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TREASURES OF THE TOPKAPI PALACE.

Rare art and artifacts from the royal home of the Ottoman sultans are dazzling to behold.

THE MAJESTIC Topkapi Palace, a seaside complex of buildings with extraordinary views of Asia and Europe, was constructed in the 15th century by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror in the new Ottoman capital of Istanbul, formerly the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. For 400 years, the palace remained the center of one of the most powerful and sophisticated empires in the world. At its height, the Ottoman Empire ruled the Balkans from Greece to the Austrian frontier, the Arab East, North Africa, Crimea, Hungary, and, at times, parts of Italy, Poland, and Ukraine.

The Topkapi Palace was the primary residence of the sultans until the mid 19th century and was the center of the vast Ottoman Empire's administrative, military, educational, and arts activities. Thousands of people of many different ethnic backgrounds and religions from the far corners of the Empire lived and worked there, creating a culturally dynamic atmosphere. The palace employed the most talented artists and craftsmen, whose work in diverse aesthetic styles and materials led to the creation of Ottoman imperial objects of the highest quality.

A touring exhibition, "Palace of Gold & Light: Treasures from the Topkapi, Istanbul," includes more than 200 objects, primarily from the Topkapi Palace Museum. These objects represent the extraordinary artistic achievements and blending of cultural aesthetics that occurred during the Ottoman Empire. The exhibition explores the powerful roles of the sultan in Ottoman society as absolute monarch, supreme religious leader, military strategist, and royal patron of art and education.

Featured is the Topkapi dagger, made famous by the popular 1964 film, "Topkapi." Originally crafted before 1747 as a gift from the Sultan to the Iranian Nadir Shah, the dagger never reached its intended recipient, who was killed in an uprising before the Ottoman emissary crossed the border into Iran. The dagger, which was returned to the Topkapi treasury and has remained there ever since, features three unusually large emeralds in its handle, with an eight-sided emerald cover at its top concealing a small watch. Along both sides of the handle are rows of diamonds, and the back of the handle is covered in mother-of-pearl and enamel.

Also on view is one of the palace's great treasures, a 16th-century ebony and ivory throne, thought to be used by Sultan Suleyman I (reigned 1520-66) on his many travels to Asia and Europe. Inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the throne was used by the Sultan when receiving high court officials and foreign ambassadors. Other highlights include rich Ottoman textiles and silk royal robes; jewel-encrusted ceremonial objects; intricately designed wool and silk carpets from imperial looms; finely crafted armor and weaponry; Chinese porcelains; musical instruments; illuminated religious and literary manuscripts; and bejeweled domestic objects.

Sultan Mehmed II (reigned 1451-80), one of the most successful military leaders in the Empire's history, not only captured Constantinople, but extensively expanded Ottoman domains in Europe and Asia. Known as a charismatic leader and sophisticated art patron, Mehmed II established the sultanate in the form under which it enjoyed its most brilliant cultural and military accomplishments.

The curved battle sword he used, complete with the scratches and nicks incurred during his many military campaigns, is in the exhibition, along with his talismanic shirt, which was worn under armor or ceremonial court robes. Inscribed with prayers and verses from the Koran, garments such as this were believed to protect the wearer from evil. Sultan Mehmed, who spoke seven languages, put a high priority on education. The exhibition includes a number of historical manuscripts demonstrating the wide range of learning and creative achievement of his court.

The Ottoman sultan was traditionally a remote figure of great mystery. His public appearances, though frequent, were carefully orchestrated to preserve a sense of public excitement and wonder. The beautifully designed costumes, the large gems that adorned his turban and ceremonial objects, the gold of his sword, and the huge size of his white silk turban all served to project an image of royal power to the crowds that assembled to see their leader.

The exhibition includes objects used to create this imperial impression, such as an appliqued kaftan from the mid 17th century, decorated with large-scale chintamani motifs. This bold decoration--a series of triple balls and wavy lines originally symbolizing tiger stripes and leopard spots--was typical of Ottoman royal costumes and could be identified from a distance. Large precious stones, such as those in a turban ornament of Sultan Ahmed I (reigned 1604-16) of large polished emeralds and gold, were symbols of royal wealth that were purchased by the sultans for enormous sums and then fashioned into jewelry by the palace goldsmiths.

From his seat at the palace, the sultan wielded power over all aspects of the Empire, including commerce, taxation, legislation, and territorial control. Many official documents, as well as the Ottoman coinage, were elaborately decorated with the imperial tughra (signature) of the sultan, making each a work of art. A new stylized tughra was created for each sultan upon his accession and was drawn and illuminated by the most gifted artists in the palace. On view are a number of imperial documents with the tughras of various sultans, as well as an elaborately decorated tortoise-shell writing box used by palace calligraphers to store their tools and paper.

The Ottoman sultan, as the leader of one of the world's greatest empires, received gifts and tributes from kings, ambassadors, and subjects. His treasury included clocks and musical instruments sent by English kings and queens, and furniture by the greatest 18th-century Parisian craftsmen from the kings of France. Porcelain objects were given as gifts from the emperors of China and also purchased by the sultans. The Topkapi Palace Museum today contains the most extensive collection of early Chinese porcelain outside of China. On view are a number of pieces from the collection, including a 15th-century Chinese Ming celadon porcelain vase with Ottoman gold mounts.

Harem life

The harem--literally "restricted area" in Turkish--was a virtual state within the palace. Its population included the sultan; his mother, brothers, sons, and daughters; his female consorts and their woman servants; and an elite corps of male guardians, normally castrated slaves from Ethiopia known as eunuchs, who acted as administrators and servants. The size of the royal household was a symbol of power, and the number of wives and consorts was a measure of the sultan's wealth.

Stunning Ottoman textiles, woven with silk and metallic threads into intricate designs, were worn by the harem's inhabitants and found on its furnishings. Featured in the exhibition is a wool pile carpet with an intricate design woven in the imperial atelier attached to the palace and a lush silk velvet cushion cover, created from the looms of the old Ottoman capital city of Bursa. Such velvets were used extensively to furnish the many sofas in the harem.

The rigorous training of palace artists, who served long apprenticeships and spent years as journeymen before ascending to the rank of master, ensured the highest standards of beauty and craftsmanship, but also left room for brilliant artistic innovation. The most talented artists sometimes signed their most important works, such as great masters like Ahmed Tekelu the swordsmith and Kara Memi the illuminator and painter.

Art, such as the 16th-century black-ink drawing of an angel on view in the exhibition, was executed by court painters for the enjoyment of the highest court officials. Bound in albums, these drawings could be enjoyed privately by court patrons despite the Islamic theological disapproval of human or animal images. The palace ateliers also housed a number of workers skilled in the incredibly arduous art of carving hardstones and inlaying them with gold and jewels. The exhibition features a beautifully crafted jade mirror encrusted with jewels, created for a resident of the palace.

"Palace of Gold & Light: Treasures from the Topkapi, Istanbul" will be on view at The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., from March I through June 15. It will then be at the San Diego (Calif.) Museum of Art from July 14 to Sept. 24, and the Museum of Art, Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) from Oct. 15 to Feb. 28, 2001.

Mark Epstein is president of the Palace Arts Foundation, Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing and supporting cultural programs as a means for enhancing understanding among peoples of different nations.
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Author:EPSTEIN, MARK
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:May 1, 2000
Words:1394
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