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Volume 38, Number 2March/April 1987

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The Topkapi Collection

Written by Filiz Çagman
Photographed by Ergun Çağatay


For nearly 400 years before it became a museum, in 1924, Topkapı Palace was the residence of the Ottoman sultans, administrative hub of a far-flung empire, and the center from which Ottoman arts radiated throughout the world.

Begun on the orders of Sultan Mehmet II between 1472 and 1478, following his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Topkapı was later expanded by his successors as the needs of their day demanded.

Perched atop a high peninsula, flanked on one side by the beautiful Sea of Marmara, and, on the other, by the bustling Golden Horn, it enjoys dramatic views up the Bosporus and, today, is one of Istanbul's top tourist attractions.

Due to its several functions, the palace had a unique architecture. It consisted of a number of courts built adjacent to each other - each with its own porticos, pavilions, baths, kitchens and women's quarters - making it a huge and complex building.

The Ottomans were meticulous record keepers, and, from time to time, the Sultans were obliged to make a complete inventory of their treasury. This meant everything they owned: from iron tools for making fine swords to precious stones and tapestries. And books constituted a good part of their treasury.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman empire and abolition of the sultanate, Topkapı was converted into a museum by decree of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey. The books that had formerly been in the sultan's treasury and in different pavilions and reading rooms in the palace were relocated in the Mosque of the Ağa (senior officials) in the Enderun, or inner, court. Formerly the most important and secluded part of the palace under the personal administration of the sultan, the Enderun contained the eunuchs, harem and special schools for women and future state officials.

This unique collection of books was named "The New Library." It contains more than 20,000 manuscripts - both Islamic and non-Islamic - and extremely rare and valuable maps, as well as copies of the first printed books from the West and the East. The number of Islamic miniatures alone exceeds 15,000.

In the New Library books were classified according to their former location in the palace. The Library of the Treasury collection, for example, is so-called because it was formerly located in the sultan's treasury, and contains 2,999 rare books, mostly volumes of literature and history. In the same collection are 194 albums containing some of the finest examples of calligraphy and miniatures in the Islamic world.

The Trust Library collection owes its name to the fact that some of the most sacred relics of Islam were kept in the Throne Room - one of the rooms of the sovereign's private quarters - which, in the latter part of the Empire, were called "The Rooms of the Sacred Trust." The number of books found there total 3118, mostly Korans copied as early as the eighth and ninth century in Kufic script and extending to the finest 19th-century Ottoman calligraphy.

Some 2,500 books - mainly manuscripts containing fine miniatures - were found in the Baghdad and Revan pavilions to which they had been transferred from the Treasury by different sultans.

Books found in the other parts of the palace, in the storerooms, larder, and in the artisans' and cooks' quarters were collected in "The Library of the Wards." This collection contains 1040 books, consisting mostly of Korans and books on Islamic sciences.

The New Library also includes the Medina Collection - books brought from Medina, in Saudi Arabia, during World War I. Two other important collections are the personal libraries of Sultan Mehmet V and of Lady Tiryal, the consort of Sultan Mahmud II, which consist, for the most part, of 18th- and 19th-century printed Ottoman books.

In the years following Topkapı's conversion into a museum, several private collections were donated to the New Library, among which the collections of lawyer Halil Ethem Arda and former Finance Minister Ahmed Muhter Itisami are the most important.

Finally in 1970, books belonging to the library of Sultan Ahmet III, who reigned from 1703 to 1730, were transferred to the New Library. Sultan Ahmet III built a library in the outer court of the palace for the palace school, and 4787 manuscripts plus 182 early printed books moved from the treasury to his new library.


The Ottoman sultans attributed more value to their books than to their jewels or famous collections of Chinese porcelain, and the manuscripts, maps and rare printed books in Topkapı Museum are by far the most valuable items they collected.

The records of the Topkapı treasury date back to the 15th century and always began with an inventory of the sultan's books - a tradition not changed until the last days of the Ottoman dynasty. The passion of the Ottoman sultans for book-collecting can also be judged by the number of other Istanbul libraries which they either funded or contributed to. The Süleymaniye Library, which houses the largest number of manuscripts, has, for instance, more than 130 separate collections, while the total number of manuscripts in the country as a whole is close to a quarter of a million.

The appetite of Sultan Mehmet II, The Conqueror, for books and art had no limits. During his reign (1451-1481) he had many important contemporary books rewritten by his palace calligraphers. These books, mostly concerning science, art, geography and history in the Islamic world, were copied from Arabic, Persian and Turkish originals in a style that later became established as the Ottoman palace tradition: the books were illustrated on almost every page, and the margins decorated and embellished.

In later years, Mehmet II extended his collection not only of Islamic books but Christian ones as well, and, as his interest in books became known to the outside world, a great flood of manuscripts poured into his court - sent by other sovereigns, writers or anybody else seeking to gain his favor. Mehmet II even collected books written in classical Greek - works on history, religion and science - that are still among the collections of the Topkapı Palace Library.

Mehmet, furthermore, invited artists and artisans to come and work in the palace workshops, and painters like Gentile Bellini and Constanzo de Ferraro made long stays in Topkapı, where they introduced the styles of Renaissance painting. The number of books he commissioned to be written in classical Greek, Arabic, Persian and Turkish added up to such great quantities that the next generation of sovereigns had to give them away to various libraries in Istanbul to make way for new ones.

Sultan Mehmet's successor, Sultan Beyazıt II, had almost as much interest in books as his father and collected more than 600 manuscripts. During his reign (1481-1512), the first glories of Ottoman calligraphy manifested themselves.

As a prince ruling in the provincial capital of Amasya, Beyazıt had begun the study of calligraphy under a local teacher, Shaikh Hamdullah, later one of the great masters of Ottoman calligraphy. Upon assuming the sultanate, Beyazıt invited his former teacher to Istanbul and gave him a work space in the palace. Legend has it that the sultan frequently sat for hours holding Hamdullah's inkstand as he wrote. It was during these years that Seyh Hamdullah introduced a completely new style of writing, a new departure in Ottoman calligraphy that would last until the 18th century.

Sultan Selim I (1512-1520), who succeeded Beyazıt, undertook two military campaigns which had particularly important consequences for the Topkapı book collection. The two great campaigns of Selim I, one against the Safavid dynasty of Persia, the second against the Mamluks of Egypt, enabled him to gather the most valuable paintings and books written in the Islamic world between the beginning of the 14th and 16th centuries.

Sultan Süleyman I, the longest reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1520-1566), was known as Kanuni (The Legislator) in the East and as Süleyman the Magnificent in the West. His reign of 46 years brought the Ottoman Empire to its peak, and artists, specialized in decorative drawings used for royal albums, created and produced their best for his library. Again during these years great efforts were made to conserve the old books. Old books of value were sought out all over the Empire, bought, rebound and conserved for future generations.

An accomplished poet, Sultan Süleyman instigated a new institution which was called Şahnamecilik- the craft of writing royal chronicles - and personally appointed the first chronicler, whose job it was to write, in epic form, the life story of Süleyman and his predecessors – their deeds, conquests, wars, victories and the important events that occurred during their lifetimes. Decorated and painted by the court artists and copied by the master calligraphers, these books, as well as being important documentations of Ottoman history, are masterpieces of the art of book making.

The very subject matter of Ottoman painting indicates that the art of the painter was almost exclusively a court art. From the 16th century onwards it becomes not only an instrument for the glorification of the ruling dynasty, but also serves as a visual record of contemporary events. During the same period, however, some books written on the campaigns of Sultan Süleyman I embodied a new departure. Instead of using illustrations and miniatures of war scenes, marching armies and soldiers, artists used landscapes and cities to illustrate the countries Sultan Süleyman and his army passed through.

It was after the death of Sultan Süleyman, however, that the art of miniature reached its apogee. In the latter part of the 16th century, during the reign of Selim II (1566-1574) and Sultan Murat III (1574-1595) and finally Sultan Mehmet III (1595-1603), the palace miniaturists had their finest years, creating the classics of Turkish painting. During these same years the chroniclers of the court began to record important social events, such as royal circumcision ceremonies, parades and the receiving of ambassadors, while the court artists illustrated them.

In the 17th century, Sultan Ahmet I (1603-1617) and Sultan Osman II (1618-1622) both showed an interest in books, but it was not until the 18th century - during the reign of Sultan Ahmet III (1703-1730) - that steps were taken to establish a library in the modern sense of the word. Thus the library in the Enderun court was built for the use of palace officials and students.

It was also at this time that a general interest in printed books began, both European and those printed by the Christian and Jewish communities in Istanbul. The sultan gave his permission for the establishment of the first printing houses in Istanbul, an act which aroused the fury of the calligraphers. Printing was finally introduced into Ottoman society, but did not affect calligraphy as much as anticipated.

The 18th and 19th centuries were increasingly chaotic years for the Ottoman Empire, especially the second half of the 19th, century when the Empire started to disintegrate. But even in the middle of the 19th century, when Ottoman sultans lavishly squandered the state treasury on new palaces, they never forgot their books. Through royal foundations new libraries were formed, while some of the books in private palaces were transferred to public libraries. Meanwhile, with the completion of Dolmabahçe Palace on the European shore of the Bosporus, most of the dynasty moved out of Topkapı. But although the palace lost some of its functions and importance, most of the books and the palace library remained there until the reign of Abdulhamid II (1876-1909).

Abdulhamid II had a cunning mind as well as a paranoiac character. Fearful of being assassinated, he secluded himself in Yıldız Palace on the Beşiktaş hills overlooking the Bosporus, and ordered everything - including his books - brought to him. He ordered a library built in the Yıldız Palace and a large number of books were transferred there from Topkapı. He also changed the cover of the books - all were rebound in identical red bindings bearing his imperial seal. After his abdication, most of the books were returned to Topkapı Palace, but some ended up in the Istanbul University Library, which today has the largest collection outside of Topkapı.

As an extension of the Ottoman tradition of calligraphy, the Topkapı Museum Library has a great number of albums, manuscripts and framed inscriptions, and a wide collection of writing instruments such as reed pens, special types of knives to sharpen the pens, scribes' tables, inkpots and other essential tools.

Almost all Ottoman sultans had a keen interest in calligraphy and under their patronage calligraphers perfected their styles over the centuries. Ottoman calligraphy reached its zenith, strangely enough, in the late 19th century - at a time when the Empire was collapsing, and the influence of Topkapı was coming to an end.


The uniqueness and richness of the library stems from the fact that it was the personal collection of the sultans. It is without question one of the richest collections in the world of manuscripts with miniatures and illustrations - especially of Islamic and Oriental design.

There are over 600 manuscripts with miniatures, and the total number of miniatures in these books is over 15,000. In all other collections and libraries around the world a special number is given to each miniature. Topkapı is the only library that has numbered the books and not the miniatures due to their sheer quantity.The figure 15,000 includes only miniatures in books of Islamic origin. If those in non-Islamic books are added, the total exceeds 21,000. The most precious books in the library are those produced in the courts of the Ilkhanids - descendants of the Mongols - and their dynasties in 13th- and 14th-century Iran, and the beautiful examples of book production from the Timurid court in Herat in today's Afghanistan. Books dating from the Safavi period - the 16th and 17th centuries - are among the finest of Persian manuscripts.

The books in the Topkapı collection today number more than 18,000. The original nucleus dates back to the early Turkic empires and states, such as the Seljuks, who ruled a vast area of Anatolia and Mesopotamia in the 13th and 14th centuries and were the principal opponents of the Crusaders. This original collection was then augmented by books commissioned or collected by the Ottoman sultans.

Among the major factors that contributed to the steady growth of the Topkapı book collection were gifts, wars and a system known as muhallefat - under which the wealth of disgraced or deceased aristocrats reverted to the sultans.

Contemporary sovereigns regularly included books among tributes they sent to Topkapı as tokens of their good will toward the Ottoman sultan. Persian ambassadors frequently brought books, not only to the sultan, but also to the other important members of the palace such as crown princes and certain court ladies who had influence over the sovereign and his officials. Over the years, books included among the gifts sent by various Persian rulers have added up to a considerable number in the Topkapı collection, some of them extremely rare and valuable. A şhahnama containing more than 250 miniatures was among the books sent by Shah Tahmasp to Selim II on the occasion of Selim's ascent to the Ottoman throne; today the same book is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In the Ottoman Empire, merit overrode rank and heredity. The Ottomans sought to get rid of the old aristocracy as efficiently as they created a new one. Graduates of the palace school, who risked their lives for magnificent stakes, power and transient splendors, always lived with the danger of losing everything. A failure during a military campaign was sufficient reason to lose the grace of the sultan. The accumulated wealth of disgraced officials returned to the state. Even death carried similar penalties and envoys from the court were ever-present observers in the mansions of aristocrats in the days following their funerals; they could claim anything and everything on behalf of the sultan. Through this system of muhallefat, a great quantity of books is known to have entered the treasury.

War, of course, was another great contributor to the enlargement of the Topkapı collection. The defeat of the Mamluks in 1517 opened the doors of Cairo to Selim and the treasures of the Mamluks found a new home in Topkapı. The Egyptian campaign not only filled Selim's treasury with Mamluk gold, but also gave him the chance to own the most precious Islamic manuscripts and relics in existence. Selim I needed several ships to transport his spoils to Istanbul, prompting him to declare: "Whoever again fills this treasury with gold coins exceeding mine,... let it then be sealed with his monogram, otherwise, until the arrival of that day my seal will be used." The tradition, from that day on, of closing and sealing the doors of the Topkapı treasury with the monogram seal or tuğra of Sultan Selim I lasted until the final day of the Ottoman Empire.

Wars in the following years also contributed a considerable amount. Through other conquests books like the unique Koran of 'Uthman - the second Caliph after the death of the Prophet Muhammad - were brought from Makkah and Medina. Almost all the books of Byzantine origin came through conquests. The most decisive factor though, was the relentless efforts of bibliophile sultans for 700 years.

The book collections of the Ottoman sultans were always kept - along with everything that the sultans valued, such as jewelry and precious stones, rare artifacts and textiles, furniture and the keys of captured castles - in the heavily guarded storerooms of the treasury under the watchful eye of the chief treasurer The office of chief treasurer was first established during the reign of Murat II, at his palace in Edirne, the capital of the Ottoman Empire before Istanbul. His son Mehmet II, brought in tight and precise rules and regulations concerning the running of the treasury. The office of the chief treasurer, which employed several ranking officials of the palace, was viewed as a post of considerable importance.

Supervision and control of the Ehli Hiref, an organization which included all artists and artisans, was also among the duties of the chief treasurer. In later years, during the reign of Selim I, two new positions, chief calligrapher and kethuda of the treasury, were added to the office of the chief treasurer. It was the duty of these two officials to register every book that entered the treasury and keep a record of every book that was taken out. In 1783, four new positions were added to the office of the chief treasurer, and a new set of rules for the handling of the books introduced. Usually selected from among the callig-raphers, the responsibilities of the four new officials focused primarily on protecting and mending the books.

It was only upon the order of the sultan himself that a book could be taken out of the treasury. Sovereigns, according to their desire and interests, had books brought either to their royal apartments or to the harem or other quarters of the palace they favored. It is also known that books were sometimes sent to the provinces for a prince acting as the governor of the region, while in some cases books were given as part of the dowry of a princess. Throughout the centuries, books taken out of the treasury and kept in different parts of the palaces were always, in the end, returned to the treasury. This long tradition was broken by Ahmet III in 1719; he ordered construction of a library in the outer court of the palace and offered his ancestors' formidable book collection for the use of the Palace School.

His intention was to enlighten future civil servants of the Empire; and he did this with such profound sincerity that he used his grandfather's pick to lay the foundation of the library - the same one Ahmet I had used to lay the foundations of the great mosque - Istanbul's Blue Mosque - constructed in his name.

Within six months of the laying of its cornerstone, the library was completed. To save the books from humidity, the reading room was constructed on a higher level over a basement floor, to which one ascends by two stairways on either side of the building. Climbing the stairways, one first reaches a porch before entering the building. The building itself is faced with marble and represents a typical example of early 18th-century Ottoman architecture. The doors and windows are fine examples of carpentry, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. In the section facing the entrance is the reading space reserved for Sultan Ahmet III. Above this section hangs a framed inscription written by Ahmet III himself, who was a master calligrapher. The use of ivory, in the decoration of interior window shutters and books shelves, blends almost perfectly with some of the best examples of 16th-century Ottoman tiles that cover the walls. Book shelves were designed to permit air circulation around the books; they were protected by grids of silver wire, forming a decorative mesh that also protects the books.

On the occasion of the opening of the library, a royal decree was issued establishing a foundation to administrate it. In the highly decorated foundation book, a set of reasons is given for the opening of the Enderun library and its objectives. The same book lists the books and their subject matter, followed by explanatory notes on the origins of each, recorded in a separate royal catalogue. In the section that outlines the regulations for use of the library, it is stated that the library will open on Mondays and Thursdays and that no books would be allowed to be taken outside the palace grounds. The foundation book also describes in detail the merits of lecturers and the qualifications required of candidates for the appointment as librarians and their assisting staff, service staff - janitors, porters and others - their pay and the sources of income covering the expenses of the library.

All books in the library were stamped with the foundation seal of Sultan Ahmet III. Most of the book titles in the library concern the Koranic sciences and history and are written in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. In later years new donations from Abdulhamid I and Selim III made the Enderun library richer in contents, and a new catalog had to be arranged and written in 1815. Today, the books of Ahmet III have been transferred to the New Library in the palace, keeping the very same order they had on their original shelves. The building itself is open to visitors to Topkapı Palace.

During the reign of Mahmut I (1730-1754), successor of Ahmet III, a number of new libraries were formed and run by the foundation. Among these, one inside Hagia Sophia (today a museum) is the most important.

It was founded by donations from the Royal Treasury of Topkapı Palace. Others, located in the pavilions around the imperial quarters, grew out of the concept of giving the palace staff the liberty of benefiting from the book collection. Sultan Mahmut I in 1733 started a library consisting mostly of books illustrated with miniatures from the Revan pavilion. A major part of the books were taken from the royal collections of the treasury, and more contributions in later years came from Osman III and Mustafa III. Another attempt to form a library at the Baghdad pavilion was made by Abdulhamid I and Selim III. In 1791, in response to a request made by the chief arms bearer Seyid Abdullah Ağa, a set of new regulations were introduced by the sultan to the royal apartment libraries, Revan and Baghdad.

These regulations covered personnel who were to benefit from the libraries. But in spite of all the regulations and precautions taken over the centuries, a good part of the Topkapı collection was dispersed to different libraries in Istanbul and to various collections outside Turkey.

At the beginning of the 20th century, in the years following the reign of Abdulhamid II, books were removed to other palaces and even sold to Western collectors. Today, the most important collection in the West is at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, donated by Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, the mining millionaire who built up an admirable collection of Turkish and Persian manuscripts.

But in spite of all the losses, Topkapı today still has the most important collection of books on Ottoman and Islamic arts and sciences in the world.

Dr. Filiz Qag'man is curator of the Topkapı Palace Museum Library and an acknowledged expert on Islamic art.

This article appeared on pages 6-37 of the March/April 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1987 images.