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 Professor Nurhan Atasoy, Istanbul
Research Associate,
Turkish Cultural Foundation

Ottoman Sultans and their courts used tents during state ceremonies, daily outings or picnics, and especially during their extensive military campaigns of invasion and battle. Imperial Ottoman tents copied the general system or plan of an Ottoman palace, and the sultan's tent complex included everything he needed in his palace, including a tower, in function resembling the Tower of Justice, a tent for the treasury, a tent for the holy relics, a tent for the Council of State, a tent of solidarity, a kitchen tent, and more. The imperial tent complexes were viewed as mobile palaces, and the Ottoman tent-makers took the palace architecture as models for their tents.  The walls were based on column-arch system, and the roofs were based on conical, pyramid or vault systems.  The interiors of imperial tents were decorated with incredible embroideries copying the beautifully decorated palace buildings, and Dr. Atasoy’s lecture will describe how these tents had the same functions as Ottoman palaces, and reflected a very highly civilized lifestyle.
     Prof. Dr. Nurhan Atasoy is one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars of Islamic and Turkish art, and is currently a Resident Scholar at the Turkish Cultural Foundation. In addition to teaching art history at Istanbul University, Prof. Atasoy was the head of many university departments, including President of the Department of Fine Arts, and the Dean of the Faculty of Letters. She has organized, attended and lectured at many international conferences and symposia on Ottoman Turkish and Islamic art. Prof. Atasoy has also curated numerous national and international exhibitions, and has been the recipient of many prestigious awards, including for outstanding performance in Turkish Museum Studies and Archaeology, Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Turkey, and the State “Award for Superior Achievement" in 2006. She has published more than 100 articles and 21 books, among them IPEK, The Cresent and the Rose: The Art of Ottoman Silk Weaving, London 2001 ( with W. Denny,L. Mackie, H. Tezcan,) and the exhibition catalog for Ottoman Tents, at the Topkapı Palace Museum Imperial Stables in Istanbul.
Although you may not have examples of Ottoman imperial tents, Prof. Atasoy invites TMA/SC members to bring examples of Ottoman-era textiles and costumes for show & tell.
      Professor Atasoy’s introduction to Ottoman Imperial Tents took place as she examined miniature paintings that recorded the lives of the Sultans. These miniatures date from the 16th century, and were her first focus within the study of Islamic arts. It was not until many years later that she began scholarly work on the tents themselves. Like all the Sultans’ possessions, the tents were stored away at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. However, getting to actually see them was difficult. Professor Atasoy had to wait until the scheduled inventory of the Military Museum took place
      Seeing a folded up tent was one thing; viewing on set up as when in use was quite another. In1982 Professor Atasoy finally got her chance to see the tents when she was put in charge of twelve exhibitions for the Council of Europe Meetings. She decided that one of the exhibits would be an Ottoman Imperial Tent set up in all its glory in the Military Museum. The first step before even unfolding and organizing the tent pieces was to get the help of a textile conservator. The commanders at the museum, after some initial education by Professor Atasoy, became very excited about this erection. An expert came from Germany to establish a textile conservation lab that is still in operation today. After this first exhibition, she was able to investigate more tents, find sponsors to pay for travel to other museums and always to make notes. The note collection grew and grew and finally became Ottoman Tents, the catalogue of the 2001 exhibition of twelve tents at the Topkapi Palace Museum Imperial Stables. Many of the photos in Professor Atasoy’s lecture were from this exhibit and catalogue.
      Perhaps surprisingly many European museums have examples of Ottoman Imperial tents in such far-flung countries as Hungary, Germany, Poland and Sweden. These tents came into European hands usually as war trophies and sometimes as gifts. For example, after the Turks gave up on the Siege of Vienna in 1683, they abandoned some heavy baggage behind in the snow. A few tents were left and were subsequently divided among the defending European armies. One tent was taken to Poland but later was captured by Sweden in a different military engagement. It now resides in a Swedish museum.

                                           Revue by Marjorie Franken
      Professor Atasoy recalls that these European investigations of museum pieces was hard work. The tents were always folded up, sometimes in boxes, sometimes in cupboards, and while she was given access to them, she was seldom given assistance in the physical labor. After great effort she and her Turkish assistant, described as a very small woman, would drag the tents out onto a floor where the pieces could be stretched out and measured. The goal was to have the exact shape and size of each tent panel recorded. Back in Istanbul scale models of paper were constructed, and in this way Professor Atasoy was able to discover the various shapes and sizes of Ottoman tents over four centuries. This was the only way to appreciate the volume of space a tent enclosed, and the architecture of their construction, as no museum ever had enough manpower or space to actually erect them.
      The tents that remained in Turkey had been divided into two storage places. Those in the Military Museum were in better condition than the others elsewhere in Topkapi. The latter group were covered with the dust of centuries, and were too fragile to do more than unfold, photograph while wearing masks, and put back. The ones that were strong enough to erect fit into the Imperial Stables where the high ceiling accommodated them. These were photographed when set up, but even in this space it was impossible to photo some of the tents in their entirety. After conservation and exhibition the tents are now rolled in paper, requiring as much as 300 kilos of paper, and stored properly.
      As Professor Atasoy classified various tent shapes and styles, she constantly checked and rechecked against the details of the miniature paintings she had originally studied. Many puzzles were solved in this way (see below). The uses of the tents were also revealed, as these miniatures were a method of historical recording at the time. For example there are a series of miniatures showing Selim II being installed as the Sultan in a tent while in the city of Belgrade. The tent was a dome style resembling a Central Asian yurt, and was a portable Palace tent. A portable throne was always carried with this tent. The interior decoration and shape served to focus attention and provided a virtual stage for important events to be showcased.
To that end, the walls of the tent were decorated with embroidery and appliqué designs to imitate the columns and arches of an actual building. The earlier tents have quite realistically shaped columns, with capitals and bases and embroidered lamps “hanging” in the arches. Later tents had more stylized and ornate representations of these same design elements.
      As one would expect for such complex craftsmanship, there is a whole vocabulary for tent pieces and hardware. The panels that made up the walls were called hazdeh or hazineh. The panels had window spaces with embroidered frames, cords applied in a grid system to look like metal window grills, and “curtains” embroidered around the frame. The frames changed in shape over time from arches to rectangles. These windows were in fact functional, constructed as a flap that could be rolled up in warm weather, creating a real opening to the outdoors. Still another style of tent had walls that looped over their slanted tent ropes. The effect was rather like the interior of a fluted cake mold. The ceiling of this tent was also looped in wedge shapes that met at the customary central point at the apex
      The doors of the tents were often arch shaped and also could be folded up. A field full of tents would have fabric walls around it just as a city or palace complex would have perimeter walls. Each tent usually had a canopy for shade and/or privacy at the main entrance as well. The outer layer of tent fabric was a heavy canvas and had comparatively little decoration. It was often a rusty copper color from an application of jengari, a water proofing material. The silk satin interior fabric carried the most lavish decorations. Many kinds of fabrics and materials were used for the embroidery and appliqué work on the interiors. As many as five to seven layers on a base fabric went into appliqué construction. The smallest center pieces were sometimes made of gilded leather, giving the interior a “jeweled” effect, commented upon by many observers. The appliqués were outlined in cord to give definition while the embroideries were sometimes trapunto work with padding inserted underneath. Scenes of gardens and tent cities were frequent subjects for these embellishments. Some designs seem to have an Egyptian influence. Interestingly the gold and silver embroidery on the palace tents seems to have been done in Allepo.
      A special military corps were responsible for the tents—their construction, decoration, maintenance and repair. No women were involved in any phase. These military men have left no paper plans of any sort nor their individual names. No paints were ever used in the decoration, only embroidery and appliqué.
The tent poles are a study in themselves. Historical records indicate the interior, visible portion of the Palace tent poles were at one time covered in gold and silver. The surviving 19th century poles do not have this covering as it was presumably melted and used for coinage.
      At the top of the tent was a heavy leather circle that attached to the tops of the poles. The tent bands were made of an extremely strong woven hemp. The edges of the panels had similar hemp bands sewn on to provide a sort of skeleton that carried the weight of the tent.
The floors of the tents were covered with mats, carpets or kilms. The furnishings were very simple, consisting of cushions and small tables. The goal was to recreate a palace setting. Even the interior fabrics were chosen to replicate the Topkapi palace complex. The question arises, which came first—portable arrangements of tents imitating the modular pavilions of the Topkapi complex? Or, was the palace itself a stone replica of an earlier nomadic tent camp?
      The tents were a sort of portable palace used in fine weather from spring to autumn, the venue for many sorts of palace activities. An early miniature shows the circumcision festival in 1720 of the three sons of Sultan Ahmet III. For fifteen days the entire court lived in tents on an archery field. As mentioned above Mehmet III’s coronation was in a palace tent. And of course military campaigns used tents such as those that surrounded Vienna in various siege operations.
      Within the tent city each department of Ottoman government had a tent. There was always a Tower of Justice tent, a Treasury tent, a Meeting Hall and Kitchen tent, and so forth, all corresponding to the pavilions of Topkapi.. Surrounding these official tents were smaller ones for soldiers to live in. Behind the large tents were tiny latrine tents, decorated on the outside with non-functional windows
Another necessary sort of accommodation was the bath tents. These had an exterior of wool fabric and an interior of silk, with wooden floors. The bath tents were a mystery at first, with one panel seeming to be too big to button properly to the others. Professor Atasoy finally figured the secret out; the panel was intended to fold like an envelope and provide a secret passage into the tent. This sort of examination proved that the miniature paintings were extremely accurate depictions of tent shape and construction. Only one inaccuracy was found where the artist painted the entrance of the tent city wall as the actual stone entrance to Topkapi.
Tents were classified by the number of poles and panels as well as by function, as in a “twelve pole tent” or a “24-panel tent”. Panels were approximately 40 inches wide, varying with the weavers’ productions. Tent fabric was never cut, selvages were always left intact for maximum strength at attachments. Interior panels could be provided for privacy. Another mystery was an extremely dirty and dusty panel with no label. It later turned out to be the entrance panel of the Stable tent for horses. Some Sultans doted on their horses and took them everywhere.
      Tent making was apparently a continuous process, as there was attrition through military losses and gifting. With the end of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, Imperial Tents became the museum pieces of a bygone age. They can be seen today in photos, notably in Professor Atasoy’s numerous works and in museums throughout Europe and of course in Topkapi itself.





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