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One Thousand Years of Splendour

'Turks' at the Royal Academy: A Special Report

‘Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600–1600’ opened at the Royal Academy at the start of 2005 to great acclaim. The Ottoman objects, many of them never before seen outside Turkey, were a glorious marriage of refinement and splendour. But Turks was about more than the Ottomans. It celebrated the art of three great Turkic empires: that of the Seljuks, who ruled Persia and most of Anatolia; that of Tamerlane, based in Samarkand, which stretched from India to the Mediterranean; and the Ottoman Empire itself. Central Asia has had a profound influence on western culture that has been ignored for too long. ‘Turks’ set out to change all that. Cornucopia devoted 25 pages to the show, including this review by John Carswell. Photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg

  • Dancing Men, by Muhammed Siyah Qalam (Muhammed of the Black Pen), 14th century, from 'Turks', at the Royal Academy, 2005 (Topkapı Palace Museum)

Years ago – 1952, to be precise – I was working as an archaeological draughtsman in a little Anatolian village and had the use of the local schoolroom. On the wall was a map, with great arrows sweeping out of Central Asia, not only to Turkey but to everywhere else in the world. In my youthful ignorance this seemed ridiculous.

Now I know better. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the possibility of travelling freely throughout China, what was once an apparently chauvinist interpretation of history can be reinforced by factual evidence. And this is really what the exhibition at the Royal Academy is all about.

Its avowed intention is to show through the choice of several hundred carefully chosen artefacts how the Turkic race moved westwards from its origins in Central Asia bordering on China. First came the Uighurs, in evidence in the seventh century, when trade along the Silk Road was in full swing under the Tang dynasty (618–901). They were followed by the Seljuks, who settled in Iran and Syria, a group of whom pushed further on and reached Anatolia. Then came the Mongols, who under Genghis Khan created the greatest empire the world has ever seen, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. Finally, in the fourteenth century Timur (Tamerlane) welded together the many disparate cultural strains from central and western Asia.

It was from this extraordinary amalgam that the Ottoman dynasty sprang, with a modest start under Osman, a tribal leader in western Anatolia, on the frontiers of Byzantium. With increasing power, the Turks established their first capital at Bursa, followed by Edirne on the European mainland. Byzantium was surrounded, and with the siege and capture of Constantinople in 1453 by Mehmet the Conqueror, Istanbul became the third and ultimate capital of the Ottoman Empire, reaching its peak under Süleyman the Magnificent in the mid-sixteenth century.

The Royal Academy uses the entirety of its exhibition space on the main floor to illustrate this epic theme, with over 350 works of art drawn from thirty-seven different institutions and other sources. Loans from the collections of the Topkap› Palace and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul predominate. Many of these objects have never been exhibited outside Turkey before, and they are combined with artefacts from all over the world to produce a stunning assembly.

It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the greatest exhibitions ever held at the Royal Academy, ranking with the exhibitions of Chinese and Persian Art at Burlington House before the Second World War which had such a profound effect on the understanding of cultures outside the European tradition.

Perhaps even more amazing is the speed with which this one has been put together, taking advantage of an unexpected gap in the Academy’s programme, normally fully committed for years to come. Such haste could lead to lacunae and the evidence of untimely speed, but there is none here, either in conception or in execution.

How has this complex story lasting over a millennium been tackled, to make it accessible to a public largely uninformed about Turkish history, and treading on unfamiliar aesthetic territory? It is divided into two parts – the exhibition itself, and the 500-page catalogue that accompanies it (both produced miraculously on schedule). This symbiotic approach is highly successful.

The exhibition is sensibly laid out chronologically. Mounting the grand staircase, the visitor swings immediately left into a gallery entirely devoted to gigantic colour photographs, and is exposed to landscapes and architectural images outside any Western terms of reference. Memories of a sun-baked holiday on the south coast of Turkey are no help here. Only since the relatively recent collapse of communism has it been possible to visit these sites, and for many it is terra incognita.

The real impact of this section, though, is created by the choice of images and the way they have been displayed. One is immediately aware of being led by the hand of a master designer who knows exactly what responses he wants to evoke.

The exhibition was designed by Ivor Heal, no stranger to the Royal Academy. After the initial wake-up photographic section, Heal has devised a series of interiors to display the diversity of the objects. The installation is monumental in scale, but simple and refined in execution. The meticulously crafted cases are designed to exhibit the objects to maximum effect. The colour scheme is sober, in shades of grey, against which light-sensitive materials such as textiles, carpets and works on paper glow. Less vulnerable objects such as silver, gold and porcelain encrusted with gems dazzle in the spotlights.

If you look up into the shadows, the gilded splendour of the Academy’s vaulted ceilings makes a wonderful roof for this treasury. If you look down, you will see that the designer has taken into consideration not only the parquet floors, but also the cast-iron central-heating grilles. He has noticed that both are curiously Islamic in their geometric design. At one point he has sited two cases on the exact axis of two grilles, each containing a wooden Koran stand.

Elsewhere it is clear that he has been to Istanbul and thought deeply about what he saw. He has picked details of Ottoman doors and windows, and used them not as frames but as a subtle leitmotif throughout the exhibition. Each gallery is linked to the next, like beads in a necklace, and each introduces a new element of surprise. But then, what fantastic objects he has had to work with.

The earliest Central Asian material survives only thanks to Russian and German expeditions a century ago, and the museums of St Petersburg and Berlin have lent generously to the exhibition. These artefacts are supplemented by a couple of manuscripts in Uighur Turkic exstracted from the Buddhist caves at Dunhuang by the Hungarian explorer Aurel Stein, then in the employ of the British Raj in India (who gave him a knighthood). The manuscripts are now in London (the catalogue ingenuously states that they were “brought to the British Museum”). These frescoes and manuscripts, masks and statues paint a vivid picture of the Turks and their Central Asian environment.

The next section deals with the Turkish expansion westwards in the early medieval period (950–1250) and the establishment of the Great Seljuks in Iran. Here – amplifying the evidence of manuscript illustrations – ceramics and metalwork display courtly scenes, and even signs of the Zodiac in the form of figures spattered with stars and constellations. The Seljuk penetration into Anatolia produced a new artistic synthesis, drawing on local, Syrian and Caucasian traditions. The architectural decorative elements are perhaps the most striking – the great doors from Cizre and the wooden cenotaph carved in deep relief from Akflehir. Also from the Seljuk period are some of the oldest extant Turkish carpets, such as the two thirteenth-century fragments from Konya.

But if one were to single out any particular group of works of art in the exhibition, it must surely be the fantastic drawings attributed to Muhammad Siyah Qalam (Muhammad of the Black Pen) from albums in the library of Topkapı Sarayı. These are so extraordinary, in virtuosity and subject matter, that they are unparalleled. Never seen in such quantity outside Turkey before, in many ways they rival the famous exhibition at the Academy some years ago of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, from another royal collection, the one at Windsor. In many ways they are more important, because they are almost totally unknown. They alone are worth a pilgrimage to London, for even in Istanbul the chance to peruse them is a privilege reserved for scholars.

What are these drawing, and what are they all about? This has been the subject of debate for years, with a symposium in 1980 devoted entirely to the topic. Filiz Çagman, director of the Topkapı, who was instrumental in mounting the exhibition, believes they are illustrations of long-lost stories and fables from Central Asia, used as a kind of ancillary teaching aid when the stories were recounted. The group on exhibition are obviously all by the same hand, though it is more problematic to assign all the drawings in this style to a single artist. There are scenes of everyday life; others are populated with demons who engage ferociously with each other and on occasion impinge on the human world. For anyone who has ventured into the deserts of Central Asia – the Gobi or the Taklamakan, for instance – such fabulous histories and legends are commonplace, and the link with Shamanism is clear.

These drawings are in some ways the turning point in the exhibition, illustrating the nomadic and legendary background from which the Turks came. From the fifteenth century onwards, the westward progression was accompanied by assimilation of the cultures encountered on the way and, perhaps most important, the conversion to Islam. With the creation of the Ottoman Empire all these cultural threads were drawn together. The conquest of the Balkans added a further element, a European one. This connection makes nonsense of the current preoccupation with Turkey “joining” Europe; it has been part of Europe economically for centuries. One forgets how trade with the Ottoman Empire preoccupied the Europeans, first the Italians and later the French and British. Queen Elizabeth I herself sent a letter to the Ottoman sultan suggesting that they might join forces to bust up the Spanish. The Sultan sensibly demurred, but the overture led to the establishment of British merchants in Ottoman territory and ultimately to the foundation of the fortunes of British India.

The rest of the exhibition is full of the splendours of the Ottoman Empire. Chinese porcelain and Iznik pottery, arms and armour, textiles, carpets, inlaid woodwork and illuminated manuscripts are arrayed in stunning displays. Information is discreetly communicated, never distracting from the objects. And if you want more, there is the massive catalogue, where the different sections are introduced with informative essays by a wide range of scholars, and every object is illustrated and, at the end, further discussed in great detail. Finally, there is an appendix on the Ottoman sultans as poets and, more importantly, a detailed essay on the Turkic languages and the roots from which modern Turkish – and Turkey itself – derive.

Coypright Cornucopia, 2005 John Carswell is the author of Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain Around the World and Iznik Pottery

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