It’s all in the details

We thought we would spend a leisurely afternoon walking through the Topkapi Palace, but it became more hectic than we had expected. The building of the palace started in 1450 CE, soon after the sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul, and continued until the 17th century. The result is that there is a lot to see, and three hours may feel a little rushed. It is hard to make sense of the palace complex as a whole (a feeling I’ve also had in the Forbidden City in Beijing, and also in the palaces of India), so it is best to concentrate on parts separately. Today I thought I would post a few photos of the Imperial Hall (Hünkâr Sofası) in the harem.

The harem was the private palace of the Sultan and his family, and was controlled by the Queen Mother (Valide Sultan). Like in Indian palaces, the Topkapi Palace had multiple throne rooms, and the one here was for private audience. It was built in the 16th century, burnt down in the fire of 1666, and rebuilt immediately after that. The side gallery (featured photo), where the family sat, is an example of this. The Delft tiles and the Venetian mirror in the photo above was added in the 18th century, The gilded sofa was a present from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. I have no idea where the tall Chinese vases came from, and no photo of the gilded clock donated by Queen Victoria.

The central dome of the room is supposed to be the largest in the palace complex. In this view you can see the incredibly ornamental interior of the dome. This is original, from the rococo style redecoration of sultan Osman III, executed immediately after the fire. I looked up at it until I got a crick in the neck. The Family was engaged in a minute inspection of the tiles. This is a room which reflects the aesthetics of the whole palace: a single look cannot encompass it, you really have to examine the details.

In that spirit, I stop with details of two sets of tiles that caught my eye. This trip was my first exposure to Ottoman ceramics. It seemed to me that the first step in recognizing Iznik tiles could be to examine the bright cobalt blue, white, and red colours under a hard colourless glaze. I would get to see more of these tiles in coming days.

A Seljuk Mosque

We had to pass through the town of Selçuk on our way to the ruins of the Roman town of Ephesus. A quick look at Wikipedia confirmed a vague memory of reading Ibn Batuta’s account of this town, and of it having an impressive mosque. A look at the map indicated that the most important mosque here was the Isa Bey mosque, situated on the slope between a Byzantine era fortress and the site of the ancient Artemision. This would be the only example of Seljuk architecture that we would see on this trip.

Several tour buses had arrived before us and parked next to the mosque. There was a blank stone wall, three stories high, facing the road. I was taken aback. Where was the “poetry in stone” which is supposed to be the hallmark of Seljuk architecture? I took a close look at the carved stone lattice work in the upper windows. Nice, but I’ve seen more intricate work before.

It was only when I walked over to the other side, where the entrance was, that things began to make sense. The main gate was an imposing portal, topped by a beautiful design in two colours of stone, above a beautiful arch with the stalactite vault called muqarnas. This was no less elaborate than the examples I remembered from the Alhambra of Granada. The windows next to the main entrance were beautiful, and each one was decorated differently. You can see two of them in the photo of the entrance. The photo below shows details from a third.

Seljuk Turks won Anatolia from the Byzantine empire in the 11th century, and a succession of Seljuk principalities held it until the Ottoman invasion of the 14th century. Herrin writes about the gradual decay of the Byzantine empire during this time, most enduringly captured in the gradual debasement of their gold coins through the addition of increasing amounts of silver. Towards the end of this period, Isa Bey, a sultan of the Aydin dynasty, caused this mosque to be built. A little plaque in the courtyard told us that the architect was Mushaimish Dımışklıoğlu, and the church was completed in 1375 CE. Since Ibn Batuta had passed through here a generation before, this wasn’t the mosque he wrote about. Our visit was completely serendipitious!

We passed through the door into the courtyard. Otto-Dorn writes that this is the first mosque in Turkey to have an enclosed courtyard and a colonnade. We could see the its remnants in the columns around the courtyard. The plaque told us that the colonnade was destroyed in two earthquakes that occurred in 1653 and 1668. We saw a single minaret above the entrance, covered in a wooden frame for restoration. Apparently the mosque was built with two minarets, and the other had collapsed after these earthquakes. Extensive restorations were done and the mosque was reopened in 1975.

I walked into the cool interior of the church mosque. The wooden minbar looked small and ordinary; apparently the original grand minbar has been taken away to a museum. Looking up at the octagonal base of one of the domes, I saw the tile work which is supposed to be special to Seljuk mosques. Some of it had fallen off, perhaps the work on the minaret will eventually extend here. There was a round of restoration work in 2005. I wonder whether it reached the interior of the mosque. This wall shows other characteristics of the Seljuk style: the use of bricks, the use of rubble as filling in the walls, and its decoration with a layer of finely prepared stone. A closer look at the tiles (featured photo) showed the painted work, known today as Iznik tiles, from before it developed the current repertoire of Ottoman motifs. We left the carpeted and cool interior, back through the courtyard and its fountain, through the arch of the entrance and the scaffolding enclosing the minaret, to our car.