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The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran.

One good reason to visit a museum is to learn history. Such is the case with the Smithsonian's current exhibition: "The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in the Moscow Kremlin."

Even today, gift giving is often an integral part of diplomacy. But over a century ago, when the Russian tsars (czars) were powerful rulers, the diplomats who came to visit them -- particularly from nations that lay between East and West, such as Turkey and Iran -- wanted to please them. And the tsars appreciated beauty and art -- and opulence.

The 16th and 17th centuries were a time of shifting political and economic alliances in the Caucasus. In Iran, for example, the Safavids pursued Russian military assistance against their long-standing enemy, the Ottomans.

But the main incentive for these good relations was trade, and the exhibition begins with a map showing the trade routes that connected Russia, during the days of the Grand Dukes of Muscovy and the early tsars, to the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Iran.

Lines of commerce trace across the Caspian Sea through Astrakhan and Baku, and down the Dnieper and the Don, to the Black Sea and Istanbul.

Throughout the 17th century, ambassadorial missions, frequently led by wealthy, influential merchants, served as trade delegations in an effort to avoid tariffs and other forms of taxation.

Upon the arrival of an official mission, the tsar would receive gifts from members of the ambassadorial party. The number and quality of presentations were of particular importance, for they signified the donor's respect for the recipient and the status of the relationship.

Massumeh Farhad, curator of Islamic art at the Sackler told Arab News: "In many ways this was not only about trade and commerce, but it was also political."

"The meaning of gift giving has really changed since the 16th and 17th century when it was an integral part of diplomacy;" said Farhad, adding that: "As in the Arab world, where hospitality still is very important and really integral, it is what you did when you visited someone."

When a caravan arrived at the Kremlin, the ambassadors presented their gifts to the tsar and his court, said Farhad.

The tsar's servants carried the opulent dishes, perfume bottles and other personal items directly to the tsar's private chamber. The rest of the splendor -- the armor, the weapons and the textiles -- was divided up for cataloging and appraisal.

Farhad said the objects on display also "represent the sophistication of Iran and Turkey, at that time, which the Russians appreciated and they integrated into these works of art."

All the objects on display at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery were originally given as gifts to Russia by neighboring Iran and Turkey in hopes to advance their economic and political agendas. Sixty rare treasures from the Armory of the Kremlin are on display in Washington, and most have never before been on public display outside Russia.

This summer, many of the lavish gifts that Russian tsars received during numerous visits from the Ottoman Turks and the Safavids of Iran have been pulled for the first time from the storage vaults of the Kremlin armory, are on view through Sept. 13. The objects date from the 15th to 17th centuries, and include gifts from Istanbul and Isfahan.

One is surprised to see the lacy traces of gold and Qur'anic inscriptions in the treasury of the tsars. And the exhibition includes a Russian-made surplice of silk, gold, silver, precious gems and pearls, brought from Turkey, and a luxurious bridle made in 17th century Iran, brought as an ambassadorial present to the ruler of Russia.

In those days "gifts were more an honor than a value," said Elena Yurievna Gagarina, general director of The Moscow Kremlin Museums. "Many of these treasures on display never left Moscow before. Few pieces were previously show in Munich -- in 1910 -- but have not been publicly seen since then."

Gagarina added this Oriental art exhibition from Russia is "unrivaled in the world," and, significant in the era of dE[umlaut]tente. "This is an event of major importance between the US and Russia."

Case in point: The exhibit is sponsored by Russian oil company, Lukoil.

The exhibit also showed the acceptance countries and peoples had for each other.

"I can't help but think our ancestors were more tolerant of different cultures than many of our contemporaries today," added Julian Raby, director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries.

Olga Melnikova, curator of arms and armor at the Moscow Kremlin Museums, showed Arab News some of more unusual pieces of the exhibition, including a 1641 horse bridle that was last used in 1728 for the official coronation of the grandson of Peter the Great. Studded with sapphires, rubies and emeralds, the handiwork is strikingly crude, as the effect was calculated to have its impact at a distance.

Some of the mostAaresplendent items on display are for horses, includingAagilded silver cuffs for their legs and figure-eight chains made of 21 intricately decorated links for their chests. A bridle has a dozen large grass green peridots, with matching peridot-embedded straps and crupper. The equestrian finery was used for tsars' processions.

Iranian and Turkish ceremonial arms and armor were part of the Grand Attire, the most valued treasures of the tsar. One saber and its scabbard are inlaid with scores of rubies and emeralds. The blade is engraved in Arabic, "May you pass your time in bliss."

A mace, also on display for the first time, is on loan from the Russian armory. Shah Abbas II of Iran gave it to Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. The head is 98 percent pure gold and weighs more than a kilogram, encrusted with rubies, emeralds and turquoise, Melnikova pointed out that the Persian petals are unique because they look like real flowers.

Twice the entire treasury of the armory was in genuine danger and had to be moved, said Melnikova. Once was during Napoleon's failed invasion of Russia, and once during World War II when the treasures of the armory were brought to the Urals. They were not returned until 1945 when they were opened to show that the treasure was still intact.

Russia's fascination with Eastern arts ended late in the 17th century with Peter the Great, who shifted his attention to the West and moved the capitol from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

"The biggest threat to the collection was with Peter the Great in the 18th century," said Melnikova. "He wanted to turn Russia from the East to the West and wanted to introduce a different style of life. Peter wanted to start new traditions and make new friends in Western Europe."

Yet he knew the value of the Ottoman and Safavid treasures, and he preserved them in the Kremlin treasury where he inventoried the treasures and kept them carefully. They were out of sight, but well preserved.

Copyright: Arab News 2009 All rights reserved.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Sep 2, 2009
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