The Ottomans to Turkey: Debatable Artifacts as Turkey’s National Identity

 By Faruk Arslan

Museums must have ethics policies, and since they tell the full story of antiquities on display, whoever would wander through collections in constant dialogue across cultures, borders and generations, have deserved to know how the pieces got there. The museum has collected techniques now and in the past, and many objects came to museums as a result of looting. The great museum collections of the U.S. and Europe were largely amassed to the accompaniment of great thieves from cultural migrations in the last 200 years. Museums not only display new languages of power in the Ottoman Empire, but also in America, Europe, and European colonies around the globe since the 19th Century. While dying, the Ottoman Empire was in the process of being museum reborn, and was caught between the European colonialism and the rise of Turkish nationalism under the affiliation of the right wind and the nationalistic French wind. Archaeology and museum making were already advancing in the Ottoman Empire within the Tanzimat in 1839, in which was learned from Europe after the French revolution. The collection of Islamic arts had emerged against a backdrop of the already established European-style institutions of display in 1846 that had began to collect and exhibit the seeds of what would become the Ottoman Imperial Museum. Before and after the Ottoman Empire had closed down, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and many among others have improved their own national identity, and have increased the clamor for getting their heritage and artifacts back. The Louvre, which was the Metropolitan including the British Museum and even the Getty, have had a lot of looted artifacts acquiring antiquities lacking a documented chain of ownership in which were stolen from Turks and others. The idea of public and modern view of museums being imported from the West a century late to the Turks, which hasn’t justified the way supposed since the beginning. Even after 125 years, which is now the present, the result shows of many objects still allowing to be stolen. It all makes for convoluted arguments debatable on how the Ottoman has gone through the process while cultural identity had finally been lost in the Turkish museum’s ideology in which was established, while then Turkey had protected and preserved ancient treasures with technological advanced security today, and the Topkapi Museum has now become one of the most important institutions in the world of museum history.

First of all, the development of the museum took place in conjunction with a series of increasingly restrictive antiquities and laws beginning since 1874 in the Ottoman Empire, designed to prevent the removal of artifacts by European collectors and museums. Loopholes, inefficient enforcements, and corruptions have been combined with the “Sultan’s habit of overriding the laws to make personal gifts, limiting the effectiveness of these regulations.” The Imperial Museum was at the forefront of the struggle, as placing artifacts in its collections was one of the more successful ways of keeping them within the empire (Boldwin, 2004). “The empire had promoted its political identity as the leader of the Islamic world under the rule of Sultan II Abdulhamit (1876 to1909), and it has chosen not to include works of art and culture pertaining their Ottoman or Islamic identity in its museum until 1889. It was only then at that relatively late date that the Council of State set out a revised administrative program for the Ottoman Imperial Museum that had included a Department of Islamic Arts as one of six branches of the growing institution. As the empire weakened during the early twentieth century, the identification of Islamic works of art had become increasingly important to the development of a sense of an Ottoman national identity. Ironically, the objects were most readily accessible to Ottoman collectors—those in which were commonly used in mosques and elite households around the empire—and were among the last to be collected. This sharply contrasts with the 19th century development of museums in Europe, where galleries and museums have assembled both religious and secular artworks in order to foster national spirit” (Shaw, 2000).

In 1869, after the sultan had visited several museums in France, provincial governors were encouraged to send antiquities to the capital, and another building was adapted to serve as the Imperial Museum. While it was nominally built in emulation of the western museums, Shaw suggests that it was intended to serve deeper into political purposes. ‘European archaeologists came to the empire to make their claim to Ottoman territories appear natural’ (Shaw, 2003- p. 105); and by displaying Greco-Roman and Byzantine objects as part of the Ottoman heritage, the museum presented the empire as part of Europe, and ‘through asserting its ownership of antiquities, the empire could reaffirm symbolically its control over its territories’ (Shaw, 2003-p. 87). Islamic antiquities only became prominent towards the end of the nineteenth century. Official Ottoman excavations have demonstrated similar cultural interests to those of western governments. Osman Hamdi was an especially active director, during 1881-1910, and Shaw had discussed some of the remarkable paintings that illustrate how eastern and western elements merged in his personality (Reade, 2004).

The prominent place of the Hellenistic antiquities in the museum and its construction in 1891 of a neo-classical building to house in which to them had indicated attempts by the Ottoman elite to situate their empire in the family of European nations. The traditional western museum had arranged its collections chronologically, narrating a linear history of evolution in which the Renaissance, as the link between the modern and classical worlds, held center stage. By contrast, the Imperial Museum did not attempt to draw direct stylistic links or suggest continuity between the Hellenistic period and the modern Ottoman Empire. For the Ottomans, as Shaw puts it, “the act of collection itself signaled the present” (Shaw, 2003 p. 156). In addition to embodying the Ottoman’s participation in modern cultural practices, the museum asserted the Ottoman ownership of the antiquities it had contained. The artifacts were arranged geographically, emphasizing the link between the object and its Ottoman-ruled place of origin. The museum, by way of the variety of its collections, had gathered all from the Ottoman territory, and has offered a rejoinder to the Euro-American appropriation of the classical past. The collections had symbolized the Ottoman power over the territories that had come from what was similar to the European museums’ displays of indigenous artifacts from the colonies. At an age of nationalist upheavals, the collections had also aimed to portray the empire as a unitary state, presenting a heritage as diverse peoples could share.

Ironically, Shaw states, “The Ottoman Imperial Museum designated an Islamic Arts Division in 1889, but the collection grew very slowly. While Hellenic antiquities were housed in the lavish new Imperial Museum, a neoclassical building built for them on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, the Islamic antiquities moved from site to site, first to an upstairs hall of the Imperial Museum and later to increasingly independent venues. Growing in the shadow of the antiquities collections, Islamic collections were never published in catalogues, nowhere they extensively publicized in newspapers. The only early description of the collection comes from a short section of an extensive 1895 article about the museum by its assistant director, Halil Edhem” (Shaw, 2000). Thus, the museum didn’t even try to include collections of Ottoman art to parallel the painting and sculpture galleries of the Louvre or the British National Gallery. Indeed, for many years, the Ottoman museums had avoided the suggestion of a present moment for the empire, implying instead only multiple pasts from which it could garner various aspects of a modern identity. This disavowal of positivism coincided with a distrust of positivism as a belief heretical to Islamic norms. Despite Abdülhamid’s emphasis on the Islamic identity of the Ottoman state, the Islamic collections of the Imperial Museum didn’t flourish fully until the end of his reign. It was only during and after the constitutionalist Young Turk Revolution of 1908-10 that this concern over Islamic antiquities had begun to enter public discourses with any frequency in large amounts because of the Young Turks’ interests in increased communication between the state and the population. In 1910, newspapers began to tear port thefts of tiles, carpets, and kilims (flat-woven carpets) from historical sites as far a field as Konya and its environs. The ideology of the Young Turks began to transform the Islamic arts collection into an overt means of nationalist expression and resistance against European cultural subjugation. In an environment pushing toward a Turkish identity independent of religion, objects originally had only religious value—or, beyond value, and priceless ness gained an aesthetic/historical value with which they could represent the country in the museum, which isolated them from their original religious roles. The danger of their loss lay not in their absence but in the degree of profit possible from those items once they entered European collections.

Under the French Revolution’s pressure, the Young Turk Revolution was slowly setting the stage for the secularist revolution that was to come only a decade later: and, already, objects vested with religious significance were being recontextualized in a historical and national museum collection. With the plans for the construction of a new museum associated with the Ministry of Pious Foundations, in 1908 the Islamic collection moved from the upper corner of the archaeology museum building to the Tiled Pavilion (Shaw, 2000).

On the other hand, Wendy Shaw’s article “Possessors and Possessed” is of course a well-written book, which shows its relevance to the Ottoman cultural and intellectual history more broadly, and to the question of the empire’s political, intellectual, and conceptual relationship to Europe. But there are two major critics: firstly, “she does not provide an introduction to museum studies for Ottomans. Second, while it is understandable that the book concentrates on Istanbul and provide a very brief section on Hellenistic-focused museum enterprises elsewhere in Anatolia, but Egypt and Iraq, which were also coming to terms with European interests in their particular regional heritages, would have provided an instructive comparative frame” (Boldwin, 2004).

Secondly, the term of “Loot” has showed up recently, in which explains and offers a judicious critique of cultural imperialism and ruthless Western appropriation, dissimulation, stonewalling, and failure to abide by regulations created by UNESCO and others in the 20th century to regulate illicit trading and covert agreements among museums, smugglers, and go-betweens, ranging from elegant dealers to rich donors seeking big tax breaks in exchange for their priceless gifts.

It is this latest application of the term that interests Sharon Waxman in “Loot,” a broad survey of what she calls “the battle over the stolen treasures of the ancient world.” Over the past few years, numerous museums have been confronted with claims that antiquities they have been acquiring were plundered by tomb robbers. Now the countries from which these objects came want them back. How did museums become looters? To Waxman, a former culture reporter for The Washington Post and The New York Times, the problem is part of a larger battle about history, in which “once-colonized nations” are seeking to reclaim the “tangible symbols” of national identity from the “great cultural shrines of the West.” To explore this conflict, she sets out on a Grand Tour of two American and two European museums, and of several Mediterranean countries from whose monuments and tombs their collections have been formed (Eakin, 2008).

Waxman states, “Turkey’s landscape holds perhaps the widest collection of ancient civilization in more than 20,000 mounds representing the remains of “more Greek cities than Greece, and more Roman cities than Italy” (Waxman, 2008). According to Waxman, a journalist with expertise on the Middle East and Europe, the answer can be found in the history of cultural nationalism and the abuse of power, starting with the intense rivalry between the British and French at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. Her story continues to the present as Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt have begun to recover some of their greatest treasures from museums in the United States and Europe by means of lawsuits and carefully publicized disclosures designed to embarrass institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the British Museum, the Louvre, and others (Waxman, 2008).

There is a big debate still going on today that these museums have the resources to take far better care of the treasures than, for instance, Turkish museums. Besides, they say, most people living in the victimized countries are not direct descendants of the ancient kingdoms and cultures, most notably the Egyptians and Turks of today, who are Muslims, whereas the older cultures were pagan. That was essentially the rationale for the Metropolitan Museum to conceal its possession of the so-called Lydian Hoard, an astonishing trove from the fabled kingdom of fabulously rich Croesus, located in what is now Turkey but conquered by the Persians millennia before modern Turkey had emerged in the 1920s. The issue of precisely whose patrimony is involved gets very complicated. The museum has since returned the antiquities to Turkey (Kammen, 2008).

A Turkish museum has formally demanded that the Louvre Museum in Paris and another French museum hand over precious ceramics from the Ottoman era, which were stolen from Istanbul. A file has been opened on the case to enable the Culture Ministry to recover stolen ceramics, which were discovered in the Decorative Arts Museum in Sevres and the Louvre Museum in Paris. The antique ceramic and French art collector, Albert Sorlin-Dorigny, had taken tiles from the tombs of two sultans: Selim II (1566-1574) and Murat III (1574-1595). He then sold them to the museums in 1895. Jale Dedeoglu of the Hagia and Sophia Museum in Istanbul was a professor who had been doing research in the storage rooms of both museums discovered and photographed since the originals in 2003 which was told to the Agence France-Presse. The wall panel at the entrance of the Sultan Selim II Tomb is made up of about 60 tiles. The tiles are said to be a rarity among the masterpieces of Turkish tile artwork (AFR, CBC, Today’s Zaman, 2003, 2006).

The legendary Hagia Sophia mosque, a former Eastern Orthodox Church converted to a mosque in 1453, was turned into a museum in 1935. The building, with its deep carvings, mosaics and ancient tiles, is considered a marvel from the Sixth Century classical Byzantine architecture and decor. In total, the Turkish Ministry of Culture had been trying to recover 35 objects stolen from the country’s museums. It had been spoken through with the Boston Museum in the United States and other institutions in Germany, Greece, and Russia over artifacts taken from the city of Troy.

Now, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Export, Import, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, has currently been binding 130 countries. Not only are signatories obliged to bar the importation of smuggled or stolen cultural artifacts, but they are just as well encouraged to enact specific bans on imperiled antiquities from specific areas—as the United States has commendably done at the request of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, Mali and Cambodia. These bans have curtailed if not eliminated the traffic in monumental steal and sculptured fragments chopped, even dynamited, from ancient edifices.

However, while the convention does provide new legal weapons to countries seeking the return of looted or smuggled art, there is a less welcome downside. It also provides a cloak of virtue for the nationalist politicians whose concern for the display and protection of ancient cultural treasures ceases once they have been restituted. A shaming case in point concerns the Lydian Hoard, a collection of 219 Hellenic gold and silver pieces smuggled from Turkey and acquired in the 1970s by the Metropolitan Museum. The Turks boldly sued the Met in 1987, and the case was strong enough to win back the treasures five years later in a negotiated settlement—an outcome that Turkey hailed as a national victory. But once returned, as Waxman relates, the long-sought hoard was negligently exhibited and its prize object, a golden hippocampus, was stolen from its case in a provincial museum in Usak and a crude counterfeit substituted in its place. Thieves had bribed the Museum’s directors and 6 staff members who had then gotten sentenced from 6 to 12 years to jail just recently in February 2009. Out of Turkey’s 93 government-operated museums, only 78 have electronic security systems, and many of them defective. In 2007, Turkey devoted merely 66 million dollars to operate all of these museums and their staffs, plus 140 state-managed archaeological sites—a paltry two-tenths of 1 percent of the national budget (Myer, 2008).  But really, can’t Turkey yet grasp the potential to protect their museums? Although there hadn’t been any incidents in the last 15 years, many still wonder this.

Interestingly, western historians and art museum researchers like Shaw and Waxman have always forgotten and underestimated the highest of the multi cultural and societal civilizations of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman dynasty was from one of the longest lasting dynasties in the world – 623 years. In addition, the Ottoman Sultans had been the Caliphs of the Islamic world for 407 years, and from 1516, when Selim Khan obtained the title, to 1924, this dignity was abrogated. The Ottoman Empire burst onto the stage at the beginning of the 14th century from a tiny emirate in northwest Anatolia to eventually becoming a tremendous empire that had endured under the leadership of a single royal dynasty. At the height of its power, it reigned over millions of subjects, commanding an area that stretched completely from Tunis in the west to Iran in the east, and from Poland in the north to Yemen in the south. After the French Revaluation, Mahmud II succeeded in reforming the Ottoman Administrative Organization of 400 years, which would be completed after the Tanzimat (Reforms). However, this reformation was merely made of useless imitation of Europe that was no farther than formality. The majority of the reforms pertained to the central organization of the Ottoman State. Mahmud II had then felt himself stronger after he had abrogated the Janissary Corps in 1241 – 1826. As a matter of fact, if “radical reforms had been fulfilled and no deeds had been committed against their people’s beliefs, people would not only have supported the reforms, but also not applauded Ibrahim Pasha, the Son of Kavalalı, on his arrival in Kutahya. Briefly, the Ottoman State renounced its own walk but failed to learn the walk of others during the time of Mahmud II” (Akgunduz, 1988).

By the late nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had become “the Sick Man of Europe,” and the great powers of the day busied themselves with annexing territories on the periphery of the crumbling state and securing privileges for their nationals within its interior. In addition to military pressure and commercial exploitation, one of the means “employed by the Europeans to penetrate the Sultan’s realm was archaeology. Beginning with Ionia with Greco-Roman sites and continuing with the ancient Mesopotamian cities of Assur and Babylon, the British, French, and especially German archaeologists had harvested antiquities for the museums of their capitals, where the artifacts were displayed as products of cultural ancestries to the “Western Civilization.” Thus, there were staked a symbolic European claim to the greater portion of Ottoman lands, a claim that was to be realized–albeit abortively–in the Treaty of Sevres following the First World War” (Beck, 2004).

Orientalists have never understood correctly that Ottoman art reflects the political history of the empire. Initially it continued the tradition of classic Islamic art that, at its finest in the period of Suleiman the Magnificent, achieved remarkable feats of architecture and decoration highlighting the power of the empire and the great extent of its wealth during the 15th and 16th centuries. But in its decline, in later centuries, it fell back on its former achievements and lost its individual character and in its period of decadence adopted French rococo and baroque styles. The Ottomans have influenced more than 35 other countries’ cultures, arts, artifacts and histories today. For example, in the late 1996’s, a memorable exhibition was mounted at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. This exhibition, entitled the “Empire of the Sultans,” displayed over 200 works of Ottoman art collected by Dr. Nasser David Khalili. Khalili, who resides in London and holds the title “Worthy of Jerusalem,” has amassed a unique collection of no less than 20,000 items of Ottoman art. As a recognized expert in the field, his doctorate was written on the “Art of Islamic Lacquering.” Khalili started his collection in the mid 1970s and in parallel to the process of acquisition; he ensured that the items were properly catalogued. The catalogue itself will be a major publishing venture that will probably comprise 30 volumes now (Shai, 1999).

Recent studies and critiques of collecting and museums have underlined the abuses that arise from what Marchand neatly calls “proceeding from words to things” (Marchand, 1996- p.192); which was the demand for acquisition that drew archaeology into the corruptions of imperialism, and it’s now ever clearer that our hands are not yet clean. Marchand has given us a detailed and valuable study that will promote discussion among archaeologists and open channels to historians outside the field. One of the most difficult questions facing us is how to come to terms with the history of discipline. In Marchand’s account of rise and decline, the negative aspects of the fully developed professionalization and institutionalization of the classicals are also extended to intellectual content; the happy days of the Hyperborean are frequently contrasted to the deadly reign of the specialists. This criticism is in line with other current condemnations of positivist scholarship. “Yet any sustained attempt to work with the body of older scholarship is likely to make it clear that there are advantages in having a usable documentary basis for classical studies” (Marchand, 1996).

I agree with Marchand, and as an example, Khalili’s collection shows that towards the end of the 18th century, Italian and French influences were assimilated into Ottoman art, producing Turkish rococo designs, which were mainly realistic spirals of leaves and baskets full of roses intertwined with looped stems. The unquenchable love of the Ottomans for decoration has found expression in illustration, bookbinding and calligraphy. In Islam, calligraphy was considered the loftiest art form due to the religious injunction against figurative art. The best practitioners in the field were awarded great honor because of their skills in copying the divine words, while the very top calligraphers were selected to serve as private calligraphy tutors to the sultans themselves. Calligraphers were considered as such important artists since their biographies have become the source of legends. Ironically, Turkey had lost these cultures when passed through to modern museum areas and the new western civilization’s life style. By far, the most interesting individual discussed by Shaw is Osman Hamdi (1842-1910), who was the director of the Imperial Museum and the official in charge of dealing with European archaeologists. Educated in France as an accomplished painter in the Orientalist manner, Osman Hamdi was responsible for the reorganization and display of the Sultan’s collections. Islamic objects were only an afterthought in his projects, and contemporary paintings and sculptures were not collected at all in his time, but the major antiquate museums of Istanbul, as we know them today, were largely the creation of Osman Hamdi. He enjoyed less success, however, in his efforts to restrict the export of antiquities, largely because his concerns were trumped by political considerations when Abdulhamid II sought to secure the friendship of a European state, particularly that of Germany (Shaw, 2000).

As an art historian, Shaw had devoted considerable attention to Osman Hamdi’s paintings, many of which are reproduced here, alas only in black and white. She convincingly demonstrated parallels between the themes of Osman Hamdi’s art and the issues with which he had struggled as a bureaucrat. She also shows how he subverts the conventions of Orientalist paintings (Shaw, 2003- p. 103-5), “using them to express his pride and self-respect as an Ottoman man” (Beck, 2004).

“In 1915, the Commission for Examination of Antiquities (Tedkik-i Asar-i Atika Encümeni) became charged with the investigation of the works of the “Turkish civilization, Islam, and knowledge of the nation” and with the publication of its findings. In the same year, the commission for the protection of antiquities (Muhafaza-i Asar-e Atika Encümeni) was organized in order to supervise the national adherence to the fifth section of the antiquities law, which listed all the mobile and immobile objects to which the law had applied. Among their most important activities, they issued a report concerning the state of the Topkapi Palace in which, for the first time, Ottoman antiquities had become extensively and explicitly identified with the preservation of a national heritage, and the preservation of objects had become explicitly linked to the memory of national history” (Shaw, 2000).

Shaw had said, “Every nation,” that the commission had declared, “makes the necessary provisions for the preservation of its fine arts and monuments and thus preserves the endless virtues of its ancestors as a lesson in civilization for its descendants.” The Topkapi Palace was identified as uniquely important since it was the only site where nonpublic and nonreligious architectural examples had been preserved for several centuries. The commission casts the preservation of buildings as equivalent to the preservation of four hundred years of Ottoman history, which contained the tile work, decoration, and architectural details that constituted “a national art history”(Shaw, 2000).

The Topkapi Museum is important because, for the first time, Ottoman antiquities were designated solely in national, rather than religious, terms. The continued interest of the government in Ottoman antiquities during the war and their increasing recasting of them as Ottomans and nationality, rather than Islamic, suggests that the value associated within these objects had acquired a thoroughly nationalist flavor. The official collection of Islamic artwork signified the rise of patriotic self-awareness in the face of imperial dissolution, reflecting new reactions to emergent nationalisms in the former empire, and also foreshadowing secular notions of Islam, which would develop fully under the Turkish Republic. “Over the course of thirty years, the Ottoman government developed a collection of Islamic antiquities from two disparate and opposed paths. On one hand, the museum divested objects originally used in Islamic practice of their religious import through the secularizing processes of museum collection, display, and aesthetic examination. On the other, objects that had originally been part of the political sphere of the Ottoman dynasty came to be honored under the rubric of the religious sphere. Both processes supported production of an Ottoman national identity through the conflation of the Ottoman with the Islamic, of the political with the devotional” (Shaw, 2000).

The Topkapı Palace was the official and primary residence in the city of the Ottoman Sultans, from 1465 to 1853,until it became the home to all of the Ottoman sultans before the reign of Abdulmecid I (1839-1860), which was a period of nearly four centuries. Mehmed II gave the order for the construction of the Topkapi Palace, on Seraglio Point, over looking both at Marmara and Bosphorus after the conquest of the Constantinapolis in 1453. The place was then an ancient olive grove, and the final form of the first palace had covered an area of 700m², and was enclosed with fortified walls 1400 meters in length. The main sections of the museum were: Harem, the place attire, garments, the Imperial Treasury, and Books – which were Maps and Calligraphic Documents, Miniatures from the Topkapi Museum, Portraits of the Sultans, Clocks, the Chambers of the Sacred Relics, Porcelains in the Topkapi, Guns and Armory, and various sections of the Topkapi (Aydin, 1997).

The palace was a setting for state occasions and royal entertainments, and is a major tourist attraction today. The palace is complex and elaborate, and has hundreds of rooms and chambers, but only the most important ones are accessible to the public. This complex monument is guarded by officials of the ministry as well as armed guad of the Turkish military. The palace is full of examples of Ottoman architecture and also contains large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, shields, armor, Ottoman miniatures, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts and murals, as well as a display of Ottoman treasures and jewelry.

Sacred relics are a feature of many cultures and religions, but have perhaps been the most prominent in all of Christianity. Among the early Christians, it was believed that the souls of their saints had remained close to their tombs, and so, their possessions were preserved there. During Mohammed’s lifetime, his followers had collected keepsakes. With following his death, the desire for such objects, which were regarded as sacred, became even keener. There were those who declared that they would rather possess a hair from the Prophet’s head or beard than the entire world. When the controversy over the caliphate broke out, the Omayyads wished to possess some of the relics of Mohammed so as to gain public support, and Muaviye purchased the Prophet’s mantle for twenty thousand drachmas. This mantle was to become one of the most venerated symbols of the caliphate, and following the death of Muaviye, was passed down from caliph to caliph, who wore it on feast days. Following the collapse of the Omayyads, the first Abbasid caliph, Ebu’l-Abbas Seffah, then purchased the mantle (Aydin, 2000).

Within the conversion of the Turkic peoples, Islam had expanded over a wide area, and when the caliphate passed to the Ottoman dynasty in 1517, Istanbul, and in it’s origin the Islam Bol (meaning too many believers), became both the religious and political hub of the Islamic world. Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) inaugurated a new ceremony at the Topkapı Palace after he had conquered Egypt in 1517 and brought the holy relics back to the Topkapı Palace. From then on, every year on the fıfteenth day of the month of Ramadan, the long sleeved mantle belonging to the Prophet Mohammed was removed from its chest and reverently kissed by the sultan, his ministers, and other dignitaries. In preparation for this event, the chest containing the holy relics was removed to the Revan Pavilion, while the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle was cleaned thoroughly with its walls washed with rose water, its columns polished, and the air scented with incense made from musk, aloes and other aromatics. Then, the fifteen royal attendants while reciting prayers carried the chest back to its place (Aydin, 2002).

The Ottoman sultans had held all holy relics with respect, not only those associated with the history of Islam and fastidiously preserved them all for posterity. Following the conquest of Istanbul, Mehmed II ( 1451-1481) proclaimed that all the religious communities of the city were free to follow their own faith. The hand and fragments from the skull of John the Baptist was kept in reliquaries in the Treasury and were known to have first been brought to the Topkapı Palace during the reign of this sultan. During the inventory of the relics carried out in 1924 after the palace became a museum, these were recorded as being amongst the other holy relics. John the Baptist was the cousin of the Virgin, Mary, and the son of Zachariah. He believed that Christ was the Messiah whose coming was prophesied in the Old Testament, and he had then spread his teachings. He baptized Christ and many others in the River Jordan. He had earlier lived alone in the desert so as to be closer to God, eating only locusts to keep him alive. Herod beheaded him for denouncing his marriage with the wife of his half brother. Among the exhibits in the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle are many other relics attributed to Biblical prophets, including the scepter of Moses, the saucepan of Abraham, the sword of David, and a wooden panel carved in relief with the Temple of Solomon and an inscription in Hebrew (Aydin, 2000).

The Ottoman sultans traditionally sent precious gifts to Mecca and Medina every year, as did other prominent figures from parts of the Islamic world, and in this way the number of holy relics had expanded over the centuries. In all the collection of holy relics at Topkapı Palace, today the numbers are 765. During the reign of Mahmud II (1808-1839), these relics were kept at the palace and were placed in the Hasoda under the care of forty palace officers. The relics at Topkapı Palace for the most part were brought here between the early 16th and 20th centuries, with a notable spate during the 19th century due largely to the spread in Arabia of the Wahhabi sect, which denounced the idea of material objects being endowed with sanctity. The relics were therefore taken to Istanbul to be protected from destruction at the hands of the Wahhabis, who had demolished the tomb of Hussein and in 1803 occupied and razed the city of Mecca. The Ottoman Empire had been protecting these arts from horrible art-killing radicals.

During the First World War, a decision was made to evacuate the cities of Makka and Madina. To prevent any damage or loss, the gifts, which has been sent from Istanbul to Makka for centuries, as well as some of Sacred Relics, were brought to the Topkapi Palace. Fahraddin Pasha, the commanding general in Hijaz, consulted with Ziver, alongside the Sheikh al- Haram, to make sure that there were no religious objections relating with transferring them to Istanbul. Today, these items are kept in the Treasury Section of the Topkapi Palace and Museum and include diamonds, ornamented, candlesticks, hanging decorations, fans, prayer beds, rare manuscripts, and manuscript copies of the Qur’an (Aydin, 2004). In the Arzhane, where the sultan had used to receive official writs, it can today be seen as the golden case of Hacer-ül-Esved, and the letter sent by Muhammed to Mukavkıs, the ruler of the Copts, was another footprint of the Prophet, his seal, caskets containing soil from his tomb, a fragment (now reduced to dust) of his tooth, and hair from his beard (Aydin, 2002).

In conclusion, “much of the work that has been done to this day on archaeology in the Ottoman Empire has relied almost exclusively on western documentation, emanating from European archaeologists, scholars, travelers, diplomats, and statesmen” (Edhem, 2004). During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the growing interest in antiquities, their archaeological recovery, and their collection and preservation in museums expanded from Europe to regions in its sphere of influence. The evolution of the museums also seems to reflect developments within society, as Shaw had discussed. Shaw’s presentation and interpretations are grouped around the evolution of the Ottoman state museums and the successively stricter Antiquities Laws of 1874, 1884, and 1906. In the “Possessors and Possessed”, Wendy Shaw tells the story of a minor aspect of these reforms–the creation of the museums of Istanbul. This also entails the discussion of Anatolian and Mesopotamian archaeology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from the Ottoman perspective (Shaw, 2003- p. 70, 94). Beginning with a small, chaotic collection of antiquated weapons housed in Basilica of Hagia Irene, by 1908, the imperial collections had grown substantially and had been fully accommodated in the so-called Sarcophagus Museum and Tiled Pavilion, which are today the quarters of the Archaeological Museum at Seraglio Point. Organized along the same didactic principles as the museums of Europe, and representing civilizations from the Sumerians to the Greeks, the holdings of the Imperial Museum spanned the pre-Islamic history of the Empire. As Shaw puts it, “[by] adopting the former peoples of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans usurped the European claim on the Hellenistic heritage” (Shaw, 2003- p. 112). Many cultural identities had been lost because “Loot” was bound to be both embarrassing and controversial. The nature and meaning of “cultural patrimony” is currently in flux but clearly will never be the same, because museums, and those who deal in antiquities are fundamentally redefining their regulations and practices. During the past few years, almost all of the major players have become far more circumspect about acquisitions, catalogs, and labels. That’s why centuries ago, the Ottoman Imperial have given orders and information about the nature of this awareness and had shown the responses of the court to such approaches. Official laws and regulations concerning archeological excavations, conservations, and preservations of cultural heritage were implemented after the 1870’s and the artifacts and findings had then been sent to Istanbul. These objects had come from legal foreign excavations such as Samarra, and confiscations after illegal digging in various parts of the empire or systematic compilations were from old monuments. When such materials had arrived at the Imperial Museum, they were cataloged with provenance information. The most important institution of the Topkapı Palace had become a museum in 1924, and the holy relics were placed in public view on the 31st of August 1962. The Ottoman Empire had left an exceedingly rich cultural and artistic legacy, education, military, and art. Thousands of people from the far corners of the Empire of many different ethnic backgrounds and religions had lived and worked there, creating a culturally dynamic atmosphere. The Palace employed the most talented artists and craftsmen, who had contributed diverse aesthetic styles and materials and had created Ottoman imperial objects of the highest quality. The immense wealth of the Ottoman Sultans, and their dedicated patronage of art, had allowed for the development and flourishing of an innovative Ottoman aesthetic style that had reflected the cultural vitality of the Empire as well as to their first public museum. Turkey had tried to keep and protect it’s own heritage with advanced technology including ancient objects just recently. History and museum making had then become part of a modern notion of heritage at a moment of transition from imperial to Turkish national identity as a secular, social and democratic country. If it would seem that such a view had been justified before, many objects couldn’t have been stolen in the last 125 years and today as the present. Looting isn’t acceptable in any case, and debaters should find another reason to argue for smuggled or stolen cultural artifacts from Turkey and other countries. Every National Museum must recover stolen objects from the other country’s museum in order to awake their own heritage and culture, and keep their copyrights. Modern Universal Museums could have a copy of those objects from there with reproduction permitting rather than looting, and tell to visitors how that display got here as matter of ethics.

 

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