of life. The building of the mosque has been restored with carefully fitted pale pink stone blocks.
The room behind the north wall and gallery of the prayer hall and connected to it by three wide doors is called son cemaat yeri. It served as the extended prayer hall for those who came too late. When the prayers finished, the same room played the role of a schoolroom and a medrese.
A high ornamental portal on the centre of the western wall of the second courtyard leads into a long straight corridor to the harem section. The portal is decorated with reliefs representing vines, animals, fruit, and flowers.
The harem (private) section of the palace is the westernmost part of the palatial complex. It measures around 36 to 43 meters, and pleasure gardens (hasbahçe) surround it of three sides. In this part of the palace, there are many rooms with stone fireplaces, baths, and toilets, as well as a kitchen. Air ducts running along the walls, found in many rooms of the palace, suggest that there was also a central heating system installed, for the comfort of its inhabitants. There was also running water and a sewage system at the residents' disposal. Although the upper levels of the harem section have not been preserved, some structural clues suggest the existence not only of the second floor but also of a smaller third floor. Moreover, the pictures made by Charles Texier demonstrate that the harem had two floors and it was covered with a flat roof.
The south of the entrance corridor, there was a spacious, two-story-high kitchen (darüzziyafe). It had a wall opening through which the food was served in a north-south-facing corridor. Two round arches over mighty pilasters support the flat roof of the kitchen, in the centre of which stands an octagonal lantern with pyramidal roof, the solution that goes back to Seljuk models. Next to the kitchen, there were three rooms for the cooks. Two of them contain pools, built of cut stones. Possibly, perishable foodstuffs were stored there underwater.
Nearby, there is a relatively small hammam section which consisted of a bath and a changing room. The largest room of the harem was the salon (muayede salonu) located in the middle and accessible through portals from the east and west sides. From all the rooms of the palace this received the most elaborate design. It represents the mixture of styles with Seljuk stonework, Armenian floral reliefs, and Georgian-style capitals of the columns. The lower sections of the walls were erected with black and white stone blocks, to create a chequerboard effect. In front of the two narrow sides of the east-west oriented room, an octagonal pair of columns supported three pointed arches and the wall section above.
The palace is open to visitors daily, from sunrise to sunset. The ticket costs 5 TL.
Northeast of the palace you can see the oldest archaeological findings related to the history of the region. These are Urartian rock tombs whose entrance is framed by larger-than-life relief figures. These tombs are located at the western slope of the hill where the ruins of Doğubayazıt Castle are still visible. The tombs were discovered by Charles Texies in 1830, and they date back to the period between the 13th and the 9th century BCE.
Doğubayazıt Castle clings to the cliffs east of the palace, with Eski Bayazıt's still-standing 16th-century mosque below.
Further to the east of the palace, there is a mausoleum of Ehmedê Xanî, a poet, who wrote the Kurdish national epic Mem û Zîn in the 17th century.
Ishak Pasha Palace is situated 9 km to the south-east of the centre of Doğubayazıt. The city stands at the junction of two major roads: E80 from Ağrı (93 km to the west) to Gürbulak border crossing to Iran (35 km to the south-east), and E99 from Iğdır (52 km to the north) to Erciş on the northern shores of Lake Van (135 km to the south-west).
There are minibuses (dolmuşes) to the palace that depart from the centre of Doğubayazıt from the stop near the city hall.