Monday, October 19, 2009

Summer Travels - Part 4: Floral Ornamentation in Istanbul's Topkapı Palace

The world-famous Topkapı Palace is a large palace complex that sits at the tip of the peninsula between the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus which forms the oldest part of Istanbul. From 1465 until 1853, the palace was the home of the Ottoman Sultans who for a time ruled over much of the Middle East and the Balkans, and the palace was therefore not only a royal residence but also the center of a vast administrative system. Built on the site of previous Byzantine palaces, the complex is organized around three successive courtyards; in Ottoman times, each successive courtyardcorresponded to a higher degree of royal privacy and exclusivity. Perhaps the most famous part of the palace is the Harem, which consists of the living quarters of the Sultan's concubines as well as his mother. Entering this part of the complex costs extra, but the maze of chambers one encounters is indeed as enchantingly beautiful as one would expect. Floral and vegetal decorations in particular abound, not only in the form of Turkey's famous blue-and-white Iznik tiles, but also in paintings on wood and plaster and in the form of delicate gold-leaf patterns. One of the things that absolutely fascinates me about these tiles is that even though all the plants are strongly stylized, they nevertheless remain more or less identifiable - almond blossoms (Prunus dulcis), tulips (Tulipa sp.), carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus), and hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis), and cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens) being the dominant plants. These also happen to be plants which are quite frequently referred to in classical Turkish, Persian, and Urdu poetry, where at least some of them are assigned a set of specific symbolic meanings and associations. The slender form of the cypress, for example, is often likened to the beautiful figure of the beloved.


Furthermore, the tulip held symbolic value for the Ottomans since its name in Turkish, Persian, and Urdu, لاله or "laleh" is spelled in the Arabic alphabet with the same letters as الله‎ or "Allah" meaning "God" and هلال or "hilal" meaning "crescent". The tulip was thus understood as a symbol of God and of Islam.

There is a beautiful book on Ottoman floral culture entitled A Garden for the Sultan: Flowers and Gardens in the Ottoman Culture by Nurhan Atasoy which explains this and many other fascinating peculiarities of the role of flowers in Ottoman art and culture. Alas, the book is out of print and quite expensive, so for now I will have to make do with the copy in my university's Fine Arts Library.
I could go on writing about Iznik tiles, floral ornamentation in Islamic art, and the Harem of the
Topkapı Palace all night, but Urdu homework needs to be done so I can one day read more poems about tulips and cypresses. Stay tuned however, for more pictures of beautiful Ottoman architecture as well as a post on the gardens of the sumptuous Dolmabahçe Palace which the Ottoman royal family inhabited after leaving the Topkapı Palace and in which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic, passed away on November 10, 1938 - the pictures for that post are as of now on another computer, but I will get to them soon!

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