Asian and African studies blog

16 August 2021

Real Sultans of the Ottoman Empire

Painting of a middle-aged man with a dark beard in a white turban, topped with gold band, and wearing a red, gold, and green robe, holding the hilt of his sword, inside of a grey oval frame
Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 4v).
CC Public Domain Image

What did people do before Hello! brought the latest royal gossip into the comfort of their homes? How did the average pleb manage before the gods of reality television took a handful of sanitized suburban clay, fashioned the Real Housewives series, and blew the life-giving breath of audience-tested PR into it? Illustrated manuscripts, obvs. In any case, most regular people were probably too busy with the relentless crush of survival to while away hours each day watching someone else live their best life. But for those who weren’t, Or 9505 would have been a treat.

Known as the Hadikatü’l-müluk or Garden of Kings, this late 19th-century work is a richly illustrated guide to the Ottoman dynasty. The original work dates from the early 18th century and was composed by Osmanzade Ahmet Tayip, who died in 1724 CE. The version held by the British Library, however, was expanded by Seyit Abdusamet, who sought to include Sultan Abdülmecit (reigned 1839-61). The text is beautifully copied, with an elaborate unvan, and 32 full-page portraits of 31 Emperors, from Sultan Osman I (reigned 1280-99 CE; f 3v) up to Sultan Abdülmecit (f 71v). The Padişahlar are each found inside an oval frame, with the exception of the final, then-reigning monarch, whose mounted personage is permitted to occupy the entirety of the page. This treasure of Ottoman portraiture was acquired by the British Museum in 1924, when it was purchased from the Cairo-based Maurice Nahman, the source of many of the Museum’s (and then Library’s) West Asian manuscripts.

Full-page painting of a man mounted upon a cantering black horse with white legs, atop of an ornate saddle, wearing a black cape and red fez topped with a lavish standard. The man is bearded and looking at the viewer
Abdülmecit atop his steed. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 72r).
CC Public Domain Image

The content of the Hadikatü’l-müluk is far from novel or unique. While national histories of the Ottoman Empire began in earnest towards the end of the 19th century, biography and dynastic history had long been common. Among the best known are Aşıkpaşazade’s Tevarih-i Âl-i Osman or Menakıb-i Âl-i Osman, a 15th-century account of the quasi-mythical origins of the Ottoman dynasty. A similar work, occasionally known as the Tarih-i Âl-i Osman, but whose author might have been Muhyiddin Mehmet İbn-i Ali el-Cemali, can be found at Add MS 5969 (with an extract at Add MS 7870). Over time, other works appeared as well, including the Tacu’t-tevarih (Or 856 , Or 3210, Or 7285, Or 7286, Or 7287, Or 7908, Or 8764, Add MS 18811, Add MS 19628), a 16th-century work by Hoca Sadettin Efendi; the Tarih-i Peçevi (Or 7353, Add MS 18071, Add MS 24961), a two-volume history of the Empire by Ottoman Bosniak scholar İbrahim Peçevi; and the Tarih-i Raşit (Or 9470, Or 9670, Or 9720, Add MS 23585), an 18th-century text by Mehmet Raşit that brings this narrative closer to the present. To this we can add a whole host of works that speak to histories of regions, people, and events crucial to the continued stability of the Ottoman regime. Koca Mehmet Ragıp Paşa’s Fethiye-yi Belgrad ( Or 6248, Or 7182, Or 7198, Or 9472, Or 10952, Or 12185) and the Tarih-i Sefer-i Kandia (Or 1137, Or 11154), which recounts the Ottoman capture of Crete in 1667-69, are just two well-represented texts of this genre found in the British Library’s collections. Historiography was a lively and crucial component of Ottoman statecraft, and a core tool of imprinting the dynasty’s legacy on the palimpsest of time.

A page of Arabic-script text inside a gold frame topped with a header with floral illumination in red, blue, green and gold inks
The opening page of the Hadikatü'l-müluk, featuring an elaborate unvan. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 1v).
CC Public Domain Image

Or 9505 clearly borrows from this tradition, but it also departs from it in a few very special ways. The Library holds another copy of the original text by Osmanzade (Or 7302), which is devoid of frills. It’s clear that Or 9505 is a luxury copy intended for a patron of considerable means, if not a member of the Imperial household. The highly ornate poetry at the start of the text, replete with complicated Persian and Arabic phrases, is laid out among gold text frames and separators. The unvan, or header, found on f 1v is a further indication of the pomp and ceremony with which this text was copied. It bears the name of the work inside a golden egg, surrounded by lush foliage and floral illumination in vivid pinks, blues, greens, and gold. A Baroque unvan is hardly something new or unique in an Ottoman manuscript. But this particular example does depart, in some ways, from what we usually see. For one, the floral components are not attached to the pink and yellow frame, but rather floating in empty space. And rather than containing the usual geometric or architectonic elements – so often reminiscent of towers, minarets, or palaces – this layout seems to be mimicking a crest, not unlike what we might see in European heraldry.

Painting of a middle-aged man with dark beard in yellow kaftan with red belt and dark blue vest, wearing a large white turban. The man is raising his right hand
Murat I, who reigned 1362-89 CE. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 10v).
CC Public Domain Image

But it’s not the formatting, or the illumination, that is the real showstopper of this volume. Clearly, the most attractive aspect of Or 9505 is its 32 images of the Sultans of the Ottoman dynasty. These are unmistakably bold and provocative portraits. That might not seem particularly shocking, but these images do stand out from the broader tradition of Ottoman manuscript painting reflected in the British Library’s collections. The Library houses a number of items bearing portraits of both real personalities and fictional characters. What marks Or 9505 apart is the way that the subject of the portrait dominates the image itself. Whether an illustrated copy of Navoiy’s Gharaib al-sighar (Or 13061); an 18th-century Hamse-yi Atayi complete with raunchy scenes (Or 13882); or an early 17th-century Hadikatü’s-suada (Or 12009), people were included in narrative paintings, depicted as part of a scene, surrounded by flora, fauna, and buildings. In her overview of albums created by Vassal Kalender, Dr. Günsel Renda has identified this as a particularly salient aspect of 18th century products, influenced by both Iranian and Chinese preferences and techniques, as well as some European ones. But the same can also be seen in Turkic manuscripts from outside of the Ottoman Empire and from earlier periods, including a late 16th-century Divan-i Xǝtai (Or 11388) or the exquisite 16th-century Nusratnāmah (Or 3222). Rulers, specifically, and people, in general, were often portrayed in a social or historical context.

A painting of a middle-aged man in a green tunic with a white turban and black tassel upon his head sitting atop a black horse. The man is bearded and the horse is covered in a richly decorated saddle. The image is set within a page that features gold-wash illuminations in floral patterns
Sultan Ahmet I (?) on his black steed. (Ottoman poetry and painting album, late 16th century. Or 2709 f 4v). 
CC Public Domain Image

A different point of comparison might be with Or 2709, a late 16th-century album of poetry and painting. This murakka might originate from Tabriz, Iran, which would have been under Ottoman control at roughly the same time. Regardless of the vagaries of war and conquest, it’s clear that Safavid centers of artistic production also influenced creatives in Istanbul greatly. What’s more, it contains what is clearly a portrait of a Sultan, identifiable from the black aigrette (sorguç) on his white turban, mounted on his black steed, not terribly dissimilar from Abdülmecit’s pose in Or 9505. The work doesn’t reflect the European-style portraits of the 15th and 16th centuries (such as Titian’s famed portrait of Kanunî Süleyman or Gentile Bellini’s painting of Sultan Mehmet II in the National Gallery). It’s probably a much better precursor to the Safavid- and Chinese-influenced Ottoman portraiture and costume books produced throughout the 17th and 18th centuries; books about which Dr. Serpil Bağcı has provided an excellent overview. What does seem to mark this portrait off from those of Or 9505, though, is the interactions between the object and the viewer. The one in Or 2709 is set further back, and, while sullen, the Padişah isn’t all that imposing. He seems to lack the piercing gaze – a challenge to the impertinent stare of the viewer – that we see in the portraits in Or 9505.

Painting of a younger man in a blue kaftan under a red vest with ermine trim and a white turban with a black tassel. The man in holding a bow in his left hand
Sultan Osman II, with bow in hand. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 40v).
CC Public Domain Image

We can, of course, pursue another track of inquiry regarding the Hadikatü’l-müluk. There is a long tradition of European influence on Ottoman painting, especially portraiture. Nearly 50 years ago, the late Dr. Esin Atıl provided us with a wonderful overview of the links between Italian Renaissance and Ottoman portraiture, detailing artistic exchange in the court of Sultan Mehmet II. These transfers of knowledge continued into the reign of Kanunî Süleyman, as Dr. Gülru Necipoğlu has explored, but eventually tapered off, re-emerging periodically thereafter, and with force during the 19th century. The period of Sultan Abdülmecit II’s reign is perhaps the best known for its adoption of Western European visual technologies for the purpose of statecraft, although Dr. Mary Roberts has also demonstrated the profoundly important usage of them during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz as well.

An elderly man with a white beard in a green kaftan and gold belt under a yellow vest with an ermine trim. the man is wearing a white turban with a black tassel and is holding his right hand up
Selim II, Sultan from 1566 to 1574. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 30v).
CC Public Domain Image

Coming back to Or 9505, while we do know the name of the author of the original Hadikatü’l-müluk, and that of the individual who expanded it, we don’t know who painted these exquisite works. What we do know is that they were operating during the Tanzimat, a time of great social and political change in the Ottoman Empire. Among the characteristics of the Tanzimat was Ottoman intellectuals’ importation and adoption, if not assimilation, of Western European tastes and habits. Might this particular manuscript be a product of that desire for aesthetic Europeanisation? Even if this is true, these portraits still bear clear affinities with the Ottoman tradition of manuscript painting. They provide us with a solid and fascinating counterpoint to the realism of European Orientalist painting, and later Ottoman manifestations of the Western European traditions.

A middle-aged man in a blue robe under a green cape with his hand on the hilt of his sword. He is wearing a striped black and white turban with a red cloth tied around it, topped with a gold and feathered standard, and large gold triangles on either side of his head
Sultan Murat IV, who reigned 1623-40. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 42v).
CC Public Domain Image

These diversions into art history take me beyond my accumulated knowledge, or indeed my faculties of perception. For those of us not schooled in the disciplines of Ottoman painting and aesthetics, though, Or 9505 does hit upon a final truth we know all too well from the Age of Instagram. Portraiture can be a powerful stimulant to our sense of self. Whether a filtered selfie or a delicate painting, pictures reflect more than just how we look. They embody how we wish to be seen, remembered, and experienced. And for their viewers, they can elicit a wide range of emotions: envy, lust, admiration, and even schadenfreude. So come take a stroll through the Hadikatü’l-müluk, and forget your mundane worries for an hour or so – commercial breaks not included.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
CCBY Image

Works Cited :

Akın-Kıvanç, Esra, “Mustafa Âli’s Epic Deeds of Artists and New Approaches to Written Sources of Ottoman Art,” Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, 2:2 (November 2015), pp. 225-258.

Atıl, Esin, “Ottoman Miniature Painting Under Sultan Mehmed II,” Ars Orientalis, 9, Freer Gallery of Art Fiftieth Anniversary Volume (1973), pp. 103-120.

Bağcı, Serpil, “Presenting Vaṣṣāl Kalender’s Works: The Prefaces of Three Ottoman Albums,” Muqarnas, 30 (2013), pp. 255-313.

Necipoğlu, Gülru, “Süleyman the Magnificent and the Representation of Power in the Context of Ottoman-Hapsburg-Papal Rivalry,” The Art Bulletin, 71:3 (September 1989), pp. 401-427.

Renda, Günsel, “An Illustrated 18th-Century Ottoman Hamse in the Walters Art Gallery,” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, 39 (1981), pp. 15-32.

Roberts, Mary, “Ottoman Statecraft and ‘The Pencil of Nature’: Photograph, Painting, and Drawing at the Court of Sultan Abdülaziz,” Ars Orientalis, 43 (2013), pp. 10-30.

Titley, Norah M., Miniatures from Turkish Manuscripts: A Catalogue and Subject Index of Paintings in the British Library and British Museum (London: The British Library, 1981). (Open Access PDP 17)

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