What is a palace, and how is it distinct from a castle? Because both buildings serve as royal residences, the words are often used interchangeably. However, castles are military buildings first and homes second. Palaces are primarily homes—opulent homes, to be sure, but homes nevertheless.
The modern homeowner—fretting over wear-and-tear—doesn’t have to worry about roving armies, rival dynasties, and rebellion. History can be crueller to royal residences. Thus, we teamed up with some amazing graphic designers to reconstruct 7 impressive palaces from around the world.
Sans Souci, Haiti
Revolutionary general Henry Christophe declared himself king over northern Haiti in 1811. According to one perspective, Henry I was a tin-pot dictator who forced his fellow Haitians back into virtual slavery and plunged the nation into a 13-year civil war. According to another, he was a brilliant lawgiver who forged a colony of former slaves into a nation influential enough to force concessions from the great empires of Europe.
While Henry’s legacy is somewhat debatable, the beauty of his palace is not. Called the ‘Versailles of the Caribbean’, the palace’s majestic steps and terraces are an impressive monument to Haitian independence.
Qal’eh Dokhtar, Iran
Qal’eh Dokhar was built by Ardašīr I as a “barrier fortress” during his 3rd century founding of the Sasanian Empire in Iran. The fortress’s third floor housed his royal residence but was eventually supplanted by a greater palace he built nearby.
Because it is fortified, Qal’eh Dokhtar is technically a castle, not a palace. However, in the face of its stunning walls, who would quibble over labels? Qal’eh Dokhtar boasts perhaps the earliest example of an Iranian chartaq—a square of four arches supporting a dome—which became an important feature of traditional Iranian architecture.
Knossos Palace, Greece
The oldest palace on this list by two millennia, Knossos, was constructed circa 1700 BC. In addition to its political function, it also was designed as an economic and religious centre for the mysterious Minoan civilization. Knossos was destroyed circa 1375 BC—surviving invasion, fire, and earthquake nearly a century longer than similar Minoan complexes.
Without a way to decipher Minoan writings, the ruin’s many striking frescoes are key to understanding Minoan culture. For instance, one depicts the sport of bull-leaping. This sport may have given rise to the legend of the Minotaur—a cannibalistic half-man/half-bull from later Greek mythology.
Ruzhany Palace, Belarus
The Sapieha family—power-brokers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—built Ruzhany Palace in the late 1700s over the site of their earlier castle. In its heyday, Ruzhany’s famed theatre employed 100 performers. The palace also possessed a famous library and picture collection.
In 1831, the palace was leased to the Pines family as a textile factory, bringing wealth to the local Jewish community. Ruzhany’s palace, Jewish community, and political independence all came to a violent end during World War II. Today, the region is controlled by Belarus, which has begun restoring Ruzhany to its former glory.
Dungur Palace / “Palace of the Queen of Sheba,” Ethiopia
Dungur Palace is in the Ethiopian village of Aksum—once the bustling capital of an African empire that stretched from southern Egypt to Yemen. The 6th-century mansion contains approximately 50 rooms, including a bathing area, kitchen, and (possible) throne room.
Little is known about the history of the building itself. It’s nickname—“the Palace of the Queen of Sheba”—is wishful thinking. However, the discovery of a carving of a “beautiful woman” during excavation has fueled hope that remains of the queen’s real residence may hide beneath Dungur.
Clarendon Palace, UK
Despite the composition of a very significant English legal document within its halls, this 12th-century palace is nearly forgotten. The ‘Constitutions of Clarendon’ were Henry II’s attempt to gain legal authority over church clerks, but he instead exacerbated a feud with his friend Thomas à Becket. This feud eventually led to Archbishop Beckett’s martyrdom.
Henry III expanded the palace, commissioning a carved fireplace and stained glass chapel. By the 1400s, Clarendon was a sprawling royal complex. It remained a favourite retreat of monarchs until the Tudor era, when the high cost of upkeep resulted in its rapid decline. Today, only a single wall remains above ground.
Husuni Kubwa, Tanzania
The island of Kilwa Kisiwani was one of the most important sultanates in the “Swahili Coast’ trade network, linking East Africa to the Arabic world. For over 300 years, gold and ivory passed out of its ports, while Chinese silk and porcelain flowed in. The 14th-century palace at Husuni Kubwa is just one of many coral stone ruins that dot the island.
Husuni Kubwa was built by Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman. It had over 100 rooms, an octagonal swimming pool, and a staging area for loading goods onto ships. Husuni Kubwa, along with other elite Kilwa dwellings, was also equipped with indoor plumbing.
Home Sweet Home…
…or so they say. From constitutional crisis to world war, economic eclipse to struggles against slavery, one wonders how much sweetness the dynasties of history really obtained from their luxurious residences. There’s reason to be grateful for the modern person’s more modest dwelling.
Then again, when Edward III governed from Clarendon to escape a 14th-century plague, one might also say he was working from home. Perhaps our humble homes share some functions with a royal palace after all.
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