Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 27, 2005
David Roxburgh, ed. Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600–1600 Royal Academy of Arts, 2005. 496 pp.; many color ills.; 375 ills. Cloth (1903973562)
Royal Academy of Arts, London, January 22–April 12, 2005
Attributed to Siblizade Ahmed. Portrait of Sultan Mehmed II (ca. 1480). Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul. H.2153, fol.10a.

Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600–1600 is an ambitious and highly informative exhibition. With 376 items on display from 53 lending institutions—such is the wealth of material that it is hard to believe it took barely fifteen months to assemble—the show constitutes an important part of a program of all things Turkish in London. The aim is to unravel the cultural origins of the Ottomans (or the Turks, as Ottomans were commonly known in the West), but soon it becomes clear that this is no easy task. Thus Turks skillfully unfolds before our eyes as the widest possible panorama of a complex civilization. Curated by Filiz Çagman, Adrian Locke, Nazan Ölçer, Norman Rosenthal, and David J. Roxburgh—and organized in a similar manner to another recent milestone exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, Aztecs (2003)—Turks includes many works that have never previously been displayed outside Turkey, in particular outside the Topkapi Palace Museum, the primary lender. The exhibition is seminal in that it sets the arts of the Ottoman Empire within the broader context of early Turkic tribal cultures. There have been many ways of recounting the history of the Ottoman Empire, seen as a political and military phenomenon lasting over six hundred years, but this is the first time its visual history is told, not with a view to legitimizing its European credentials, but instead as a product of a polymorphous civilization with roots in Central Asia.

The catalogue, featuring every item on display in full color and, at times, full size, is a tremendous scholarly enterprise, with contributions by leading authorities on history, languages, religion, and arts of specific periods of the Turkic peoples. Edited by David Roxburgh of Harvard University, the 495-page publication emphasizes the politics of art. The contributing essays define power relations among competing tribes, houses, or dynasties as cultures in action, as well as their achievements as art at work in politics. But these discursive analyses are not at all made at the expense of the objects themselves. The catalogue is structured seamlessly so that the reader can move easily among carefully captioned illustrations, essays—in-depth historical accounts of every significant cultural and political era—and thumbnail reproductions accompanied by connoisseurial descriptions.

Upon entering the exhibition, one comes across the impressive remnants of early Turkic culture: fragments of fourth- to twelfth-century cave paintings, sculptures, inscribed boulders and sticks, and manuscripts, all discovered in the Xinjiang region of China. These artworks and objects allude to the Buddhist and Manichaean ritual practices of the Uralic-speaking peoples, whose cultural aspects were gradually absorbed by the Altaic-speaking Uighur Empire, a Turkic tribal union. The fusional character of the rising Turko-nomadic powers with local cultures becomes even more evident in the arts of the first Turkic dynasties, which adopted Islam and ruled large parts of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq. The straightforward adoption of the Persian-Sasanian literary tradition can be seen in the famous epic Shāhnāma (Book of Kings) by the poet Firdausi, which was dedicated to the Ghaznavid ruler Mahmud. The clever echo of pagan sculptural forms, without asserting divine content, is found in the almost life-size Courtly Guard, thought to come from the Ghaznavid Palace at Lashkari Bazar in Afghanistan. The Koran copied in Qarakhanid Turkic is further evidence of the assimilationist stance. The period (the tenth to thirteenth century), particularly the era of the Great Seljuk Empire, is portrayed as a period of cultural experimentation. Most of the works displayed here, ranging from astronomical and mechanical treatises to various copies of the Koran, and from metalwork to the ceramic lusterware, show a high degree of syncretism with the pre-Islamic Iranian world. However, self-consciously ethnic notions and iconographies seem to emerge in parallel to monumental works, such as Dīwān lugāt al-turk (Compendium of the Turkic Dialects) by Mahmud al-Kashgari and the Kutadgu Bilig (Knowledge Befitting a Ruler), written in Turkic. The human figure, in widespread use during this time, on tiles, pottery, and metalwork also becomes highly stylized, symbolizing beauty with its equivalent in literature as the “moon face.”

What also seems to define late Seljuk art is its competitive spirit. The raiding Mongols contributed to the breakup of the Great Seljuks into a number of beyliks (principalities), gradually pushing them into the Byzantine territories. The coins on display at the exhibition bear witness to this spirit of competition and to the extent of the visual battle staged among the begliks. However, the arts of the Anatolian Seljuks, now based in Konya, Kayseri, and Sivas, continued to follow the pattern of Turkic cultural eclecticism. The plaster friezes and a number of eight-pointed star tiles, displayed here, from the famous palaces of Sultan Ala al-Din Kay Qubad (r. 1220–37), as well as the metalwork mirrors, lamps, and drums dating from his son’s reign, all seem to make use of a mixture of Persian poetry, stylized Kufic letters, geometric motifs, and Anatolian, Byzantine, and Christian imagery featuring human figures, animals, and fabulous creatures and plants. The sheer diversity of this amalgam seems to neutralize its potential subversive implications for a newly formed Muslim empire.

The arts and artifacts of the ruling tribes, empires, and begliks, from China to the heart of Anatolia, are positioned alongside a real treasure from the Topkapi Palace Museum: the fourteenth-century paintings attributed to an artist known as Muhammad Siyah Qalam (Muhammad of the Black Pen). These works, well known to only a handful of specialists, have never before been exhibited outside Topkapi. One is immediately drawn to these images, for they stand out by virtue of their unusual style, coloring, and subject matter. The illuminating essay by Filiz Ćagman, director of the Topkapi Palace Museum, brings them to life and determines their central place in the history of Turkic painting in the context of qalam-i siyāhī genre. Although it is unknown exactly when or where the paintings were made, Ćagman argues that their specific style of execution, with preliminary sketching and wide color range as well as the brutal and abject quality of their subject matter, reflects the everyday life of the nomadic tribes encountering each other along the Silk Road. The works may belong “to a mystic order outside the Islamic belief system” (156) or even be a product of a lost oral tradition, illustrating folklore and beliefs. These black-pen paintings are a priceless testimony to the vibrant cultural lives of the nomadic peoples of the Central Asia.

The overall aim of the exhibition, according to Sir Nicolas Grimshaw, president of the Royal Academy of Arts, is to provide a visual trajectory of a “westward journey of the various Turkic peoples from their beginnings in Central Asia to the splendours of the Ottoman Empire” (11). But, as the objects on display show, this journey was neither straightforward, nor would the splendors of the Ottomans have been possible without the influence of their rivals. For this reason, yet another worthwhile diversion is taken with the arts of the Turkmen dynasties and the Timurid court, which was based in Samarqand and led by the infamous (from the Ottoman point of view) Turko-Mongol Timur-i Lang, better known in the West as Tamerlane. Ottoman art clearly owes much to a skillful synthesis of all the Silk Road cultures. This exhibition shows us that this synthesis occurred in all realms of material culture, from techniques of production to aesthetics and meaning, with stunning results that were unique in every sense of the word. Single-sheet drawings like the Timurid-Turkmen study of a Tiger shows continuation with the Chinese Buddhist tradition. The Divan (collection of poetry) from Herat and Tabriz written both in Chaghatai Turkic with Uighur script and Persian, harks back to the Great Seljuks. The narrative paintings of the Zafar-āma (Book of Conquests) establishes visual links to the Ghaznavid/Persian epic Shāhnāma.

Visitors will have no difficulty in discerning related forms and ideas among the different Turkic dynasties, or between the Ottoman’s and the Timurid’s taste for warfare, poetry, pious and monumental architecture, and illustrated dynastic histories. But they will also realize that the Ottomans were unusual. The conquest of Constantinople in 1453 catapulted the Turks into an unprecedented role in world politics. Through the obsessive centralization of culture, befitting the ideologies of a universal empire, the art of the court became a regime of its own. While geometric patterns continued to be used, a mixture of rumi (i.e., from the Eastern Rome) and hatayi (literally from Cathay) took prominence in what came to be known as the Ottoman style. Textiles, jewelry, ceramics, tiles, and other decorative objects were hallmarked with this style by the royal workshop. Chinese pottery, which was highly valued, became a status symbol of the Ottoman sultans; its imitations reached near-perfection with Iznik pottery—though it never became a collectors item until much later, even then only in Europe. The exhibition has the most exquisite examples of both Chinese ceramics from the Topkapi Palace Museum and Iznik plates from museums around the world.

The Ottomans also differed from their immediate predecessors and eastern neighbors in the way that they became the object of intensive European artistic attention. European artists have produced a number of portraits of the sultans Mehmed II and Suleyman in different media. The exhibition includes the famous Gentile Bellini portrait and Costanzo da Ferrara medal of Mehmed II. Far from remaining indifferent to the European taste, Ottoman artists produced portraits that reflected the empire’s nature as a contact zone for many worlds. Shiblizade Ahmed’s portrait of Mehmed II is particularly eye catching. But the Ottomans differed markedly from their neighbors and rivals because they became the first Turkic people whose ruler adopted the title of Caliph. This produced increasingly orthodox tendencies in their empire, which was also to be the longest lived in Islam.

After enjoying this exhibition and perusing the catalogue, the viewer and reader will understand a thousand matters relating to the Turks, but only to have another thousand issues to contemplate, not least the question of what really characterizes Ottoman, or rather Turkic, arts? In a way its sheer variety—polyethnic, multilingual, composed of nomadic, seminomadic, and sedentary groups with different belief systems—remains the only irreducible fact about cultural heritage.

Although the chronological cursor of the exhibition stops at 1600, the timing of Turks is driven by contemporary political strategies. The question of origins has important topical reverberations. Such exhibitions are sociocultural barometers of real politics. The question about Turkey’s membership in the European Union hangs over the exhibition space, as it tries to explain not only who the Turks are but where they come from. The organizers, sponsors, and the two prime ministers, Tony Blair and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, do not shy away from bringing up this issue in the opening pages of the catalogue. Turks marks an interesting new departure in the portrayal of Ottoman history. Rather than serving contemporary agendas by seeking to emphasize “European” aspects of the Ottoman past, the exhibition portrays Turkey as an incarnation of cultural diversity and richness. Whether this quality makes Turkey’s involvement in Europe potentially more fruitful remains to be seen, but such a legacy could be a lesson to all Europeans who seek to accommodate diversity and embrace polyvalent identities, as the idea of a “fortress of Europe” becomes untenable.

Nebahat Avcioğlu
Columbia University Institute for Scholars, Reid Hall, Paris