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The Turkic people's 'Journey of a Thousand Years'

LONDON: At the height of its military power in the 16th century, Sulyman I, named "the Magnificent" by Europeans, extended the Ottoman Empire into Hungary, Albania, Transylvania and Moldavia, captured Rhodes and Tunis, and even reached the gates of Vienna. At the same time, art and architecture flourished and developed a distinctive Ottoman style that was different from contemporary Islamic empires in Iran and India.

The historical and cultural influence exerted by the Ottoman Empire over the whole of the eastern Mediterranean is commonly recognized in Lebanon, and is currently being celebrated at London's Royal Academy of Arts. While today we may marvel at the fact that a Muslim empire was respected, admired and feared by Christian Europe, the exhibition "Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600-1600" shows us just how it reached this peak.

In this exhibition, in fact, the Ottoman Empire appears only as the final stage of an entire millennium in which various Turkic peoples held power in Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Wandering through the 11 large exhibition rooms, we can only stare in amazement at the displayed artifacts, which reveal the breadth and diversity of cultures that intermingled with a variety of Turkic dynasties throughout the period.

In room after room of exotic and familiar objects, from stones bearing Runic script to intricately woven rugs and finely wrought metalwork and painted ceramics, it is hard to say whether one can legitimately group together the artistry of all these different peoples, from so many cultures and ethnicities, and in a vast geographic space over such an extensive period of time, and attribute them to a single race, identified as the "Turks." And indeed, the exhibition distinguishes between several different peoples.

It tells us that the Turks were nomads who first rose to power in Mongolia and the Altai in the sixth century, and who were considered to be barbarians by the Chinese, their trading partners. There soon emerged the Turkic empires of the Khazars (650-965), based in the area north of the Aral Sea to the Ukrainian Steppes, and the Uighurs (744-840) in Inner Asia.

Over the next millennium, the Turks adapted to their environment and encountered neighboring peoples across an enormous region stretching from western China to the Balkans. When the early empires fell, Turkic tribes migrated into Central Asia, Iran and Turkey. Some became slave soldiers in the Islamic empires of Baghdad and Cairo, but after 1000, the Turks defeated native Persian and Arab rulers and became powerful participators in diverse, polycultural societies.

The exhibition centers on periods and areas in which the Turks were prominent. It begins with their early adaptation to settled life along the Silk Road, the only trading route between China and the west, in what is now the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The Silk Road passed through the territories of various peoples: Parthanians of Iran, Soghdians, Turks, Indians, Chinese, Tibetans. Diverse religions rubbed shoulders: Christianity (mainly Nestorian, from fifth-century Constantinople), Manichaism (a Middle Eastern religion based on light and darkness), Mazdaism (a local form of Zoroastrianism) and paganism.

This is evident on gravestones from Semirechye and Kyrgystan, on which we can make out a fascinating combination of symbols, including a Nestorian Christian cross and a Buddhist lotus flower that represents enlightenment. Other displays include a pagan statue of a female figure, wall paintings from Buddhist temples, wooden vessels painted with lines and animals reminiscent of Chinese textiles and artifacts with representations of Christianity and Turkic folk beliefs.

As the Turks moved west to Central Asia, they began to adopt Islam. There were several dynasties, including the Ghaznavids (976-1186) of Afghanistan and northern India, the Qarakhanids (992-1212) of Central Asia, the Great Seljuks of Iran (985-1194), and the Anatolian or Rum Seljuks (1085-1200s), who were finally overrun by the Mongols. The galleries reveal the vibrant court culture of the Great Seljuks, its great palaces and brilliant ceramics, metalwork and books, and a masterpiece of weaving - the 13 th-century carpet from the mosque built for Sultan Aala-Eddin in Konya.

But among some of the most unique and mysterious artistic treasures are the paintings attributed to Mohammed Siyah Qalam (Mohammed of the Black Pen), exhibited for the first time outside the Topkapi Saray Library in Istanbul. With starkly outlined, deep-colored figures and calligraphic writing, these paintings represent Turkic nomadic life in the steppes of Central Asia. They feature delightful and intriguing images of mystic Sufi dervishes, Buddhist monks, demons wrestling, dancing and being mischievous, and Turkic nomads in campsites, going about their daily lives.

From the late 1300s to the early 1500s, as Genghis Khan's Mongolian empire collapsed, some Mongols were absorbed into local Turkic tribes (many of whom had come to Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia as Mongol troop contingents). Eventually, Timur (Tamerlane in the West), emerged from the splintering empires, and took power in Iran, Afghanistan and in Azerbaijan.

The architecture and arts of Timur's era show his desire to assert legitimacy in the eyes of diverse peoples, such as the Persians and Turko-Mongols. While there are some impressive examples of histories celebrating Timur's military exploits, including the vividly detailed illustrated Book of Conquests by Sharaf al Din Ali Yazdi, the Timuric period was also hugely influential in the arts: a nine-foot-long architectural stroll, for instance, contains 114 complex Islamic decorative patterns and inscriptions for builders and craftsmen, which helped to disseminate a unified Tumeric aesthetic and style throughout the empire.

One of the principalities formed after the Mongol defeat of the Anatolian Seljuks in the 13th century was ruled by Osman. His gradual dominance over the others led to the Ottoman dynasty which expanded and, under Murad I, came to control Anatolia, the Byzantine lands and the Balkan peninsula. Mehmed II captured Constantinople in 1453, and the city came to be populated by Muslims, Christians and Jews. Ottoman society was multi-ethnic, and under Mehmed II both European and Islamic traditions merged in art and literature, exemplified by the exhibited books in Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin and Ottoman Turkish, and by portraits of the Sultan by the Venetian painter Gentile Bellini. But the wonderful Ottoman Iznic ceramics, with their vivid greens, blues and purples, also reveal the continued Chinese influence on the Turks, with their flowing floral designs, and the lotuses and rosettes in particular.

The Ottomans continued to expand or consolidate their territory in wars with the Mamluks of Egypt, the Syrians, and the Safavids of Iran, and there were raids on Venetian and Hungarian lands. The galleries display some ornate examples of Ottoman armor, such as Suleyman the Magnificent's sword - its blade is decorated with golden calligraphy, and its hilt inlaid with ivory and encrusted with turquoises and rubies. Ottoman opulence and artistry is apparent in the rich silk brocade kaftans belonging to the sultans, and in the fine porcelain, detailed illustrated manuscripts, and intricate, skilled calligraphy. The exhibition has even gathered examples of work by Sinan (1489-1588), the chief architect of the Ottoman golden age, including the carved walnut doors of Murad III's pavilion.

This exhibition covers such diverse peoples and such a vast geographical space that it becomes debatable whether it is actually valuable to categorize them all under the single identity of "Turks." Turkic tribes were influenced and changed by local circumstances, by migrations over large areas and encounters with an enormous array of other peoples, so it is difficult to affirm an essential "Turkishness" that covers all the dynasties and empires, from the Nomadic Uighurs and their ancient Runic script and Chinese inheritance, to the Great Seljuks of Persia and the Artuqids of Medieval Anatolia, to the Timurids and Turkmen, and finally the Ottomans.

We cannot really assert that these peoples were all "Turks" in our modern sense of ethnic identity. The thousand years covered in this exhibition and the arts and artifacts it displays reveal that the Turks were, really, a people who merged with, adapted to and simply became other people. It is perhaps better to think of "Turks" as an exhibition about cultural transmission, cross-cultural encounters, and the ways in which related tribes can emerge and re-emerge through history with very different but sometimes overlapping cultural identities. This is undoubtedly an impressive collection of beautiful and surprising treasures, gathered together from museums around the world, including the State Hermitage Museum of St Petersburg, the Staatliche Museum in Berlin, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the British Museum in London. It is, at the very least, a feast for the senses, and can only inspire wonder at old worlds and civilizations.

"Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600-1600" is on view at London's Royal Academy of Arts through April 12. For more info, call +44 20 7300 8000 or check out www.turks.org.uk.

 

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