Once upon a time, there were boatmen under the governance of the “iskele kethüda.” All day and year-round, these boatmen rowed people back and forth between Galata and Eminönü, Hasköy and Balat. It is said that there were so many commuters that, by the late 19th century, there were 10,000 boats plying the city’s water routes.These boats were used for more than just commuting. Historians write that boat rides were among the most popular and elaborate entertainment forms of the Ottoman Empire. Boat rides on the Golden Horn stream were an inspiration to many poets, singers and artists.
The Ottomans classified boats according to the person using them as well as the purpose of use. There was a hierarchy that determined who could use which boat, the number of oarsmen they could have working and other such details.At the top of the rank were the Sultan’s boats that carried the ruler of the empire, the Sultan. The Sultan was the only person who could own the largest boat (30 meters x 2.5 meters) and have the greatest number of oarsmen (26). Only he was allowed to travel around the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus on this spectacular boat specifically designed and decorated to show his imperial wealth, power and prestige.
One French aristocrat mentions the Sultan’s boat in his writings about Istanbul and describes boats that cut through the water like a sword and were incredibly beautiful; he wrote the highest praise for the “craftsmanship (with) such magnificence” when describing the gold leaf work on the woodcarvings. Reportedly, visitors of that period claimed that the bird statue, a symbol of the empire, decorating the kayik’s front was made of solid gold and that the kiosk at the rear (the Sultan’s throne) was decorated throughout with precious stones.
The Sultan’s outings on this boat were a spectacular event. As the Sultan embarked, canons would be fired from the ships at the port and the maiden’s tower as a procession of smaller boats lead the way. People gathered along the seaside would bow down as the Sultan passed.
Sultan Abdülhamid came to Dolmabahçe Palace for his commencement ceremony on the imperial Boat. After two attempted assassinations, he fled to Yıldız Palace on the hills. During his 33-year reign, the Sultan’s boats were abandoned at the boathouse of Dolmabahçe Palace.
Sultan Mehmet V Reşat (1909-1918) tried to revive the imperial boat culture without success. Several factors contributed to his failure. The Ottoman Empire was declining as was his sultanate. The production of steamboats and cars were causing the residential settlements to expand toward the hills. Each passing day the Sultan’s boats faded into history.
That is, until the year 2002 when the Sultan’s boats were re-introduced onto the watery by-ways of Istanbul.