Found objects: 19th-century Ottoman imperial tents

A stunning example of these multi-functional mobile palaces

By Ashley Dimmig | July 4, 2016

On September 11, 1683, Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha sat in his ostentatious tent outside the walls of Vienna – as the story goes – luxuriously sipping coffee while taking a break from besieging the city. The sight of the Grand Vizier’s unapologetic display of pure decadence apparently so enraged Polish King Jan III Sobieski, who was leading Europe’s allied forces against the invading Turks, that he rallied his troops and vanquished the would-be conquerors the very next day.1 Of course, after the battle, the Polish King took the beautifully decorated tents for himself.

Though the Ottomans lost this particular battle, and with it many beautiful tents, Ottoman imperial tents are to this day often associated with great conquerors and military commanders. But these portable shelters were much more than colourful backdrops for military campaigns. As Nurhan Atasoy has shown,2 the imperial tent complex, or otağ-ı hümayun, served as a multi-functional mobile palace on various occasions. And these ornate, appliquéd, embroidered and beautifully furnished fabric buildings also visually resembled their more permanent palatial wooden or stone counterparts. But which palaces? Given that the 16th and 17th centuries are considered the height of Ottoman tent production, the palace most often cited in comparison is quite naturally Topkapı. However, imperial tents continued to be used and made in the late Ottoman period, alongside the construction of the great seaside palaces and ornate pavilions across the more suburban areas of the city.

Researching for my dissertation, titled ‘Flexible Façades, Malleable Modernity: Imperial Tents in the Late Ottoman Period’, has brought me to many museums, libraries and archives in Turkey and beyond, and yet the only place to view 19th-century Ottoman imperial tents is the Military Museum in Harbiye.3 One marquee in particular stands out as a masterpiece of textile art and architecture of the so-called ‘Turkish Baroque’ style. The inscription stitched into the fabric dates the tent to 1809 (1224 AH) and names the sultan to whom it belonged: Mahmud II, also known as ‘The Reformer’.

In many ways, the interior decoration is not dissimilar to its 17th-century counterparts. The walls are divided by a series of appliquéd arches, topped with silken capitals. Between the columns are lobed medallions (şemse), and the underside of the sloping roof is dominated by a massive roundel.

However, the addition of rather a lot of metallic embroidery is quite novel for the time. When erected in a suburban meadow or the palace gardens, the whole interior undoubtedly would have sparkled and shone in the sunlight as the fabric moved and undulated in the wind. The colour palette of soft gold, powder blue, sage green and rosy pink is also new in tent art, and is reminiscent of the painted decoration adorning the interiors of 19th-century palaces and kiosks, such as Beylerbeyi Sarayı or Ihlamur Kasrı. There are also direct references to recognisable buildings in the imperial capital, such as the Maiden’s Tower (Kız Külesi – see main featured image).

A section of the 360-degree embroidered panorama can be seen here on the lower edge of the tent's eave

In fact, the whole of Istanbul is presented in miniature by way of a full 360-degree embroidered panorama situated below the ceiling and eave of the tent. The scene moves from rolling hills to kiosks along the shore, and even depicts colourful tents erected in the countryside. In this way the tent does more than reference contemporaneous permanent architecture in its overall decoration. It also provides a snapshot of 19th-century Istanbul, bringing to life a part of the built environment now lost to people exploring the city and its architectural heritage.

1. Paul Sobolewski, The 12th Day of September, 1883, Is the 200th Anniversary of One of the Grandest Events in History: John Sobieski, the King of Poland, Conquers the Turks Under the Walls of Vienna September 12-Th, 1683, and Forever After Relieves the Whole Christian World from the Iron Yoke of the Turks (Chicago: “Gazeta Polska” Print, 1883), 22.

2. Nurhan Atasoy, Otağ-ı Hümayun: The Ottoman Imperial Tent Complex (Istanbul: MEPA, 2000).

3. The permanent tent galleries in the Military Museum have been temporarily closed for repairs.

Ashley Dimmig is a PhD Candidate in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan. She was the 2015–2016 Ekrem Hakkı Ayverdi Fellow in Ottoman Architectural Culture and History at the Anadolu Medeniyetleri Araştırma Merkezi (ANAMED), Koç University. Dimmig was the winner of the Godfrey Goodwin Award in 2010 for her research on Safavid figurative silks (applications are now open for the 10th Ancient & Modern Prize). All photos were taken by Dimmig.

‘Found objects’ is a new blog series where young scholars share objects and documents found during the course of their research.

Posted in Architecture, History, Islamic Art, Textiles
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