ISTANBUL, December 17, 2009 -- Ottoman court carpets are intimately connected with a very special artistic culture, that of the Ottoman court itself.
The court both inspired and was the main consumer of the carpets, tiles, illustrated books and other art objects by countless artisans attached to court workshops inside and outside of Istanbul.
The imperial artisans, collectively called the Ehl-i Hiref or Community of the Talented, produced much of the finest work in the Ottoman Empire and their designs were copied or adapted by commercial artists even down to the village level.
But what why did the Ottoman rulers attach such great importance to developing and maintaining an artistic style that would clearly distinguish the court from the rest of the world outside?
The immediate answer might be that all courts in all lands tend to do the same. Just one other example is Versailles, designed as a pinnacle of Baroque style to underline the power of Louis XIV.
But the Ottoman court, with its seat in Topkapi palace, was very different from Versailles. Whereas Versailles was designed as a public stage, Topkapi was designed as a private one, and its culture was far more self-defined and self-contained.
There was a logic behind that choice.
The story is neatly told in the book ‘The Ottomans’ by Andrew Wheatcroft (1993). As he points out, the Ottoman court projected power through an image of inaccessibility, exclusivity, and mystery designed to create a sense of public awe. And everything about Topkapi palace and its court culture was intended to heighten that effect.
The first great Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II, began building the palace almost immediately after he conquered Constantinople in 1453.
A contemporary, the Greek historian Critoboulos of Imbros, wrote at the time:
“He gave orders for the erection of a palace on the point of old Byzantium which stretches out into the sea – a palace that should outshine all and be more marvelous than the preceding palaces in looks, size, cost and gracefulness.”
The site was the ancient Greek acropolis of Byzantium, the highest ground in the city. And originally, the grounds were far vaster than they are today, extending all the way down the shoreline below.
But if the acropolis had been an open area, Mehmet’s Yeni Sarai (New Palace) was deliberately isolated and separated from the city. Its buildings were hidden behind a massive wall some 35 feet tall. And it was organized in three areas, of ever diminishing accessibility to the public, guarded by three successive entry gates.
The first great courtyard, behind the Imperial Gate was the largest, with an area of 500,000 square feet. It included the workplaces of some 600 craftsmen: goldsmiths, weavers, amber-workers, armor-makers, potters, upholsterers, and many others. There were also stables and the barracks of guards and gatekeepers.
Anybody could enter from the street but once inside had to move and speak quietly.
Europeans found the hushed atmosphere eerie and regularly remarked upon it. Artist Nicolas de Nicolay wrote in 1551 that “notwithstanding the number of people coming together from all parts is very great, yet such silence is kept, that yee could scarcely say that the standers-by did either spit or cough.”
The second courtyard, behind the Gate of Saluation, marked the real boundary between outer and inner worlds. The gate had two sets of doors strong enough to resist a siege and guests passed through it only by invitation or for ceremonial occasions of state.
Once inside, the atmosphere was of a park, with lawns and fountains under cypress trees and gazelles wandering freely. The gardens were dotted with pavilions, or kiosks, which gave the impression of tents erected in an open space. It was an echo – conscious or not – of nomadic life and love of nature in the middle of a thriving but shut out metropolis.
At times, sultans also held outdoor audiences in the park, like the one shown here.
In the park was also the meeting place of the Sultan’s councilors – a kiosk known as the Hall of the Divan. The Hall’s floor was gilded and covered with a carpet of gold and there was a dias with the sultan’s throne. But the sultans themselves often preferred to appear to be absent, listening when they wanted from behind a grilled window.
The window, and the uncertainty of whether the sultan heard what was being said, gave the sultan such a degree of control that many sultans rarely attended the meetings of the divan at all.
The innermost world lay behind a third and final gate: the Gate of Felicity. Here was the sultan’s inner realm with those who lived closest to him, including the harem, with his wives and concubines and their children, and his retainers.
This retreat, known as The Abode of Bliss, was in fact a miniature city where more than 3,000 people spent their entire adult lives.
They spent their lives in splendid, luxurious isolation. But the isolation was not intended to cut them off from the world so much as to produce people who totally identified with the court and would be loyal to it throughout their lives.
These people were the royal pages, for whom court life was a school and who later would be sent out to govern the vast reaches of the empire.
In the early days of the empire, the sultan chose the boys who would become pages from outside the Turkic population, with its strong clan system. That was yet another way of creating an isolated group loyal only to the throne.
Gia Maria Angiolello, a young Venetian who served as a translator in the palace from 1473 to 1481, describes the Sultan’s pages this way:
“Sons of Christians, in part taken in expeditions with foreign countries and in part drawn from his own subjects … after they have been in his service a certain time, when in the opinion of the lord he can trust them, he sends them out of the palace with salaries which are increased as he thinks fitting.”
The “sons” initially were part of the tribute which the Ottomans exacted from conquered peoples, particularly in the Balkans and Caucasus, to create the Janissaries, the Sultan’s most rewarded and loyal troops.
Shown here is an Ottoman miniature of Janissaries battling the Knights of St. John in the siege of Rhodes, 1522.
The Janissaries, too, were an isolated group outside the clan system and the boys who would fill their ranks spent their childhoods on special farms in Anatolia where they became Muslims, gained strength, and learned to fight.
Both the pages, who were raised in the palace, and the Janissaries were the “kul,” or slaves of the sultan.
It was a privileged position, so much so that even after the tribute system was abandoned, the status of kul and the opportunities it offered passed from father to son. And over time many free-born Muslims also bribed or negotiated their way into the Sultan’s household to gain the same status
As Angiolello remarked in his early observations about pages, “there are few that do not accomplish their duties, because they are rewarded for the smallest service to their lord, and also because they are punished for the smallest fault.”
Wheatcroft notes that after the pages finished their training, they were given wives from among the harem women who were also slaves of the Sultan. This became a further bond to the court, because both “shared the common experience of palace life and even the unique dialect spoken in the Abode of Bliss.”
When the couple was dispatched to the provinces, it modeled its own household on the Ottoman court and spread that court culture farther.
Here is a painting of an Ottoman house in Cairo, before the influence of Western styles, by Frank Dillon (1823-1909).
Did the system work well? Yes, and for centuries.
As Wheatcroft puts it, “When the Conqueror built the Abode of Bliss on Seraglio Point, he created more than a building. The palace was the apex of Ottoman society: all power flowed from it, carried forth by the sultan’s servants sent to govern in his name.”
In this system, the arts were not only decorative but also helped create a frame of reference agreed upon by the court’s members. The shared style, like everything else, reinforced loyalty to the group and distinguished them from those outside the walls.
All the procedures within the palace were codified in kanunname, or law codes that even specified the dress for every rank of the ruling class.
Pictured here is the Sultan leaving Topkapi Palace for Friday prayers in one of the capital's mosques circa 1810 by an unknown artist. The once-a-week outing was the only time the Sultan appeared in public.
The advisers to the Sultan, the viziers, wore green. Chamberlains wore scarlet. Religious dignitaries wore purple and mullahs light blue. The master of horse dressed head-to-foot in dark green.
Court officers wore light red shoes. Those who worked in the Grand Vizier’s office, located just outside the palace walls, wore yellow shoes. And among non-Muslims, Greeks wore black shoes, Armenians violet, and Jews blue slippers.
Topkapı Palace gradually lost its importance at the end of the 17th century, as the Sultans preferred to spend more time in their new palaces along the Bosporus.
In 1856, Sultan Abdül Mecid I decided to move the court to the newly built Dolmabahçe Palace (shown here), the first European-style palace in the city.
By then, the Ottoman Empire was changing rapidly and its court life was becoming more European as well.
But how that happened is another story.
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