Tile art

The walls of the Topkapi palace are a riot of colourful tiles. One can spend a lot of time admiring them. But this post is not about the tiles themselves, but the larger pieces made of ceramics. There is little representational art in the palace, and the three pieces i show here stand out as special.

We saw these three religious motifs in the vestibule at the entrance to the harem. The tiles on a mihrab depicted the Kaaba, very appropriately. Next to it were depictions of Medina and mount Ararat. If you look carefully at the upper left hand part of the depiction of Ararat you’ll see a rose. That represents the prophet Muhammad, and makes clear that the view is of his last sermon.

Commemorating Baghdad

The fourth courtyard of Topkapi palace was the playground of sultans. It was completely secluded from the world, and was perhaps first seen by others only when Topkapi fell out of use. It is littered (is that the right word?) with pavilions, towers, and kiosks built by different sultans from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The external appearances are very individual, but they share the same overall aesthetic. We spent a long time in the courtyard, looking at the Bosphorus, enjoying the stormy weather.

The structure that you see in the photos above is the Baghdad Kiosk, built in 1638 CE to commemorate the successful Baghdad campaign of Murad IV. During these centuries of decline of the Ottoman empire, Murad’s actions were perhaps among the most stabilizing influences for the empire. He fought the Safavid Empire in the 1630s, took control of Beghadad, but eventually confirmed the borders between the Ottoman and Safavid empires which had been agreed to in the 1555 Treaty of Amasya. The border of Iran, Iraq and Turkey even today follows part of this line of control.

We reached the interior of the pavilion by climbing up to the first floor terrace. This is a dazzling room. You can see the stained glass windows, the profusion of tiles, a fireplace with a beaten copper chimney, cupboards with doors inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Perhaps these views will tell you why it is impossible not to pay attention to detail when walking through this palace.

The hamams of a palace

When you travel to Turkey the thought of a hamam, a public bath, cannot be far from your mind. After all, so much has been written about them in guide books and blogs! So when I came to the hamam of the queen mother (Valide sultan) in the harem of the Topkapi palace, I was really intrigued. This was the chamber of one of the rulers of the Ottoman empire; the Valide sultan could give orders to the vazir (the chief minister).

From the gilded screen fencing off the bath (featured photo), to the amazingly decorative niches in the wall, and the marble basin with gold highlights, everything fitted the picture one has of Ottoman royalty. Hamams typically had a hot room with dry hot air where one would sit in order to perspire, this would be followed by a bath in which water is splashed on the body, and then a period of relaxation in a cool room.

I found it interesting to compare the hamam of the queen with that of the Janissaries. They were elite Ottoman troops, and their quarters are highly decorative. The baths, however, were plain and utilitarian, as you can see in the photos above. While I was wondering about the plumbing, The Family asked, “Why are the basins so low?” It is a question with no answer until now.

The delightful doors of Topkapi

We bought our tickets to the Topkapi palace inside the first courtyard, and entered the second courtyard through an imposing gateway (featured photo) called Orta Kapi. This is Turkish for a very prosaic name: middle gate. The gate is as impressive as it looks here, with the two Byzantine-looking towers standing over it. The calligraphy on either side of the doorway is the ornate calligraphic seal (tughra) of sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Constantinople in 1452 CE and started building the Topkapi palace in 1459.

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Topkapi is not a single palace, but a complex of palaces built over the next three centuries. I found it slow going, because it is so ornate that you pause to take in the details of various rooms and pavilions you pass through. Like most Islamic art, the colourful tiles, the beautiful geometric designs of inlaid wood or lattice work, and the variations on domes and arches, are what catch the eye. But here one can see a succession of building materials, and discoveries in geometry. One example was the use of a fivefold symmetry on some doors. It seemed to have been invented in the mid-17th century, and retro-fitted into several doors. The more common three, four, and six-fold symmetries can be seen everywhere.

I end with a view of the Bosphorus from the fourth courtyard of the palace. This was my first view of the doorway between the Mediterranean and Black seas, and between Europe and Asia. The overcast sky was very dramatic. As I took photos, the mournful bass hoots of ferries was counterpointed by the mewing of gulls as they flew over us. This must be the most memorable part of the soundscape of Istanbul.

The library of the inner palace

The early 18th century was called the Tulip Period in the Ottoman empire. This era was the rule of sultan Ahmed III, a peaceful time where many changes began to take place. Printing presses, art, culture, trade, and a turn towards Europe are now not as easily remembered as the craze for tulips which gives the era its name. The Library of Sultan Ahmed (Enderûn library) in the third courtyard of Topkapi palace is said to be one of the outstanding examples of the architecture of this time. When I entered, my first impression was of light and openness, perfect for sitting down and reading (featured photo).

The number of shelves was not very large. This probably means that printing was not yet a major industry. In England at that time, the Bodelian library had entered into an agreement with printers by which a copy of every printed book came to the library, resulting in a rapid increase in its holdings. My audio guide told me that the sultan collected all the books in the Topkapi palace and brought them here to safeguard them, while making also making them easy to access.

The dome stood on an octagonal base, and was beautifully decorated. The large expanse of white and the gold paint was part of what made the library look so full of light. Apparently the extensive use of flowers in the painted patterns is a hallmark of the Tulip Period (1718 CE to 1730). It is not impossible that the library, built in 1718, influenced the art and architecture of this era fairly strongly. The light fixture that you see in the photo above was also very distinctive.

Taking books out of the library was forbidden. So a major purpose of the library seemed to be to bring together, and maintain, an imperial collection of books. To this end manuscripts were brought here from the harem, the inner treasury, and the privy room treasury. The large number of windows and doors ensured rapid circulation of air, and controlled damp. One has to climb a short flight of stairs to get to the library. If you step back to look at the building then you notice that the lower floor also has many windows. This well-ventilated basement is another technique for keeping the library dry in order to preserve the holding. Subsequent sultans kept adding to the collection, and all of it was removed to the Palace Museum Library in 1966.

I was surprised to find that sultan Ahmed erected the library over a structure called the Pool Pavilion. This had been designed and built almost a hundred and fifty years earlier by the Ottoman genius of an architect: Mimar Sinan. Istanbul is studded with buildings ascribed to him, so this was not a disaster. Nevertheless I had a faint twinge of disappointment when I read this.

In front of Enderûn library is a drinking fountain. This was built at the same time as the library. The elaborate blue and orange decorations are also said to be typical of the Tulip Period. Unfortunately it was blocked off for tourists. I needed some water, and it turned out The Family had not forgotten to carry a bottle.

To eat like a Sultan

We’d decided to take an audio guide to the Topkapi palace, but the kiosk in the second courtyard had run out of them, and took a while to get a few back from the return area. The kiosk was near the kitchens, so we decided to walk into them. There are parts of a palace which a minister or sultan would never have set foot in. The kitchen is likely to be one of these. I took perverse pleasure in spending time in this area, first built along with the rest of the palace by sultan Mehmet, and later expanded by Suleiman the Magnificent. It turned out to be an interesting place.

Posters in the kitchens told us how formal and regimented life in the palace was. Sultan Mehmet had laid down very strict rules, including one that said that the sultan has to eat alone. There were also laws about the hierarchy of servants who conveyed the meals from the kitchen to the Sultan. Amazingly no sultan is known to have eaten with another person from 1477 CE until Abdülaziz dined with crown prince Edward VII of England sometime in the 1870s. The result is that the preferences of various sultans can only be inferred from account ledgers. The cooks who worked away in these kitchens with the tall chimneys above them probably passed on details of the sultan’s likes and dislikes orally, because no written recipes have been found.

Although we know little about what the Ottoman sultans ate, on display here one finds a lot about how the sultans ate. The glazed Chinese plate with the 18th century gold Ottoman cover of the featured photo was one of the striking pieces displayed here. The clutch of ewers on display was definitely Ottoman. They were used to wash hands before and after meals. Note the bowl and the towel in the display. Hands had to be placed above the bowl while an attendant poured water over them.

I was struck by this beautiful leaf-shaped plate. If it was Indian it would definitely have held palate cleansers like paan or candied fennel seed. I don’t recall an explanation of what the plate could have been used for in the Topkapi palace. Could it have been sweets: the syrupy lokma, or the forerunner of Turkish delight, macun? The 18th century food carrier brought up a question of who it would have been used by. The population of the palace was large, and some of the lower officials could have been served from this. Food which was taken from the kitchen to the royals was re-heated before serving, if needed. I’m sure that was carried in larger amounts. It would not do to run out of food if the Sultan wanted more.

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.