Superlative catalogue of the great and magnificent

March 11, 2005

Alan Jones follows Turkic tribes on their westward odyssey and finds his beautiful guide invaluable if a little cumbersome

The Royal Academy of Arts is to be congratulated on housing this magnificent exhibition. See it if you can. It is an extraordinary and exhilarating display of artefacts (paintings, manuscripts, calligraphy, textiles, carpets, ceramics, glass, woodwork, metalwork and more) from a period of roughly a thousand years covering the era when nomadic Turkish tribes migrated slowly westwards from their original homelands in southern Siberia and Mongolia through to Anatolia and beyond. The range and quality of the artefacts disarm criticism. Even so, I regret the absence of the Piri Reis map of 1513, with the Americas on its western horizon - the article from Istanbul that I would most like to own. But I would happily make do with the wonderful Koran with an interlinear Turkish translation or the painting attributed to Muhammad Siyah Qalam or even a fragment of carpet.

The exhibition is one of the more welcome by-products of the negotiations about Turkey becoming a member of the European Union. Not only is the first foreword in its catalogue by the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoygan, but the two key organising committees (listed at the front of the catalogue) are composed entirely of Turkish luminaries from the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, headed by the Foreign Minister himself. We should be grateful to them, for it is undoubtedly they who have arranged for the release of the artefacts from the Topkapu Sarayu Museum and the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, both in Istanbul, that make up the bulk of the exhibition. One may also assume that they have helped to secure the loan of some valuable items from non-Turkish collections.

There are some minor irritations, but they detract little from the basic enjoyment of the exhibition. You need a torch to read the item labels, for example. Another sign of the pressures of time under which the Royal Academy has had to mount the exhibition is that copies of the catalogue, the paperback version of which weighs in at 2.7kg, come with a 24-page errata booklet. It is to this that we turn to find the two pages on chronology that should have been pages 38-39 of the main text.

Presumably it was the result of another decision made in Turkey that the artefacts have been put in the context of the great Turkish migrations. One can see the reasons for this, but it has generated enormous pressure on those responsible for the catalogue. Vast amounts of historical, anthropological, religious and cultural background material have had to be quickly distilled. There was a similar problem with the huge geographical area involved, from the western borders of China to Vienna, but this has been neatly solved by a series of well-designed maps.

The catalogue starts with an introductory sketch of the history of the Turks to 1600 by Peter Golden. I find this a difficult piece to read. It moves rapidly from fact to fact (or, more often, guess to guess), occasionally becoming delphic as it does so, for example: "The early Turkic peoples were, most probably, represented by the Mongoloid population in the central eastern zone of Mongolia and adjoining areas of Siberia." Most disappointing are the paragraphs on the rise of the Ottoman state, where some tendentious views on the motives that drove the Ottomans are quoted with apparent approval. They would have been much better omitted as unproven, or counterbalanced by some remarks about the long-lasting importance to the Ottomans of the ghazi (Muslim warrior-raider) ethos.

Mention should also have been made of the importance of Bursa as capital of the nascent Ottoman state from 1326 to 1402.

By contrast, Peter Zieme's piece on religion is relatively straightforward and enables one to understand how many religious influences the Turkic tribes had absorbed or had been influenced by before most of them became Muslims. After this, I personally would like to have seen the cleverly written piece on the Turkic languages by Osman Sertkaya before the chronology. Instead, it languishes towards the end of the book.

The exhibition itself is covered in two ways, first with six sections that cover topics in depth ("Central Asia 600-1000"; "The Seljuks of Iran and their successors"; "The Seljuks and Artuqids of medieval Anatolia"; "Muhammad of the black pen and his paintings"; "The Timurids and Turkmen"; "The Ottomans from Mehmed II to Murad II..."), and second by a section of catalogue entries, one for each artefact.

This arrangement is well thought out, and the detailed sections benefit from the clever use of photographs to cover points on architecture, landscape and the like. Some may question the inclusion of the section on the Timurids and Turkmen, as Timur was a member of a Mongol tribe, the Barlas, who had only recently become speakers of Chagatay Turkish. However, this is an excellent example of the linguistic and cultural assimilation that was such a feature of the lands on the Silk Road. (The same is true of the Mughals, who unfortunately fall outside the scope of the exhibition.)

Some aspects of the catalogue are disappointing. The first is relatively trivial, but it shows some lack of thought about those likely to visit the exhibition. There is no mention of Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great Part One , with its dramatic capture and death of the Ottoman Sultan Bajazeth (Bayazid I).

Much more regrettable is the treatment of Timur himself in section five. It is taking discretion beyond an acceptable level to make no mention of the horrors associated with him: the piles of skulls built round towns that did not surrender to his armies, and so on. A fact might also have been added that would be of special interest to the writer of the catalogue's second foreword, Tony Blair. There were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in Timur's time; they were the swords of Timur's soldiers.

A serious omission is the lack of discussion about the coexistence of the pictorial and non-pictorial within Islamic art. The majority view of scholars within Islamic communities has always been that the direct representation of animates is not permitted. This view is based on sayings attributed to Muhammad in the Hadith collections - there is nothing on the subject in the Koran itself. Yet room has always been found for some patronage of representational art, beginning with mosaics done in the 7th and early 8th centuries for members of the Umayyad dynasty. Arabic literary manuscripts, too, are not without their illustrations. But it was among the nations more open to outside influences than the Arabs that pictorial art flourished most, and this was particularly true of the Persians and the Turks. There are no better examples of this than the paintings attributed, however apocryphally, to Muhammad Siyah Qalam.

Under the Ottomans, support for pictorialism came from within the ruling family. This is shown quite amazingly in two pages on show here from a sketchbook of the boy who was to become Mehmet the Conqueror. Here, in Mehmet's own hand, are the sketches of four heads. It is hardly surprising that Mehmet should be the first Ottoman to have his portrait painted (by Bellini and by Shiblizade Ahmet). When so many items in the exhibition evince interest in and/or patronage of pictorial art, some background comments on the subject are essential. This would have helped the reader to understand why section two has a section on iconography, and why the pictures in section four are "very different from (those) of traditional Islamic figurative art".

Finally, a few dissenting words about the unstinting praise for Süleyman the Magnificent. He was certainly magnificent, and his reign does mark the zenith of Ottoman rule; but he made a frightful mess of the succession, by ensuring that Selim II "the Sot" came to the throne, and even before this he put an end to the Ottoman practice of annual campaigning. Therein lay the eventual ruin of the empire.

The bibliography is comprehensive, though there are a few omissions. For example, the B ook of Dede Korkut , a remarkable collection of pre-Ottoman folk legends, is mentioned in the historical introduction. There should surely be a corresponding reference to the book's English translation (in 1974) by the doyen of British Turkologists, Geoffrey Lewis.

Is the catalogue a useful adjunct to the exhibition? During a visit, no - it is too bulky. Visitors would be better off with a simpler guide, made up largely of the catalogue entries, that could be used along with the audioguide. But one cannot take in all that is on offer during a single visit. After a time, recollections and questions flood back, and that is when the catalogue, with its excellent photographs, is valuable.

Two final pieces of advice. First, do not book tickets beforehand unless you can be sure of getting there at the time on the ticket. Because of illness, I tried to change the time during which my ticket was valid.

"Unfortunately we have a No Refund/No Exchange Policy" was the reply I eventually received.

Second, go again.

Alan Jones is emeritus professor of classical Arabic, Oxford University.

His translation of the Koran will be published later this year. The exhibition Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600-1600 is at the Royal Academy of Arts until April 12.

Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600-1600

Editor - David J. Roxburgh
Publisher - Royal Academy of Arts
Pages - 496
Price - £50.00 and £.95
ISBN - 1 903973 56 2 and 57 0

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