- What’s On
The vast and quaint Military Museum is an unmissable snapshot of a fascinating episode in Turkish History (writes Harriet Rix, winner of the 2014 Godfrey Goodwin Prize). Its exhibitions cover the broad sweep of Turkish military exploits – from the initial drive west of the Turkic peoples to the Dardanelles campaign – but the overall theme is Nationalism of the old school. It is very far from the slick grandeur of Istanbul Modern or the Naval Museum, but it is the perfect stopping off place between Nişantași and Taksim for some hours shelter from blazing midday sun.
Some rooms (the very early Turkic History is a case in point) have only information boards and bad reproductions so it is worth whizzing through to get to the more authentic exhibits. A personal favourite was the cavernous Minor Calibre Cannon Exhibition. The room itself is reminiscent of the bottom level of a public car park, and around it are rough-hewn Marmeluke cannons from 15th century, practical Austrian barrels enmeshed with heraldry, dainty Venetian 16th- and 17th-century examples with the lion of St Mark, and the magnificent multi-barrelled bronze artillery from the reign of Sultan Ahmed III. Even a cursory glance and sparse signage was enough to fire up the historical imagination and conjure pictures of the back-and-forth jockeyings of the Ottoman Armies across the Mediterranean right up to the 20th century. The Model Cannon room, as a contrast, embraces kitsch delicacy. One of these foot-long gems is cast with the evocative calligraphy “The Magnificent Sultan Suleiman ordered Cannons as vast as dragons to destroy enemy castles”.
After corridors of swords, bows, military saddles, and a fearsome iron chanfron made for Selim I, “Sultan of Iranians and Arabs”, the smaller rooms of World War exhibits upstairs have a chilling feel. Enver Pasha’s desk and military uniforms offers some light relief, but the accounts of losses on all fronts, the Dardanelles rooms, and pictures of children massacred by the Armenians are extensive and make it refreshing to hurry down to the final room containing placid portraits of the Sultans and the exquisite helmet of Sultan Orhan Ghazi (1326–1362), and then into the peaceful gardens to look at the aircraft and canon dotted around among trees and fountains.
At 3pm the Ottoman Military band (Mehter Bölüğü) display is held in a large lecture theatre. This starts with a rousing film introduction to the origins and influence of the band (given in Turkish with spectacularly ill-parsed English subtitles,) during which the emphasis is on flying horsetails and jingling bells. The film screen then opens to the gardens outside and in march the band, fifty strong; zurner, cevgen, zil, boru, traditional costume and magnificent moustaches. The noise is deafening and the tunes definitely catchy; the overall affect may be more Erzurum-chic than Ottoman magnificence, but it is definitely one to watch (once).