Who dusts the priceless vases and tea cups and vacuums the precious carpets of the palaces? Our curiosity took us to Beylerbeyi Palace, in İstanbul's Beylerbeyi neighborhood, where we met the palace's specialized crew of cleaners.
As you pass the viaducts of the Bosporus Bridge, and walk towards the neighborhood of Çengelköy, Beylerbeyi Palace winks at you. One side of the palace faces the sea and the other the end of the street, so that the building is almost under the bridge. Visitors flock to Beylerbeyi Palace, which at one time was the home of Sultan Abdülhamit II. We came to the palace to find out who is responsible for cleaning ornate and historical palaces like Beylerbeyi. When the effects of hundreds of visitors and the dust and dirt of the street are taken into account, it is clear that the palace must need cleaning often. How is cleaning the palace different from cleaning an ordinary house?
Ömer Cihat Uzun works for the Department of National Palaces. He explained to us that an “object care” team cleans everything from the carpets on up to the most fragile items in the palaces. “Three members of the team are in charge of carpet care. They are graduates of a carpet-weaving vocational high school. They are solely responsible for the care of carpets. Other team members are responsible for all other portable items in the palace,” says Uzun. “A person needs to have undergone training in restoration in order to be able to clean historical items.” But appropriately trained cleaners are very rare.
Before the object care team came into existence, the palaces were cleaned by a crew of women civil servants between the ages of 40 and 50. Now the historical artifacts at Dolmabahçe and Beylerbeyi Palaces are safe in the hands of a young, well-trained team. For the last several years they have been taking care of the curtains, nightstand, clock and medicine cabinet in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's room at Dolmabahçe Palace and historical pieces at Beylerbeyi Palace, such as Sultan Abdülhamit II's bed and bronzes and the paintings of Şeker Ahmet Paşa, who was one of the most important military painters of Ottoman times.
Each object is cleaned every three to four months
Visitors are not allowed at Beylerbeyi Palace on Mondays and Thursdays, and not all rooms and sections of the palace are open to visitors. On Mondays and Thursdays those rooms and sections which are open to the public are cleaned. The closed areas are cleaned on other days of the week. “All of the historical palaces and pavilions in Turkey are located in such places that the objects inside get dusty very quickly. The historical objects are on open display, and also there are many visitors. Dust flies up in the air as the visitors walk around and as the wind blows. Then there is also air pollution coming from the sea-facing side of the palace. This all comes together and accumulates on the surfaces of the objects,” Uzun says. Then enter the object care team, with their vacuum cleaners and brushes in their hands, to dust every object. The cleaning is conservation, because their goal is to clean before dust can harm the objects. Uzun adds that cleaning is scheduled according to the number of visitors expected. He points out that Beylerbeyi Palace is different from Dolmabahçe Palace, and the frequency of cleaning depends on the building's location, surroundings and even the number of cars passing by. Every object, he says, is cleaned once every three to four months at Beylerbeyi Palace.
The civil servants who had the job of cleaning the palace before the object care team was put together are still on the job. Four ladies wandering around the palace with buckets and cleaning towels in their hands draw our attention. Two of them are elderly and the other two are younger. The two older women have both been cleaning Beylerbeyi Palace for 21 years. One of them tells us that before the young workers came they were the ones who cleaned the entire palace for years. “I used to go around to all of the historical palaces and clean, but now they do not need me,” says the second woman, implying that they were ousted in favor of younger workers.
‘We are very worried about harming the objects as we clean them'
Melih Topaloğlu is one of the restorers working at Beylerbeyi Palace; she is 23 years old. She majored in traditional Turkish handcrafts and started working at Dolmabahçe and Beylerbeyi Palaces after being trained in restoration at the Preservation and Restoration Association of the Directorate General of Foundations. She speaks highly of her job, saying “I work in a historical place and have the privilege of touching objects which other people cannot touch. I imagine the day the object was made. That is certainly a privilege. However, we are always anxious about harming the objects as we clean them.” Then she continues: “Each object is cleaned with a different and specific method. You cannot clean a vase in the way you clean a dresser. We use cotton towels to clean porcelain.”
Ferdi Aydoğan, Topaloğlu's colleague, says: “If an object made out of fabric is stained, we will clean it as soon as possible because they are more fragile than other objects.” He holds a master's degree from the department of historical preservation and restoration at İstanbul University. “We are entrusted with minimizing the damage to the objects,” says Onur Çoban, another restorer. He says that as part of their job they note any damage which has already occurred, try to restore it and take precautions against further damage. They also report any objects that are damaged in the course of cleaning to the objects department at Dolmabahçe Palace.