Istanbul’s museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts revisited
The museum is housed inside a stone building that is itself a historic monument as the only privately owned mansion to have survived from the 16th-century heyday of the Ottoman Empire. When it was built is a mystery, although it has to have been long enough before 1520 to have needed the running repairs of that year for which records survive. What is certainly known is that in 1521 Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent made a gift of the building to his friend and later son-in-law, İbrahim Paşa, who became one of his grand viziers. Subsequently, in 1530 the sultan observed the celebrations for the circumcisions of his three sons from the window that jutted out onto the Hippodrome.
Being an Ottoman sultan's favorite was just as precarious a business as being a favorite at the court of the Tudor kings of England, and in 1536 İbrahim fell foul of Şuleyman's powerful wife Roxelana in a dispute over the succession; at a feast to celebrate Ramadan he was duly strangled and his body tossed into the Bosporus.
After that the palace had a checkered history. The building you see today is a mere fragment of the original which is believed to have stretched right the way along the Hippodrome as far as the Firuz Ağa Cami (mosque) on Divan Yolu and as far back as the Binbirdirek Sarnıçı (1001 Pillars Cistern). Fortunately, the main ceremonial hall survived and had been restored to what was thought to be its original appearance by 1983 after which the museum was moved here from its previous home in one of the medreses attached to the Süleymaniye Cami.
Today the museum is home to a stunning collection of items not just from Turkey but also from other parts of the Islamic world. They are displayed in roughly chronological order, starting with capitals, floor tiles and other items acquired from the palace of the Abbasid ruler Caliph Mutasim (r. 833-42) in Samarra (modern-day Iraq), and a collection of early medieval glazed turquoise pottery redisplayed as if it had just been excavated from the ruins of Raqqa, a poignant sight now that the modern city has fallen to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
New to the museum is a room devoted to the Damascus documents collection, a treasure trove of pages taken from Qurans dating from the ninth to the 19th centuries that were brought here from the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus in 1917.
A highlight of the museum is the early 13th-century door taken from the Ulu Cami in distant Cizre. This magnificent door with two wings featured a wooden frame over which an elaborately worked metal superstructure was placed. It also featured a huge pair of griffin-shaped door knockers attached to it with knobs shaped like lions' heads. Sadly, one of these knockers was stolen in 1966 and is now in the David Collection in Copenhagen, a clear example, surely, of something that should be returned to its land of origin. Unusually, we know the name of the man who designed this wonderful door, a Cizre-born engineer named Al-Jazari (1136-1206) who worked at the court of the Artuqid Sultan Nureddin Muhammed Kara Aslan and wrote a book, nicknamed Automata, in which he described his many ingenious inventions.
The museum also displays beautiful items from Safavid and Qajar Iran including mirrors that show off the Qajar rulers with astonishingly thick black beards so that they look rather like negatives of Santa Claus. Then come the purely Turkish rooms, displaying choice pieces from the Seljuq, Beylik and Ottoman eras. Some of the most interesting are the Seljuq items that show how lightly the Islamic prohibition on figurative art was once held. Here you'll see bowls painted not just with birds but also with groups of Seljuq grandees as well as panels carved with griffins and tombstones featuring men on horseback.
Finally, there are the carpets, the pride of the museum and some of the finest relics of the art from its earliest days including pieces from Konya that date right back to the 13th century. Most are appropriately displayed in the grand ceremonial hall along with pieces of fine inlaid Ottoman woodwork.
The collections aside, from the terrace of the museum you get a spectacular view of Sultanahmet Cami (Blue Mosque) with one of its famous six minarets currently partially dismantled for restoration. The old ethnography section that used to display wonderful pieces of nomadic finery will not reopen for another six months, but before you leave the museum you should take a quick look at a fairly nondescript arch with a pair of painted rosettes on the ceiling in front of it in the lobby. These are the last traces of the Düğümlü Baba Tekke, a dervish lodge rediscovered during restoration work.
The tekke was a shrine to Şeyh Hafız Mustafa Efendi (d. 1886), a madman who used to knot pieces of rag to his clothes, hence his nickname, Düğümlu Baba (the holy man of the knots). A popular meeting place for those with mental health issues, the tekke was closed along with all the others in the city by order of Atatürk in 1925. Its ruins were completely demolished in 1965 when work on restoring the palace started.
Obelisk of Theodosius, Hippodrome
Not to be missed on the ground floor behind the ticket desk are unexpected pieces of the old Hippodrome, the Byzantine chariot-racing circuit over whose remains İbrahim's palace was built. Other than these rather enigmatic chunks of masonry with tunnels running through them the only other structural remnant of the Hippodrome is the Sphendone, the soaring brick outer wall that used to support the tiered seating at the rounded end of the stadium. Pictures and photos beside the newly uncovered section in the museum reveal what the stadium must have looked like in its heyday when huge crowds cheered on their favorite teams with all the fervor of Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş fans today.
Until the recent repaving of the Hippodrome it was easy to stand at the opposite end of it, near the circular Alman Çeşmesi (German Fountain), and get a sense of the shape of the stadium as the traffic followed roughly the same route as had been taken by the chariots. Now that the whole area has been pedestrianized the shape is a little harder although not impossible to discern especially if you remember that the monuments in the center - - the Obelisk, the Serpents' Column and the Braided Obelisk - - originally formed some of the decorations of the Spina (Spine) running down the middle of the stadium.
The most immediately impressive of these monuments is the Dikilitaş or Obelisk of Theodosius. In 390 the Byzantine emperor Theodosius had this hieroglyph-inscribed piece of granite transported here from Thebes in Egypt where it had originally served as a memorial to the triumphs of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III (r. 1479-1425 BC). It then apparently languished in a corner of the Hippodrome until eventually an administrator named Proclus worked out how to lever it into an upright position on a plinth decorated with carvings showing the emperor attending a chariot race and awarding a crown of laurels to the victor.
The obelisk was partially broken in transit from Egypt but is still in startlingly good condition considering its age, especially when you look at the shattered remains of the Serpents' Column nearby. Originally in the shape of three intertwined snakes whose heads formed a tripod to support a golden cauldron, this, too, was originally built to commemorate a military victory, in this case that of the Greeks over the Persians at Plataea in 478 B.C.; it was reputedly made from the shields of the defeated troops. Made to stand in front of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, it was brought here by Emperor Constantine the Great in c. 330. Of the snakes' heads only one still survives (although not on display) in the İstanbul Archeological Museum.
Either Constantine or Theodosius was probably also responsible for bringing the unadorned Örme Dikilitaş (Knitted Obelisk) to the Hippodrome. A pale imitation of the impressive Obelisk of Theodosius, this was once covered by bronze plates paid for in the 10th century by Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus. They seem to have disappeared during the disastrous Fourth Crusade in 1204.