Treasures from the Topkapi


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The Topkapi Palace of Istanbul, viewed from the air, looks like a city within a city, with hundreds of buildings housing all the needs of a sophisticated empire—its treasury, library, harems, armories, centers of learning. It’s the official resting place of 400 years of royal treasures representing the intimidating power of Turkish sultans from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

And because it was a center for the creation of Ottoman art, there were hundreds of workshops on the palace grounds to house weavers, goldsmiths, calligraphers and swordmakers. (In 1575, the palace listed 898 artisans.) The kitchens alone occupied 5,000 square meters of space, employed 1,000 cooks and fed 10,000 a day—the military, the royal families, the administrators, the eunuchs and the slaves.

Tourists who wander the grounds today can still see a row of 20 tall chimneys that mark the location of the immense kitchens. They can roam the museums that now house the treasures of a rich and ornate period. For a limited time, some of these treasures are crossing the United States, courtesy of the Palace Arts Foundation, a nonprofit institution dedicated to bringing an awareness of Turkey to the rest of the world. The exhibition, called “Palace of Gold and Light: Treasures from the Topkapi, Istanbul” and curated by Tülay Artan, opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington in March and visits the San Diego Museum of Art from July 14 through September 24.

The Topkapi Palace is located in the old section of Istanbul, a city of 16 million—hustling, dynamic people, hurrying here and there, students and working people crowding the sidewalks, storming the intersections. It’s a frantic city with one foot in Europe and one in Asia, the only city in the world built on two continents. The old city and many of its mosques are on the European side of the city, west of the Bosphorus River. Summer palaces line the Bosphorus on the Asian side, the westernmost rim of the land mass that is Turkey.

Downtown Istanbul is a city of men—on the buses, in the bazaars and mosques—with a few women scurrying in pairs with heads covered and wearing long coats. Occasionally, under the coats, we glimpse blue jeans and European boots that suggest a younger generation with an eye to Western fashion. And in private homes, especially among the intellectuals, women dress as they please. But publicly, the impression is of a Moslem nation with strict rules for the female gender.

The city is built on seven hills, like Rome, with each of six hills capped by a mosque. The Hagia Sophia, originally a Christian church, and the famous Blue Mosque, now a museum, join the rambling Topkapi Palace within the city walls on the first hill. The second hill features the Nuruosmaniye Mosque and the Covered Market, a complex of 100 city blocks teeming with traders crammed into tiny stalls. It is said the average shopkeeper speaks French, German, Japanese and English—as well as Turkish, which, according to Walter Denny, professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts and an Ottoman scholar, is a relatively easy language. “It takes 88 pages to teach phonetic Turkish,” he says, “and 800 pages to teach phonetic English.”

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