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Palace of Gold & Light: Treasures from the Topkapi, Istanbul

The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC

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 and spectators.

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 & Light."

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 warrior.

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
website: http://www.corcoran.org
e-mail: information@corcoran.org
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 the Topkapi.

© 1997 The Caron Collection Ltd./ Voice: (203) 381-9999, Fax: 203 381-9003

CARON email: mail@caron-net.com