Ottoman grandeur on display in US capital


No different from other metropolises of the world, the U.S. capital lives parallel existences all at once. When the ears of most Washingtonians were tuned to the final verdict of Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel for the CIA leak case, I was wandering around the Smithsonian Institution's dark alleys to establish a link between the present and my Ottoman past.

We Turks are proud of our history without having much information about its intricacies. There in Istanbul, at Topkapi Palace, once the abode of Ottoman sultans, a museum overflows with relics of our history, but not many of us devote the time to visit it. We stroll aimlessly around historical monuments in Istanbul unaware that they attest to our glorious past. Our youngsters are bound to take history classes starting the very first day of their educational life until they finish university but very few take the trouble to further their interest in the matter.

When you don't know your history well and have no appetite to grow an interest, you don't exert any effort to present it to outsiders. That's the reason why our museums are in shambles, lacking necessary funds for upkeep. Whenever I happen to visit an historical exhibit, I feel pity for the poverty of the physical space and sorry state of goods and artifacts put on display.

Turkey has been going through radical changes in many fields. I experience many of the changes since they affect my everyday life. I've now discovered that the changes have reached to the level that even our approach to Ottoman history has fallen under its influence. The Turkish Republic seems to have made its peace with our Ottoman past, the business community in Turkey seems to have found a new interest other than making money, and our intellectuals seem to give due respect to our historical heritage.

I reached this impression by observing a new development: The Ministry of Culture and Tourism sent invaluable historical textiles, including costumes of the Ottoman sultans, to Washington, DC. Koc Holding, Turkey's largest conglomerate, allocated resources for the exhibition's promotion. A group of journalists took time off for a quick visit to the exhibition.

The Ottoman sultans of the 16th and 17th centuries wore caftans made of silk. This is an historical fact. The caftans of that period had colored designs interwoven with gold. This is another historical fact. These facts never tell the whole story until the magnificent caftans worn by Ottoman sultans of the time are there in front of you. The majesty and grandeur of the sultan is very much evident in his outfit. He must have worn not one single caftan to create such a grandiose vision, but two even three caftans on top of another, otherwise I will have come to the conclusion that our ancestors were exceptionally tall and robust. The impact they aimed to create by their costumes also forced them to choose colors and designs accordingly.

When a sultan went out to a public ceremony he always wore clothes to show off his superiority over ordinary folks. He never spent time with his foreign visitors more than was necessary to strike awe. His costume was so designed that when he mounted a horse his royal pants had the same impact on his subjects as when he received them while he was standing with his caftan on. We're talking about a lifestyle based on status, and its most prominent display was costumes worn on different occasions.

The Freer and Arthur M. Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution are a most suitable place for the exhibition of such magnitude. When I visited the galleries with other first-time guests, I saw that the mirrored corridors displaying outfits once worn by Sultans magnified the impact of the displayed materials on visitors. Over the next 10 years, the Smithsonian will house different exhibitions borrowed extensively from Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and some valuable American historical goods and artifacts will travel to Turkey to be put on display in different Turkish cities.

The gala dinner, attended by some prominent American politicians, diplomats and businessmen as well as Turks living in the States and Turks who arrived from Turkey for the occasion, was a great success. I came across many old acquaintances and also met with new faces who were there for their love of present-day Turkey or their respect for Ottoman history.

The U.S. capital has shown an exceptional interest in a Turkish exhibit at a time when it has been preoccupied with political developments which might lead to dismal consequences. Marc Grossman, for example, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and former undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department, attended the gala without knowing that his name would be in papers after special counsel Fitzgerald's press conference.

Looking from a safe distance, Ottoman sultans seem to have been more secure than their present-day counterparts. Their grandeur and majesty remains intact after all these centuries, whereas in our day, an U.S. president cannot keep up appearances for more than one term.

"Style and Status: Imperial Costumes from Ottoman Turkey" will be open to public at the Freer and Arthur M. Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC until Jan. 22, 2006. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/current/StyleStatus.htm

From The New Anatolian, 1 November 2005


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