Nurhan Atasoy, the grand dame of Ottoman history and chronicler of its artistic wonders, may well spark another revolution with her new work, Impressions of Ottoman Culture in Europe: 1453–1699. Meticulously researched and adorned with lavish illustrations, the book documents the seminal influence of Ottoman visual tastes on the Western mind during the centuries of Ottoman expansion. One only has to think of how well the world recognizes the Roman or British or Chinese empires’ signature aesthetics to realize what a lacuna she has addressed: the cultural impact of a vast empire at the world’s center in a critical era as the Renaissance brewed across its borders. Co-authored with fellow Turk and Islamic art expert Lale Uluç, the book’s publication at this juncture shows that Atasoy has kept her impeccable sense of timing. Turkey is everywhere in the headlines, and the question “whither Turkey—East or West” preoccupies much of the globe.
Absurd though it may sound to claim that a coffee-table book can spur any kind of cultural revolution, Atasoy’s first such effort, Iznik, did just that when the English version came out in 1989. A definitive study of the finest Ottoman ceramics, the book was as large and dazzling as its subject. Under the Sultans’ patronage, the town of Iznik (ancient Nicea) produced its uniquely luminous pottery between 1480 and 1650. From there came the famous tile work in the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi harem, along with fabulously ornate mosque lamps, dishes, ewers, jugs, mugs, and the like.
At the time of publication, most Turks knew about the topic, as did some foreign experts—and virtually no one else. Any Turk who grew up abroad—as I did—remembers that, in those days, Turkish carpets and Turkish delight were virtually the only salient cultural facts known about the country. Atasoy’s study, co-authored with renowned art historian Julian Raby, changed all that. To this day you can find the book in virtually every relevant museum bookshop worldwide and in most regular bookshops with a sizable décor section. In Turkey, Atasoy is a rare public figure whose work is admired by both secular and Islamic tendencies.
The revolution she sparked went a lot deeper than popularizing a neglected genre of pottery. She triggered a renewed pride in Turks for their unappreciated cultural past. There’s a clue to it in Iznik where she explains why so few examples of the finest pieces remain extant: the Sultans loved their homegrown wares but didn’t value them as precious artworks. They tossed them away profligately while they jealously preserved the imported Chinese variety—which, they felt, the rest of the world valued more. That attitude, a species of cultural inferiority complex, increased as the Ottomans declined and then as Mustafa Kemal’s republic faced stolidly westward, putting the past behind it. That grand imperial past was one that neither former Ottoman colonies nor Soviet Russia nor the West felt inclined to commemorate. Isolated by the Cold War, their former glories marginalized, Turks brooded over their history in solitude.
As Iznik went global, it pointed a way out of the cultural ghetto, and Turks began to feel some reflected confidence in their heritage: here, finally, was some recognition of their cultural contributions. “It was a lucky moment in some ways,” says Atasoy. “The Eastern bloc was crumbling and everyone was looking over border walls and reclaiming their past in new ways. The Ottoman imprint, from Europe to India, the patterns, the design sense, the architecture, lay in everyone’s historical consciousness, just below the surface. They just hadn’t focused on it. It was politically incorrect in many countries for a long time. Suddenly, you could feel the world growing more curious about Turkey.”
Now comes her new book, at a time when millions of tourists are exposed to Istanbul’s silhouettes, as exported Turkish soap operas show glimpses of a national aesthetic, and as designers like Rifat Ozbek and Hussein Chalayan have made their mark. “One can feel that the curiosity is at a critical mass,” says Atasoy, “about who Turks are, their deeper identity, their consciousness. The clues were always out there and my new book tries to identify them. I remember traveling around for the Iznik book and detecting enduring traces of Turkish taste everywhere abroad. People used to think I was exaggerating; fanatically seeing things that weren’t there. So I decided to document it.”
The new book is divided into sections on textiles, ceremonial robes, decorative motifs, campaign tents, images on coins and paintings, horse and armor ornaments, and the like. One learns that “when Italian dukes sent a delegation to Saxony in 1587 their gifts included not only Ottoman artifacts but also Italian ones emulating Ottoman models.” On the anniversary of a 1710 royal wedding in Dresden, the honor guard were Saxon janissaries who emulated Ottoman ceremonials. The czars of Russia used Turkish-made velvet robes as court gifts or gifts to churches where the priests usually wore Ottoman “cloth of gold” cloaks. Coaches were lined with velvets; patriarch thrones and royal tables covered with silks; from Poland to Thrace embroidered handkerchiefs served as gifts—all made in Turkey or copied from Turkey. A French hussar commented in 1664 that “the Hungarians dress in almost exactly the same way as Turks, only they do not wear turbans.” Everywhere, royal garments displayed Ottoman patterns. Carpets too were ever underfoot or in the background for paintings of kings and coronations or lying-in-state scenarios. Protestant churches loved carpet décor because they tilted against icons. In short, Turkish taste furnished the visual theater of elevated European life for several centuries.
“I chose the years up to 1699, which mark the apogee of power because once decay set in, the appreciation abroad turned to caricature and ultimately parody,” says Atasoy. “That’s when Orientalism was born. This project took me six years and travel to 14 countries, but in reality it’s the accretion of a lifetime’s research across some 22 countries. I began in the Cold War years, visiting snowbound monasteries, churches, tombs, far-flung provincial museums, which meant that as communism collapsed I often went without heat and food in places like Moldavia and Transylvania.”
“People think I’m a bit eccentric,” says Atasoy, who has remained unmarried and, at age 78, is sturdy and sprightly. “I found that men were not eccentric enough for me—they wouldn’t understand what drove me. But it was all worth it. In a way, with this book, I completed my calling.”