Telling Turkey’s history through women’s stories

The ‘Kadınlar: goddesses – harem – power’ exhibition

By Victoria Khroundina | July 16, 2015


Women’s stories take centre stage in a fascinating show currently on at the TwentseWelle in Enschede, Netherlands. This city, close to the German border, is home to thousands of Turkish migrants, so a Turkish-themed exhibition seemed a welcome idea for the museum.

Kadınlar: goddesses – harem – power takes viewers on a journey through the Turkish region, from the perspective of 10 women who have helped shape its history. On display are various religious and cultural artefacts and documents, drawn from 3,000 years of history. All in all, there are 130 exhibits on display, including utensils, musical instruments, icons, paintings, miniatures, textiles and jewellery, many of them never before been seen in the Netherlands.

Phrygian tomb showing two lions, Aslantaş, Osmaniye Province, Turkey

The exhibition was organised by the Dutch author and Cornucopia contributor Henk Boom (who wrote about the Dutch ambassador to Constantinople, Baron van Dedem, in Cornucopia 48) and his wife Lotje de Lussanet, an artist and curator at the museum. The seed was planted almost five years ago when the couple travelled to Anatolia so that Boom could research for his book on Sultan Süleyman. While there, Lussanet did research on the origin of the goddess Cybele in the Phrygian valley, west of Ankara. ‘Living in Madrid, we were familiar with Cybele’s existence because there’s a huge statue of her in the centre of the city. But like everyone else in Madrid we thought for a long time that she was a Roman or Greek goddess,’ says Lussanet. Researching Cybele was the beginning of an idea for an exhibition on women in historical and present-day Turkey. ‘Women’s stories in Turkey are interesting because although women are now society’s underdogs, this was not the case thousands of years ago’, says Lussanet. ‘Many female figurines were found in Neolithic settlements with typical characteristics such big breasts and thighs, showing the importance of fertility and motherhood. In Anatolia the cult of a mother goddess has existed since Neolithic times and continued until Christian times.’

Miniature showing women musicians, from the Abdulcelil Levni Kostüm Albümü, c 1720, paper, gold leaf, Topkapı Palace Museum

Lussanet chose the 10 women she thought best represented the different periods in the region’s history, covering the Phrygian and Lydian Kingdoms, the Byzantine and Seljuk Empires, the Ottoman Empire and finally the Turkish Republic. It wasn’t easy to find a significant woman for every century, she says, and she particularly struggled with the 13th century until she came across Melike Mama Hatun, ruler of a Seljuk tribe, and travelled to Tercan to see her tomb. Besides Cybele and Melike Mama Hatun, the other eight women around whom the exhibition is centred are Artemis, the goddess of fertility; Mary, mother of Jesus; Theodora, the prostitute who became an empress; the 15th-century poet Mihri Hatun; the powerful consort and queen mother Kösem Valide Sultan (1590–1651); the 18th-century composer Dilhayat Kalfa; the 19th-century writer Halide Edib Adıvar; and the 20th-century archaeologist Halet Çambel.

Miniature showing a woman bather by Abdullah Buhari, 1741–42, paper, paint, gold leaf, Topkapı Palace Museum

The items are on loan from 11 Turkish museums, including the Topkapı Palace Museum, the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, the Pera Museum and the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations in Ankara. Fifty objects were also loaned by museums in Berlin, Athens, Venice and Vienna. After a long-drawn-out process, peppered with bureaucratic nightmares, which took almost four years (at one point the Turkish Ministry of Culture said it didn’t want to exhibit objects from Turkish museums alongside those from other European museums), the show finally opened in March. ‘It wasn’t easy convincing museums like the Topkapı to lend out their valuable artefacts to a small museum like ours,’ says Lussanet. But the show’s unique concept won over in the end. 

Lussanet says she finds the story of Halide Edib Adıvar the most interesting, because of the writer’s close ties to Atatürk. Lussanet and Boom met Adıvar’s grandson in Ankara and he lent them his grandmother’s personal belongings, including the above golden pen in the form of a gun adorned with jewels, which was given to Adıvar in thanks for her for her activities during the War of Independence. A copy of this pen is kept inside the Atatürk mausoleum.

Other highlights include a gold necklace decorated with acorns and other fruit from 1 millennium BC. It was found around Gordion and is part of the collection of the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations. ‘The acorn, in my humble opinion, is a symbol of fertility,’ says Lussanet.

There is also a fabulous pair of earrings in gold, adorned with the almandine stone (from the garnet family), dating from the 4th–6th centuries, on loan from the Bode Museum in Berlin.

The stunning 17th-century gold hair adornment (zülüflük) above is on loan from the Topkapi Museum.

Another highlight is a marble relief depicting Artemis with her deer and Cybele with her lion, dating from 430–400 BC, on loan from the archaeological museum in Manisa.

Meanwhile, a statue of the mother goddess Cybele, measuring almost four metres high, stands in the museum's square. Made in limestone in Bogazköy, the Bronze-Age empire’s capital, in the mid-6th century, it is on loan from the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations.

One section of the exhibition also profiles contemporary Turkish women from the worlds of sports, culture, business and science. Through videos, women such as the philosopher İoanna Kuçuradi, the volleyball player Neslihan Darnel and the ballerina Zeynep Tanbay tell audiences about their lives, work and sources of inspiration.

Boom says a major reason for organising the exhibition was to contribute to the cultural exchange between Turkish and Dutch culture. The two countries celebrated 400 years of diplomatic relations in 2012, and with 450,000 Turks in the Netherlands, Boom believes the exhibition will further strengthen interest in Turkish culture in his home country. 

‘It has been a difficult project, but at the same time very inspiring,’ says Lussanet. ‘The contacts we made with Turkish people – apart from all the problems with the authorities – were just wonderful. The exhibition has been very well received so far. Many visitors have come – Turkish women as well as Dutch.’

The exhibition continues until August 16.

Main image shows Lussanet with the statue of the mother goddess Cybele at the TwentseWelle.

Posted in Exhibitions, History, Islamic Art, Museums, Textiles
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