Luxury Goods from the Ottoman Court
By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager 2008, All Rights Reserved
One of the many intricately tiled wall designs at Topkapı Palace.
Note the overall emulation of rug design and the ogival motif created by the central vines. (Author’s photo.)
When I finally got to Istanbul last year after many years of delay, I fell utterly and unreservedly in love with the city. As with all world-class cities, Istanbul is a mass of contradictions. Like Mexico City, it’s big and sprawling (17 million people by some estimates), both decadent and modern, often along the same block. Istanbul offers up the usual downsides of a large city (noise, intense pollution, hoards, hawkers and hustlers). But these soon seem minor inconveniences as you are buoyed along in the current of the city’s incredible historic legacy, visible around most every corner (not to mention underground). Over the past 7000+ years, hoards — Phoenicians, Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Seljuks, Byzantium Christians, and Ottomans—have colonized the city, leaving all manner of historical footnotes. More than once, I found myself wishing I had brought along my 9th-grade ancient history textbook, just to help keep them all straight.
Undisputedly, it’s the handiwork of the Ottomans on most stunning display in the city. After a few days of museums, palaces, and mosques, I was reeling, visually intoxicated by the multitude of Ottoman-era ceramics, rugs, embroideries and finely appointed costumes. The intricacy of Ottoman ornament is truly astonishing. Even the Sultan’s grillwork was wrought with an elaborateness that immediate elevates it to high art.
Outside of the knotted rugs, Iznik pottery must be Ottoman Turkey’s greatest glory. The distinctive tiles and tiles were originally made in the city of Iznik, just across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul. A city with its own venerable history, Iznik lived a good part of its life as Nicea, a place of great import to the early centuries of the Christian religion. In 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine convened the hugely- important First Council of Nicea, which brought rival factions together in a resolution of conflicting beliefs. With the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century, Nicea became Iznik. Although pottery had been made in the city since Byzantine times, it was under the Ottomans that the pottery developed its distinctive look. İznik vessels were originally made in imitation of the highly-prized Chinese Ming porcelain, the latter available as early as the 14th century to Ottoman sultans via the Silk Route trade. Before 1520, Iznik ware was decorated mainly in blue (cobalt oxide) and white. Over time, the color palette extended beyond these to include purple (manganese), red (silica and iron oxide), green (copper oxide), turquoise, grey and black. Interestingly the Iznik potters could not replicate porcelain (made of clay), so they “faked” it with glass and sand. A minor point in the face of such stunning surface designs.
To be sure, there are loads of places in Istanbul to see beautiful Iznik tiles and porcelain. But there is no place more stunning than Topkapı Palace, built by Sultan Mehmet, to celebrate his conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The palace was home to successive rulers until the victory of the Allies in WW1 dissolved the Ottoman Empire. The palace, now a museum, is extensive and complex, rooms follow rooms which lead to courtyards and more rooms. At every turn is a stunning full-wall Iznik tile design. Look up and you’ll see tile decorated ceilings. It seems as if every nook and cranny covered with tile, a pasha’s feast for the eyes. And, if that weren’t enough, inside the old palace kitchens is a large display of 15th and 16th c. Chinese porcelain, a fitting homage to obsession that begat a style.
Iznik Plate in the Istanbul Archeology Museum (Author’s photo)