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Volume 46, Number 1January/February 1995

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Topkapi's Treasures

Written and photographed by Ergun Çağatay

The Byzantines ruled their empire from an acropolis perched on the southern peninsula of Constantinople, commanding a superb view of the Sea of Marmara, as well as the Golden Horn and the Bosporus. Before Sultan Mehmet II, dubbed Fatih, or the Conqueror, took Constantinople in 1453, vanquishing what had been a Byzantine island in the midst of his empire, the capitals of the Ottoman sultans had been at Bursa and Edirne. But from this time on, the city now known as Istanbul became the new seat of the Ottoman Empire.

About 20 years later, Mehmet II moved his official residence from the Eski Saray, or Old Palace, to the acropolis; the sultan's new residence was called Topkapı Sarayı, or Palace of the Cannon Gate, a name that recalls the bristling armaments of a now-vanished sea-gate.in the surrounding defensive walls.

On this site were erected many new buildings. While most of the early palace structures were made of wood—yielding to more solid stone buildings in the empire's later years—the Hazine, or Treasury, constructed in 1468 and 1469, was built from the start as a massive stone structure.

Topkapı Palace, although it functioned as the sultan's residence, with splendid reception rooms, enormous kitchens and separate women's quarters, was also the heart of the Ottoman Empire. It served as the religious center, the brain of the administration and the storeroom for the State Treasury. As the empire grew, Topkapı expanded into a self-sufficient entity with its own schools, libraries, baths, chancery, prisons and even a room containing relics from Makkah and Madinah. Between 4000 and 5000 people lived permanently in the palace.

Especially during the 17th and 18th centuries, Topkapı Palace served as the empire's administrative center, and thus contained several treasuries. The financial heart of the palace was the State Treasury, located in the Second Court, which contained mostly archives of the finance department and provincial revenue collection.

For reasons that are not quite clear, the State Treasury was divided into inner and outer parts. The Outer Treasury was apparently used as a kind of depot for robes and cloaks of honor, which were given to ambassadors before their audiences with the sultan.

The other treasuries were not state treasuries but the property of the sultan himself, and access to these was extremely restricted. The most famous of these was the Enderun (or Palace) Treasury, situated in the Third Court at Fatih Pavilion, named after Mehmet II. The officials working in this treasury were very high-ranking members of the imperial household.

The oldest description of the Enderun Treasury appears in the writings of Jean Baptiste Tavernier, Baron of Aubonne, and is based on information given him in India by two former Ottoman treasury officials.

"The Third Chamber is very spacious," he wrote in 1684, "and is more like a great hall. The first thing that entertains your Eye, is a great Coffer, the inside whereof is divided into three parts and makes as it were three other Coffers, one upon the other: but they are open'd all on the outside, so as that if there be anything look'd for in the undermost, there is no necessity of stirring the uppermost. The lowermost Coffer contains those sumptuous Coverings for the Grand Seignor's Throne, of which I have spoken in the Description of the Hall of audience. In the middlemost are dispos'd the Housses and Trappings, enrich'd with embroidery, and some of them with Pearls and precious Stones, which are used in great Solemnities. In the uppermost Coffer, are kept the Bridles, Breast-Pieces, Cruppers, and Stirrups, which are recommendable upon the score of the Diamonds, Rubies, Emeralds, and other Precious Stones, whereby they are enrich'd: but the greatest part of them is cover'd with Turkish stones [turquoises], which they have the art of setting excellently well."

The treasuries, however, were customarily sealed with the seal of Selim I to the very last day of the empire. Selim I, after his conquest of Egypt and Iran, expanded the Ottoman treasury to such an extent that in his will he commanded, "If any of my descendants adds even copper to the Treasury which I have filled with gold, let it be sealed with his seal, but until that day let my seal continue to be used."

Today, according to rough estimates, the Topkapı Palace Treasury stores over 5000 rare items personally collected by the Ottoman sultans. Of the collected pieces, very few items of gold and silver have survived to this day: Beautifully crafted creations of great artists and artisans, special gifts from Habsburg, Tartar and Özbek rulers, trays and plates from the Safavid Shahs of Iran, offerings of Moghul emperors of India, all went to the mint to be melted down for the sikkes coinage during hard times—an embarrassing but common practice of the day, even among Western European rulers. In addition, the Ottoman state maintained a traditional Islamic cash economy almost to the end, keeping its officials in constant search of money. Despite such historical shortcomings, the contents of the Enderun Treasury survived in large part. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the collection was eventually incorporated into the Topkapı Museum when the old palace was declared a state museum in 1924. Exhibition space at the Treasury is far too limited to display the complete collection. Yet even though only a selected portion can be exhibited, today Topkapı equals and in some ways surpasses the two great surviving European imperial collections, that of the Habsburgs in the Schatzkammer at Vienna's Hofburg, or Imperial Palace, and that of the Russian Tsars, displayed in the Kremlin Armory in Moscow.

For the Ottoman sultans, the Treasury was a place to store everything rare and valuable—precious stones, beautifully crafted objects, pelts and books, as well as perfumes like musk, amber and sandalwood, and even rock candy, which was very rare in those times. The list can be expanded to include religious relics and even the keys of conquered castles. In the palace archives, inventories date back as far as January 17, 1505, during the reign of Beyazıd II. This first inventory provides detailed information on each item, and includes gold-threaded silk, silver-threaded velvet and other textiles, carpets, saddles, richly decorated horse trappings, parade harnesses, bows and arrows made by master craftsmen, firearms, richly decorated swords, calligraphy of great masters, copies of the Qur'an, illustrated manuscripts, ivory, coral, tiger skins, uncut blocks of jade, clocks, chess sets and gaming pieces, Chinese procelains and fine pottery, astronomical and musical instruments, ostrich eggs, paper, and spices.

There were no general rules for inventories, which were usually held each time a new sultan ascended the throne or whenever he specifically requested it. In later years, Treasury inventories became more comprehensive and systematic, like the one in 1680, for example, held after the discovery of theft by Vizier Mermer Mehmet Paşa, who had abused his earlier position as kethüda (Chief Doorkeeper) of the Treasury.

Gifts, tribute and booty were the most important sources of treasury income. Muhalefat—the estates of viziers and other public officials who in theory were the sultan's slaves (kul) and therefore barred from owning personal property—were another major source of both revenue and acquisitions. Grand viziers and provincial governors enjoyed vast opportunities for unseemly self-enrichment; such an official could face trial and eventual execution, with confiscation of his property an inevitable part of the process.

Hundreds of objects in the Treasury were commissioned by individual sultans for themselves, like the yatağan, or short sword, with its inlaid ivory hilt, made for Süleyman the Magnificent. Court workshops employed a large number of craftsmen, who were members of corporations or guilds and regarded as a palace elite.

Court craftsmen thrived from the beginning of the 16th century to the end of the 18th, their numbers varying between 40 and 70 at any one time, depending on the period. During the reign of Sultan Beyazıd II, there were 70 court jewelers, six foremen and three apprentices. Master craftsmen were much in demand in the sultan's court. What the Ottomans could not find in their own territories, they achieved by conquest. It became customary to recruit skilled craftsmen as soon as a city was occupied, and as the empire expanded, craftsmen were encouraged to travel to the capital to seek new fortunes. During the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent, it was recorded in the palace archives that the sultan had 98 craftsmen in his service: 56 goldsmiths, 22 damasceners, nine engravers and several others.

Gifts and presents flowed into the Treasury almost non-stop from foreign sovereigns and embassies suing for peace and treaties of alliance. In return, sultans ordered their court craftsmen to prepare special gifts to be bestowed in like manner. Perhaps one of the most interesting incidents happened in 1746-47, as the Ottoman sultans were securing their eastern borders. After the 1746 Treaty of Kerden with Nadir Shah, Afghan conqueror of India and recent usurper of the Persian throne, some of the richest gifts the Ottoman Empire had ever offered to a foreign ruler were sent from Istanbul to the shah's court. Some 70 gifts were dispatched, ranging from a golden throne to 90 Turcoman horses. The very day that the gift-bearing envoys crossed the frontier, Nadir Shah was assassinated, and the embassy hurriedly returned to Baghdad with the gifts. Today, some of these presents are on display at the Topkapı Palace Treasury.

The Treasury also holds gifts presented to the sultan on religious occasions and holidays. In 1582, during circumcision festivities for Şehzade Mehmet and other sons of Sultan Murad III, the palace received numerous gifts from merchants and craftsmen's guilds (lonca), as well as from foreign ambassadors and envoys.

In the course of history, Ottoman sultans enjoyed great military victories that brought immense quantities of booty from Mamluk Egypt, Safavid Persia, Hungary, Russia, Italy, and elsewhere. How much of the loot found its way to the palace is not precisely known. According to tradition, the sovereign had a right to no more than one-fifth of the spoils of battle, but it is likely that most of that amount slipped beyond the sultan's grasp. Nevertheless, Topkapı Palace still holds a number of rare items won in battle.

Since Topkapı Palace became a museum in 1924, its buildings, gardens and fountains have provided a living environment for the fabulously rich collections of the Ottoman sultans, confirming the palace's unique position among the museums of the world.

Ergun Çağatay also photographed masterpieces of the Topkapı Palace Library for Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 28-31 of the January/February 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1995 images.