by Roderick Conway Morris

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Jewels without a setting

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 12 March 1988
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Süleyman the Magnificent receiving King Sigsimund of Hungary, 1566



Emerging blinking into the sunlight from the British Museum's exhibition 'Süleyman the Magnificent and the Splendour of the Ottoman Court', one could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that Süleyman was some kind of eccentric connoisseur with a taste for silk kaftans and exquisitely wrought oriental exotica, rather than the most fabulously wealthy, militarily successful and powerful despots the world has ever seen. This is not so much the fault of the exhibits themselves as the failure of the Museum's organisers to suggest a context that would render them comprehensible to the visitors they must be hoping to attract.

The Ottoman Turks - though you will look in vain even in the exhibition catalogue for such basic information - appeared on the stage of history for the first time at the end of the 13th century, a farouche band of horsemen who rallied around the banner of Osman Gazi, the Muslim warrior chieftain of a petty principality (one of several that had sprung up in Western Anatolia on the frontier between the Byzantines and the Mongols during those turbulent times).

What gave the Osmanli (or Ottomans as we came to call them) the edge over their numerous enemies and rivals is still a matter of debate - but within a hundred years the Ottomans had waged war on their neighbours with such vigour and determination that they had overrun almost the whole of Asia Minor and immense tracts of the Balkans besides. In 1453 Constantinople, by then a forlorn Christian rock amid a rising Turkish tide, was overwhelmed by the 21-year-old Mehmed, and the Ottoman State established itself as a world power - a position it maintained for 450 years until the disintegration of the Empire in the early 20th century.

Süleyman, perhaps of all the Ottoman sultans the best known in the West, ascended the throne in 1520. Known to the Turks themselves as Kanuni, 'the Lawgiver', among the Europeans he acquired after his death the title 'the Magnificent'. Süleyman more than earned the description - having quite eclipsed his contemporaries Charles V, Francis I, Henry VIII, Ivan the Terrible, Shah Ismail of Persia and the Mogul Akbar of India in glory, grandeur and opulence, doubling the size of his already enormous territories and bequeathing to his successors lands extending from Austria to Aden, the Atlantic Ocean to the Sea of Azov, an empire bestriding Europe, Asia and Africa like the Roman Empire of old.

The commander of a well-nigh invincible war machine of terrifying size and efficiency, an astute administrator, skilful diplomatist, poet, patron of the arts (and, incidentally, highly accomplished self-publicist), Süleyman ruled for nearly 50 years and his fame long outlived him. His siege of Vienna, though unsuccessful (rain stopped play) left Christian Europe utterly traumatized and in a semi-permanent state of panic. His lover affair with a Russian slave girl Hürrem (Roxelana) and the subsequent strangling (supposedly as a result of her intrigues) of Süleyman's first-born son by another harem concubine was a heady enough mix of sex and violence among the rich and famous to make Süleyman's home life the subject of lurid gossip and speculation for generations to come.

What then of the exhibition? It consists of over 160 objects, from jewelled helmets and swords to costumes, pen-boxes, pottery and manuscripts. Some pieces are wonderful curiosities, such as a very early and and surprisingly accurate map of the New World constructed, it seems, with the help of a Spanish sailor and Columbus's maps (now lost); others, such as the brilliantly coloured imperial tugras (monograms) and the paintings illustrating towns, seascapes and battle scenes, are stunningly attractive; and some of the ceramics are among the best examples of their kind.

But the problem remains that although the exhibition provides a rare and welcome opportunity to see these splendours outside Turkey - most of the exhibits are on loan from Turkish collections - disappointingly, it never rises above being an assemblage of objects. There are virtually no illustrations of the Ottoman Court in action - in the palace, on campaign or at play - no attempt to show the mode of life that produced these fine artefacts, scarcely a hint of those graceful domes, slender minarets, picturesque houses, elegant fountains and delightful gardens that made the Ottoman domains so distinctive and appealing.

Süleyman was indeed a splendid ruler who presided over a court in which culture, learning, architecture and the arts flourished to such a remarkable degree that the era of his reign is now looked back upon as a Golden Age. But, alas, this exhibition might well leave one wondering quite what all the fuss was about.

First published: The Spectator

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023