In late 1996, a memorable exhibition was mounted at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. This exhibition, entitled "Empire of the Sultans," displayed over 200 works of Ottoman art collected by Dr. Nasser David Khalili. Khalili, who resides in London and holds the title "Worthy of Jerusalem," has amassed a unique collection of no less than 20,000 items of Ottoman art. A recognized expert in the field, his doctorate was written on the "Art of Islamic Lacquering." Khalili started his collection in the 1970s and parallel to the process of acquisition, he ensured that the items were properly catalogued. The catalogue itself will be a major publishing venture that will probably comprise 30 volumes when complete. In addition to Turkish art, other interests include collecting items of Japanese art from the Meiji period, a collection of woven fabrics from the province of Scania in Sweden, Indian textiles, Near Eastern antiquities and Spanish metalwork.
Khalili can be considered a contemporary art patron on the same scale as the Medici family were in their time. He has established a chair of Islamic art at London University, where he is a visiting professor of art and archaeology, and he has established a research fellowship for Islamic art at Oxford.
The exhibition "Empire of the Sultans: Ottoman Art" was the first time that the Israel Museum has devoted an exhibition to art from the Ottoman Empire. At its zenith, this empire ruled over an enormous area and its cultural influence encompassed both Palestine and the Jewish Diaspora of the Near East. The Ottoman presence has left a lasting imprint that can still be seen in modern Israel, above all in the architecture of the Old City of Jerusalem and especially in the magnificent ceramic tiles in the Dome of the Rock mosque on the Temple Mount.
The Ottoman Empire burst onto the stage at the beginning of the 14th century from a tiny emirate in north-west Anatolia, eventually becoming a tremendous empire that endured for 600 years under the leadership of a single royal dynasty. At the height of its power, it reigned over millions of subjects, commanding an area that stretched from Tunis in the west to Iran in the east, and from Poland in the north to Yemen in the south. During the first centuries of its existence, it was known for its endeavours to spread the message of Islam by the force of the sword. The empire reached its peak in the 16th century in the figure of Sultan Suleiman the First, known as "The Magnificent." In addition to his military victories in Europe, he anchored the institutions of the empire in a system of imperial laws (qãnuns) that also gave him the title al-Qãnuni "The Lawgiver." Suleiman the Magnificent stamped his seal of influence on Jerusalem where he completely refurbished the structure of the Dome of the Rock mosque, constructed the walls that surround the Old City to this day, and repaired the enormous water reservoir beneath the walls which in the course of time came to be known as the "Sultan's Pool," and is now used for cultural events in an open-air setting against the backdrop of the Old City walls.
After the death of Suleiman in 1566, the empire began a long process of decline. The momentum of conquest was halted, the economy entered a period of depression, the imperial coffers were empty, inflation mounted and less distinguished sultans took their place on the throne of the Sublime Porte. The process of disintegration was long and exhausting, though broken by periods of rejuvenation and various attempts at reform that sometimes succeeded in a temporary resuscitation of the degenerating body. The Turkish defeat in World War I was the last nail in the coffin of the institution of the sultanate: the revolution of the "Young Turks" led to the establishment of the new Turkish republic under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk.
Altogether there were 37 sultans, all sons of the House of Ottoman. Unclear inheritance laws and power struggles led to sibling wars that reached their climax in 1595 when Muhammad the Third drowned 19 of his brothers in order to secure his position. His successor, Ahmed the First, followed a more moderate policy, only imprisoning the rival princes in specially-designed cages in his palace. This system brought about a hardly surprising situation in which rivals for the throne often proved to be inexperienced, withdrawn personalities remote from events which allowed the real power to be assumed by the viziers or by the sultans' mothers. It was often they who manipulated the strings in the imperial puppet theatre.
The sultans resided in the Topkapi palace, or Cannon Gate, which commanded the meeting point of two continents. From its windows, the Sea of Marmara, the Straits of Bosporus and the Golden Horn could all be observed. Its third and innermost courtyard, which was closely guarded, contained the private domain of the sultan, his harem, the quarters of the court pages, the eunuchs, the concubines and the royal treasury.
Ottoman art reflects the political history of the empire. Initially it continued the tradition of classic Islamic art which, at its finest, in the period of Suleiman the Magnificent, achieved remarkable feats of architecture and decoration, highlighting the power of the empire and the great extent of its wealth. But in its decline, in later centuries, it fell back on its former achievements, lost its individual character and in its period of decadence adopted French rococo and baroque styles.
The best court artists were organized as a group, called Ehl-i-Hiref, the "Society of the Talented." They encompassed a wide ethnic range, enriching Ottoman art with pluralistic artistic influences: ancient Byzantium was mixed with traditional Chinese art brought in on the backs of the horses of the invading Mongols while the local Seljuk substructure was combined with Persian motifs. Out of this spectacular cornucopia, the art of Ottoman decoration developed, rich with a multitude of plants, intertwined branches and vines, cloud formations from the far east, and endlessly curling arabesques. It is an art of dense and delicate decoration that, to unaccustomed contemporary western eyes, can be perceived too easily as "Ottoman art nouveau", since the Turkish passion for ornament twists and turns around and around in leaves and pearls, panthers and dragons, pomegranates and cypress trees, tulips and hyacinths.
The artists of the Sultan's court seem to have been addicted to tulips, which are considered to be one of the Turkish empire's principal gifts to Europe. (Another important gift was coffee, which in the 16th century, was brought back by Turkish pilgrims to Mecca to the coffee houses of Istanbul and apparently penetrated into Europe with the second Turkish siege of Vienna.) An Austrian diplomat became acquainted with tulips when, upon his arrival in Istanbul, he was surprised to see the flowers blooming in the middle of winter. He wrote, "The tulip has very little scent, if any at all, but it arouses admiration on account of its beauty and splendid colours." He sent Turkish tulip bulbs to a botanist friend in Leiden, Holland. The latter grew them in his garden and even succeeded in selling the flowers at a good price. Jealous neighbours stole some of his bulbs and from then on the tulip conquered Holland. A few hundred years later, tulips arrived in Israel's capital to adorn public gardens when Teddy Kollek, then mayor of the city, received them as a gift to Jerusalem from Dutch friends. The fashion for tulips spread during the reign of Sultan Ahmed the Third in the 18th century. This era is now known as "the Tulip Period" or Lalle Devri. The sultan, who was enchanted by the flower, invested enormous sums in developing rare varieties to plant in the palace gardens. The flowers were attached to tortoise-shell dividers that ran between the plants, creating an extravagant setting for sumptuous parties. The Turkish love for tulips can still be seen in the restaurant of the Topkapi Museum (erected on the site of Ahmed the Third's garden) and in the logo of the Turkish Ministry of Tourism.
Towards the end of the 18th century, Italian and French influences were assimilated into Ottoman art, producing Turkish rococo designs, mainly realistic spirals of leaves and baskets full of roses intertwined by looped stems.
The unquenchable love of the Ottomans for decoration found expression in illustration, book binding and calligraphy. Among Khalili's collection are illuminated manuscripts that bear witness to the imperial love of luxury, as well as miniature Korans that transmit the prophet's message from out of a profusion of plant decorations, in cobalt blue and gold. The most important manuscript of the second period of classic Ottoman art includes a description of the festivities held to celebrate circumcision ceremonies of the sons of the sultan, Ahmed the Third, patron of the arts.
In Islam, calligraphy was considered the most lofty art form due to the religious injunction against figurative art. The best practitioners in the field were awarded great honour because of their skill in copying the divine words, while the very top calligraphers were selected to serve as private calligraphy tutors to the sultans themselves.
Calligraphers were considered such important artists that their biographies became the source of legends. About Hamdullah, for instance, it was related that he would swim in the Bosporus with a writing quill in his mouth and at other times he would practise his art by gilding the palace arches, then when the sultan was out of the palace, he would show off his skills as a tailor.
Dr Khalili's collection also includes book-bindings embroidered with gold and embedded with precious jewels, a specially ornate firman (imperial edict) of Suleiman the Magnificent, a manuscript in ink and gouache of a mystic poem by Jellal a-din Romi, bowls inscribed for President Lincoln which ended up in yard sales in the USA, carpets which look like flower gardens, as well as daggers decorated with gold damascene work and inlaid with coral, lapis lazuli, rubies, mother of pearl, wickerwork, agates and walrus ivory.
Translated by Channa Stern
Eli Shai, currently working on his doctoral thesis, teaches Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah and mysticism at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. A poet, editor, critic and essayist, his articles on culture and literature feature regularly in local newspapers.