This exhibition explores the art and culture of the Turks from Inner Asia to the Bosphorus over a thousand year period between 600 and 1600 AD. Their journey incorporated many different centres of power and artistic traditions. The story begins with the Uighurs, a nomadic people of Central Asia and China, and ends with the Ottoman Empire from the reign of Mehmet II to Suleyman the Magnificent including the fall of Byzantium and the spread of Ottoman rule to include Mecca and Medina.
The Turkic speaking Uighurs were one of many distinct cultural groups brought together by the trade of the Silk Route at Turfan in Chinese Central Asia. The Uighurs, primarily pastoral nomads, observed a number of religions including Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Nestorian Christianity. Many of the artefacts from this period were found in the 19th century in this remote desert region of China.
The Seljuks were another Central Asian nomadic group. They were the first Turkic dynasty to control Central Asia as far as the eastern Mediterranean. The Seljuks moved West in 1040 AD. Tughrul Beg established the Great Seljuk polity which included Iraq and Syria. He captured Baghdad in 1055 AD.
The Seljuks were Sunni Muslims. They adopted traditional Iranian bureaucratic institutions of government and special schools of learning, the madrasa. The Seljuks were important patrons of art and architecture and were responsible for producing great metalwork, ceramics and literature.
The last Seljuk sultan died in battle in 1194 when the Great Seljuks were defeated by the Mongols. A breakaway group, the Seljuks of Rum, settled in Anatolia. Like the Great Seljuks, they eventually succumbed to the expansion of the Mongols during the 12th and 13th centuries.
These enigmatic paintings are by Muhammad Siyah Qalam – ‘Muhammad of the Black Pen’. Little is known about the artist or where and when he created the 50 extant works attributed to him. It is thought that they must originate in a rural hinterland exposed to Chinese influence, although this remains highly debated.
Timur (1336-1405) is known in the west as Tamerlane. He emulated the great Mongol ruler Genghis Khan (r.1206-1227) some of whose descendants he displaced to reach power in 1370. Though later rulers were not able to emulate the charisma and military guile of figures like Genghis Khan and Timur, Turco-Mongol society continued to value skill in warfare, hunting and bravery. Still more than Timur before them, members of the Timurid and Turkman dynasties used art and architecture as a means of legitimising their rule.
It was during Timur’s reign that the nomadic steppe culture of Central Asia fused with the settled culture of Iran. One of its consequences was an entirely new visual language that glorified Timur and subsequent Timurid rulers. This visual language was also used to articulate their commitment to Islam.
Contemporaries noted Timur’s preoccupation with history. During his campaigns he gathered scholars, architects, and artists from the cities and regions he conquered. Timur’s successors were fully aware of the important role that books could play in legitimising their rule. Books were one way to develop accounts about Timur’s life and deeds, an activity that began when he was still alive.
The Turkish speaking Ottomans under Osman were a small group scattered along the border of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia. They were driven there by the Mongols. After the death of Timur in 1405 the Ottomans began to slowly increase their influence.
Linked by political alliance rather than kinship the Ottomans exploited internal strife within the Byzantine Empire to invade Byzantium. They laid siege to Belgrade and Vienna. Under Mehmed II – ‘The Conqueror’ – the Ottomans finally captured Byzantium in 1453. They established their court in the city and renamed it Istanbul.
The Ottomans were great patrons of the arts, like their contemporaries the Timurids, and the Great Seljuks before them. They commissioned works of art and literature of exceptional quality and beauty. The Ottoman imperial palace in Istanbul, the Topkapi, was famous throughout the world and boasted great riches from all across the empire. The Ottoman empire lasted until 1923.
All images Topkapι Sarayι Müzesi, Istanbul, except: Female deity with bowl of flowers, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Museum für Indische Kunst; Carpet, Konya, 13th century, and Double doors from Cizre Ulu Mosque, Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, Istanbul; The Sultan Mehmet II, The National Gallery, London. Photos: Hadiye Cangökçe, Istanbul and Jürgen Liepe, Berlin.