The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul is part museum, housing a myriad
of artistic and cultural treasures and part, historic architectural
jewel. Buildings within the walled palace grounds feature an
array of domes, turrets and minarets with entry confined to a
monumental gate guarded by twin towers. Consisting of gardens,
courtyards, fountains, workshops,kitchens, baths, halls, offices
and residences, this complex was occupied by the Sultan and his
family along with court bureaucrats, dignitaries, soldiers, artists,
craftsmen and servants from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
Applique kaftan, mid-17th century, with chintamani (literally
"auspicious jewels") motifs. The huge scale ofthese
designs, typical of the Ottoman royal costumes, served as a means
of projecting the Ottoman Sultan's image and power visually over
large distances in public ceremonies with large crowds of attendants
The Topkapi exuded power and mystery through the inaccessibility
of the Sultan to outsiders, no matter how distinguished
or powerful. His living quarters, pavilions, harem and private
gardens were strictly off-limits to all but a select few. The
name by which the Sultan's subjects referred to him, the "Shadow
of God on Earth," embodies perfectly the aura of mystery
enveloping his personage.
Child's kaftan or ceremonial robe of brocaded silk with
the design of chintamani (literally "auspicious jewels").
The three dots of the garment, originally a Buddhist symbol from
Central Asia representing three pearls and often incorporating
a wavy line either representing the sea or a diving flame, became
a powerful symbol of good fortune among the Ottomans. This symbol
is found decorating virtually every medium inOttoman Turkish
art and appears to have been used since as early as the 9th century.
The most imposing pieces in this show were originally crafted
by palace artisans and then housed in a structure known as the
Treasury. They provide a rare glimpse into the opulent lifestyle
of the Ottoman rulers and the vast and culturally diverse empire
they presided over.
Aigrette (surguc) or turban ornament with three large emeralds,
probably 17th century. Worn attached to the white silk or cotton
of an Ottoman turban, itself wrapped around a felt undercap.
The large jewels of the Ottoman royal surguc projected royal
power and made it possible to identify the Sultan from a distance
in public ceremonies.
During a reign spanning four centuries, the Ottoman Sultans
amassed incredible collections of art, artifacts, jewelry, furnishings
and apparel created by artists and craftsmen of every stripe:
writers, musicians, painters, carpenters, metalsmiths, potters,
jewelers, weavers, embroiderers, tailors, calligraphers and countless
others. These precious items were so plentiful, that there was
even a French word coined for them: Turqueries. Examples include
gold-plated "headdresses" for the Sultan's horses,
jewel encrusted weapons, brocaded kaftans, sumptuous velvet cushions
interwoven with gilded threads, plush carpets, extravagant wall
hangings, ceramics, pottery and tiles, illuminated manuscripts
- all these speak volumes of the Sultan's omnipotence.
Known as the Topkapi Dagger (1746-47), this weapon was
intended as a gift for Nadir Shah of Iran by Sultan Mahmud I,
but never delivered due to Nadir Shah's assassination in 1748.
Huge emeralds and a small watch are set into the hilt.
This dagger was the focus the Jules Dassin film Topkapi, starring
Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley and Peter Ustinov,
which featured a light-hearted (and ultimately unsuccessful)
plot to steal the dagger from the Palace Treasury. Other highlights
include an exquisitely crafted ebony, ivory and mother-of-pearl
throne from the 16th century and the Sultan's fur-lined ceremonial
robe of brocaded silk from the 15th century.
Jeweled hardstone book-binding, probably for a copy of
the Qur'an (Koran). The Islamic binding consists of two covers
and a pentagonal flat, so that both the bound and unbound vertical
edges of pages are covered by the binding.
The Topkapi Palace was built by Sultan Mehmed II, the Conqueror,
after vanquishing Constantinople, the last outpost of Christianity
in the East, in 1453. The Sultan made it the capital of his extensive
Ottoman Empire, building the palace on an elevated site situated
at the confluence of three bodies of water: the Bosporus, the
Golden Horn and the Sea of Maramar. Initially called the New
Imperial Palace, it later became the Topkapi Sarayi - the Palace
of the Cannon Gate.
Surahi or long-necked bottle in zinc (tutya) covered with
jewels. This may have been a gift from the Shah of Persia to
a 16th century Ottoman ruler, although it could also have been
made in Istanbul.
These almost unimaginably splendid treasures were the ruling
Sultan's day-to-day trappings during the peak of one of the world's
most magnificent empires. At its height of power in the 16th
century, the Ottoman dynasty of the Topkapi Palace ruled an empire
spanning three continents with subjects in Europe, Asia and Africa
for a period of almost 400 years.
Gilded glass mosque lamp or kandil. This rare object, probably
created in Istanbul in the first half of the 16th century, would
hold a lighted wick floating in oil, producing a soft and golden
light. The small loops of glass on the sides enabled the lamp
to be hung from the ceiling of a mosque to illuminate the first
and last prayers of the day, held before sunrise and after sunset.
Their glorious reign began to disintegrate and eventually
dissolved completely during the upheavals of World War I, after
which it was replaced by the government of the Republic of Turkey.
It is now difficult to imagine, in light of recent history in
areas which once made up this empire, such as Bosnia and Kosovo,
that such magnificence and grandeur ever existed. One can open
a history book and read about it, but seeing the actual objects
worn and used by the Sultan and his entourage firsthand vividly
bring that bygone era back to life.
18th century Ottoman velvet cushion cover or yastik, woven
in Bursa, the old Ottoman capital and silk-weaving center in
Asia about 40 miles from Istanbul. The detail shows a tulip,
the Turkish flower par excellence. Such cushions, almost always
woven in pairs, decorated the divans or sofas that line the interior
of the Baghdad Kiosk and the Revan Kiosk in the Palace, and are
a feature of all Ottoman interiors.
Part of the current renewed interest in the Topkapi Palace
and its treasures is a result of the devastating earthquake of
August, 1999 which rocked western Turkey, killing thousands.
Only minor damage occurred to the museum, but the incident provided
a new awareness of its historical and cultural significance.
A robbery, following closely on the heels of that calamity, further
amplified the concern. Thanks to the generosity of the Republic
of Turkey in sharing this collection, many more will be able
to view the Ottoman Empire in a new light, as one not only at
the height of its military and administrative capabilities, but
also as a civilization at its cultural zenith, when beauty and
refinement truly rendered the Topkapi a "Palace of Gold
Carved rock-crystal matara or water canteen in the shape
of a goatskin water-bag. This 17th century object recalls the
nomadic origins of the Ottoman Dynasty, mimicking in precious
materials the water-bags that were carried by every nomadic Turkic
Palace of Gold & Light: Treasures from the Topkapi, Istanbul
will be on view at The Corcoran Gallery of Art until June 15,
2000, after which it will travel to The San Diego Museum of Art
(July 14 - September 24, 2000) and to the Museum of Art, Fort
Lauderdale (October 15 - January 14, 2001). The exhibit has been
organized by the Palace Arts Foundation and was primarily curated
by Professor Tulay Artan (Berktay), a social historian at Istanbul's
Sabanci University and specialist in 18th century Ottoman social
and cultural history.
For more detailed information and a virtual gallery of other
items on exhibit, visit the Corcoran Gallery of Art website at http://www.corcoran.org/virtualgallery/museum_exhibitions/index.htm
Photo credits for images: Hadiye Cangokce, photographer, and
the Topkapi Palace Museum courtesy of the Palace Arts Foundation
and Ministry of Culture, Republic of Turkey.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art, situated one block from the White
House, stands as a major center of American Art. It is a place
where the past, present and future of the visual arts come to
life - the past in the museum's extensive collection of American
and European masterworks, the present in its ongoing exhibitions
of contemporary art and the future in the classrooms and studios
of one of the most distinguished colleges of art and design in
the country. The Corcoran was founded in 1869 as an institution
to be "dedicated to art and used solely for the purpose
of encouraging the American genius." As Washington's first
art museum, it ranks with Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and New
York's Metropolitan Museum of Art as one of the three oldest
museums in the United States. For more information contact:
The Corcoran Museum
500 17th Street N.W.
Washington, DC 20006
phone: (202) 639- 1700
hours: Every day except Tuesday from 10 am to 5 pm and Thursdays
until 9 pm.
Tickets for this show are $10.00 for adults, $8.00 for Museum
members, seniors and students. Same day tickets may be purchased
in person at the museum. Tickets in advance may be purchased
from Ticketmaster at 1-800-551-SEAT at any Ticketmaster outlet.
Tickets are not available from the museum by phone.
For further reading see Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power:
The Topkapi Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries by
Gulru Necipoglu, professor of Islamic art and architecture at
Harvard University and one of the world's leading scholars on