My sister came for her first visit to Turkey this spring. An early morning ferry ride across the Bosphorus, a tram ride up the hill to Sultanahmet and we were near the front of the line for tickets to the Topkapi Palace. To view the Harem of the palace it requires purchasing a separate ticket within the Palace grounds. At the main ticket office it indicated that the Palace opened at 9 a.m. and the Harem opened at 9:30 a.m. On passing into the inner courtyard we went directly to purchase our tickets for the Harem and to our surprise they waved us through into the Harem. What a unique experience! I had never been in those rooms without swarms of others and we had the place to ourselves with perhaps half a dozen others who were lucky enough to stumble upon an early entrance.
The Topkapi Palace hosts collections that are vast and diverse – textiles, weapons, the treasury, and religious artifacts plus the kitchen complex with an extensive collection of porcelain, but for me the most interest are the 16th and 17th Iznik and Kutahya tiles that adorn the walls of the Harem. Many other sites in Istanbul, from mosques to museums, offer exposure to this form of art but somehow both the scale and intimacy of the rooms, corridors and courtyards of the Harem are the perfect showcase for these tiles.
As a woman viewing these spaces of course one’s mind goes to the women who lived in the Harem and their lives within these ornately decorated walls. I was in Istanbul with a woman of my age who was telling me that her grandmother had taught French to the women of the Harem at the turn of the last century. It put the timing in perspective for me that a peer of mine can remember as a child hearing stories that her grandmother told her of having been picked up in Beyolou by the Palace carriage and being brought to the Palace to educate the women of the Harem.
The Harem tiles are from Iznik (ancient Nicea), Kutahya and some Imperial Workshops that operated in Constantinople in the 16th c. Floral motifs known as ‘quatre fleur’: tulips, carnations, roses and hyacinths abound. There is calligraphy worked on the tiles and a transference of motifs that would be commonly found woven into carpets and textiles of the period.
The magnitude of the tile panels and their proximity to each other combined with highly decorated domes and ornately carved and inlaid cupboards all give reference to the fact that ‘too much’ was never ‘too much’ for the Ottomans. For me the visual stimulation from the densely presented finishes is deeply pleasing with the profusion of motifs with the tiles stealing the show in their combined splendour.
My photos are mainly closeups and few shots of the rooms as a whole. It takes a huge effort for me to shift my focus from the design details to the overall effect.
There is a publication by Edda Renker Weissenbacher – A Self Guide to Iznik Tiles in Istanbul for any of you who may be in Istanbul and are interested in taking a self directed ’tile tour’. Beyond the Harem of the Topkapi Palace, I strongly recommend a visit to the Tiled Kiosk Museum on the grounds of the Istanbul Archeological Museum. The facade of the building is dynamically tiled and the exhibits feature some wonderful Seljuk and Ottoman examples of tiles and porcelain.