Saturday, 6 July 2019

Historical Middle East, four: Applied and decorative arts

This is the fourth in a new (third) series of blogposts based on the ME trip I completed in May and early June. The first three posts in this series were on orientalist art, funerary customs, and ritual objects.

For the present post I want to look at those objects that did not have an overtly religious significance. Of course, the boundaries between religion and other parts of life were not as clear for the people who made some of the items that will be shown in this post, as they are for us or even as they were for a European living in the Renaissance, so it is hard to know how to categorise some objects.

This is especially true of the oldest objects shown. The head of Zeus that was included in the previous post, for example, might with equal precision be included in the current post. Same with the Mesopotamian wall reliefs shown in yesterday’s post. Where do you draw the line? Who decides what kind of significance such and such an object had for the people who used it?

I sometimes didn’t know for sure, and in some cases no-one alive today can really be said to know with absolute certainty how an object, made 2000 years before the birth of Christ, was used. In some cases we can only make a stab in the dark. In such cases we must be guided by our instincts and by the imperfect knowledge that we have about the periods in question. But this willingness to make mistakes and to attract criticism from those who might know more than you lies at the heart of modern scholarship. In fact it is this ability to tolerate dissent that sets our civilisation apart from others in the world today and from ones that have prospered in various parts of the world in the past. We must always treasure this pluralist tendency for even though it sometimes ruffles feathers, causes confusion, or creates anxiety, in the end it is the way of the angels.

Having said that, let’s now look at the objects for which there are photos taken during the trip to the ME. I have tried, as in previous posts, to put these objects in order according to their date of manufacture, so we will start with the oldest objects and proceed to look at the more recent ones. If you are interested in any of the objects shown here it might be worth your while doing a search on Google to find out more about them. I have tried to include in what follows words that can be used for that purpose.

Above, from what is now called Turkey in 800BC, is a candelabrum with a lamp stand on top that was probably used in rituals or in a place of worship. This is an object for which it was difficult to find a suitable home in this series of blogoposts. Should it be included in the post about ritual objects? Should it go in the one about decorative and applied arts? You decide. 

For me, it is enough to be able to include this stunning object in one of my posts. There is an outstanding level of artisanship evident in its manufacture and it shows me that, even at the time it  was made, when writing was just starting to be used, the written word was central to the identity of the people who made the piece. For them, the meaning of the words on the object was important to them in a way that is difficult to imagine nowadays.  The label that accompanied the piece unfortunately did not translate the words, so there was no way for me to know what meaning they convey. 

The photo above shows the cuneiform script that was cast into the candelabrum shown in the previous image. The object is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The above photo shows some jewellery from Mesopotamia (the same culture that created the script on the candelabrum in the previous images), that probably date from about 1000BC, but I didn’t note down the estimated dates of manufacture. This photo comes with another one (below) that shows how the ornaments in the display above were worn by people living at the time.

The flower-like buttons in the first photo can be seen worn by a man sitting down on a chair, holding up in his right hand an object that looks like a bowl. The man is shown from the left and he is facing left so that his right arm is furthest from the viewer. On his right and left wrists are bracelets with, attached to them, the flower-shaped ornaments shown in the first image above. The precision used to portray the man and the high degree of detail used to show the ornaments on his arms – detail that also captures the individual curls of his hair – is typical of the pieces that these people made and you can see it in objects included in yesterday’s post as well. The objects shown in the photos above are in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

The above photo shows glass vessels dating from around 100AD. These objects, and the ones in the two photos shown below, are in the museum near the temple of Hercules (the “Citadel”) in Amman, Jordan.

The above photo shows an oil lamp of the kind used by the Romans to illuminate their homes at the time of Christ.

The above photo shows pots and other vessels made of terracotta that were used at the time of Christ.

The stunning carved limestone window frame in the photo above dates from the 8th century AD, in the Umayyad period. It was used in what is referred to as the palace of Hisham (quaser Hisham) which was located near Jericho in what is now Israel (or Palestine, depending on who you talk to) and was probably the private rural residence of a rich landowner. The abstract design of this object is typical of Islamic art generally but there are also floral elements used in the design of the thing.

The three photos above were taken in the Topkapi palace, the sultan’s old home that is located on the south side of the Golden Horn in Istanbul. The main street in the nearby shopping district is named Divan Yolu Street, which means “the way to the divan”. The imperial divan was the council of statesmen associated with the sultan that helped him to hold sway over his empire. The word is Turkish and comes from the Arabic “diwan”.

Construction of the Topkapi Palace started in 1459 and new building added to its extent at various times over the centuries that followed until the residence of the sultan moved to the Dolmabahce Palace in the middle of the 19th century. So it is difficult to know when various elements were made that are visible in the buildings that, along with a large garden that is today well-tended, make up the complex. 

In the last photo shown above, for example, you might think that the design of the wall relief places the building that contains it in the 17th century, although it might have been redecorated at a time different from when the structure that contains it was constructed. Unfortunately there is not an enormous amount of curation and labelling in the palace which, regardless, is now purely used as a tourist destination. In the middle photo above you can see the hybrid Western and Eastern influences especially in the way the blue ceramic tiles and the ornate gold-painted plaster mouldings are combined to decorate the walls of the room shown in the photo. 

As noted above, the middle of the 19th century saw the construction of the Dolmabahce Palace, which will feature in my post, that is still to be written, on civic and commercial buildings. Visitors to this, later, edifice are not allowed to take photos inside any of the buildings in the complex so I could not include any of its interior decorative elements in the post you are currently reading. It is very sumptuous and its decoration owes most of its inspiration to a European style (even emulating the fashionable “Japonisme” common in late-19th century Europe; there is a whole room there decorated with furniture and decorative imported from Japan) whereas the Topkapi palace still retains strong Eastern characteristics.

Faces are painted on these tiles (above) made in Kubachi in the 17th century. The town of Kubachi is now in Russia – officially in the Republic of Dagestan, which is located on the Caspian Sea, near modern-day Iran – but at the time these pieces were made the town was part of Persia. The museum label says the objects are Iranian, but this attribution is ahistorical. These objects are in the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem.

The photo above shows a ceramic plate in a building inside the compound of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum named the Tiled Kiosk, which contains a lot of ceramics. This dish was made in Canakkale and has a tall ship as the design. 

You can see the alternating black and white rectangles on the boat’s hull that represent the gun ports that ships of war that were employed by the military establishments of many countries at the time had along their sides. The guns were staggered like this along the flanks of the vessel, in two or three rows, depending on the type of ship. Each row of guns had a corresponding deck inside where the crew who fired the cannons toiled away, during active service, in difficult conditions. It is a clever design feature that efficiently communicates a lot about the boat that sits at the centre of the plate. Perhaps a dinner guest would have been able to see the warship once all the food had been eaten?

The plate dates from the second half of the 18th century. Canakkale is a town in the Dardanelles that is well-known to many Australians who visit the country each year to commemorate the defeat at Gallipoli of 1914. The town has long been used as a fortress and it is located on the water south of the Sea of Marmara, which is connected to the Bosphorus where Istanbul sits.

The above photo shows a Swiss timepiece made around 1800 for the Turkish market. This object is in the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem, which is slightly confusing, but there is a whole room in the building’s basement filled with clocks dating from earlier centuries. The numbers on the clockface are Arabic ones. In the Ottoman period Arabic script was used to write Turkish, so all the signs that you see in places like the Topkapi Palace that originate from the time of the Ottoman emperor are written in Arabic script, although the writing communicates in the Turkish language. The use of Roman letters for Turkish writing was introduced in the 1920s once the empire had dissolved and foreign soldiers had been expelled from the country that is now known as Turkey. In other Arabic-speaking countries today, such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, banknotes show Arabic numerals on one side of the note while the other side uses Western numerals.

The photo above shows forehead ornaments from Bukhara in Central Asia that date from the 19th century. They are made from gold, pearls, and precious stones. Bukhara is today located in the country of Uzbekistan but for many centuries the town, which sits on the Silk Road, was an important centre of culture for the Samanids, a Sunni Persian dynasty. I am no expert but there is something that seems to be Far Eastern about these pieces of jewellery. They are located in the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem.

The above photo shows jade containers made for the Mughal emperors. These objects are also located in the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem. The items are not specifically otherwise dated but I presume from the quality of their manufacture that they are relatively late compared to most of the other objects shown in this post.

The above photo shows ceramic objects used in coffee house in Istanbul in the late Ottoman period. These objects are located in the Pera Museum in Istanbul.

The decorative feature shown in the photo above is in the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. It shows various emblems of war (including a revolver) and was evidently used as part of the sultan’s political toolkit, to display power to people who saw it as they walked in the palace gardens. The crescent moon shown in the upper part of the design is, of course, the symbol of Islam. 

It is difficult to see how this object might have been used on a day-to-day basis. Possibly foreign guests might have been paraded around the garden by an official and, to make a point, the official might have stopped in front of the thing. Here, in front of this symbolic object, laden with signification, their conversation could have continued. Displays of power were no doubt as important to the Ottomans as the strength of the armed forces themselves, and this is as true today for the Turkish government as it was in the 19th century for the Ottoman ruler. I will say more about this aspect of Turkish culture in the final (seventh) post in this series, which will be on the subject of military hardware.

The photo above shows a couple of tourists sitting on the plinth of an inscription from Sohum Castle in the gardens of Topkapi Palace, in Istanbul. The castle had been built on the Black Sea by Abdulhamid II and the inscription was brought to Istanbul during the Russo-Turkish War of 1876 (Wikipedia says the war took place in 1877-78). As usual with inscriptions in the Topkapi Palace compound, it was in Arabic script.

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