Topkapi Displays Russian Treasures

'Russia in the Ottoman Palace' opens at the Topkapi in Istanbul

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This past week an unusual exhibition opened at Topkapı Palace, unusual in the sense that it was an exhibition designed to complement what was already there.

“Russia in the Ottoman Palace” gives visitors a look into the gifts exchanged by the Russian and Ottoman Empires and the history behind them. It has joined “Treasures of the Moscow Kremlin at the Topkapı Palace.”

Located in the palace section known as the Privy Stables, the new pieces join the 110 pieces sent from the Kremlin Palace and which consists of jewels, materials, weapons and harnesses as well as a portrait of Czar Mikhail Romanov. At the same time the new exhibition is reciprocal for the one that opened in the Kremlin last year and consisted of the diplomatic gifts Turkish ambassadors brought to the Russian czars.

The new exhibition shows off some of the valuable items that belonged to Russia during the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries but are found today in the Topkapı Palace treasuries. The most important is the work of Faberge, the famous jewelry family and craftsmen.

There are none of the typical Easter eggs that belong to Faberge although there is an extraordinary silver model that Mimar Sinan, the famous Ottoman architect, traced at the Crimea’s Gozleve, as well as extraordinarily original Faberge products, including a table clock that Czar Nicholas II presented to the Ottoman sultan.

At the same time there are paintings done by painters who were very important in the art environment of their period, like Ayvazovsky.

There is also the material borrowed from Dolmabahçe Palace and the Military Museum, Russian medallions and orders, in addition to cigarette boxes that remained from the visits of grand dukes.

The material that has enriched the “Russia in the Ottoman Palace” exhibition is available through the loan of items by two sister museums, according to Prof. Dr. İIlber Ortaylı, the president of Topkapı Palace Museum.

Support like this among the Istanbul museums began with the Iranian exhibition and is now continuing. Ortaylı said no one museum is wealthy enough to open exhibitions on subjects that will teach history. Items related to a specific topic often have to be sought abroad and plans laid in order for an exhibition to be useful. He also emphasized that he believes exhibitions are a good way to teach young people about history.

Topkapı and the Kremlin

Turkey’s relations with Russia began at the end of the 15th century as a result of Ottoman support for the Crimean khanate. It is understood from the registries that the first Russian emissary was sent to Bayezid in 1492 perhaps because of the victory achieved by the Ottoman army in Albania and the siege of Belgrade.

Russian archivists search for the list of goods sent abroad conducted research in the Kremlin archives but could find no information. The gifts that were sent to the Ottoman palace during the reigns of Ivan IV and Tsar Boris Godunov, even if they exist in the palace, have not yet been established in the inventory. If the items were registered, the place of origin was likely not shown.

Nonetheless, unlike many palaces, it is known that Topkapı Palace was not pillaged. The wealth inside it for this reason was protected and some details written down and kept. For example, when a sultan died, all of his clothing would be bundled up, marked and stored. In another case, a palace was accused of having stolen jewels from the imperial treasury and he was only exonerated because the jewels in the treasury matched the inventory lists, nothing was missing.

While Turkish historian Halil Inalcik doesn’t mention the embassy of 1492, he has referred to the trade privileges in Ottoman territories obtained from the Ottoman sultans starting from the reign of Ivan III in 1496. From that year onwards, emissaries were exchanged between Istanbul and Moscow, and traffic between the two countries substantially increased.

The main items of exchange were Russian furs and Bursa silk brocades. According to Faik Reşit Unat, the first Russian political representatives were in Istanbul in 1497.

Although emissaries were exchanged between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, for many years no permanent embassy was opened in Moscow or in Istanbul. Ambassadors were sent with entourages usually whenever a treaty of friendship needed to be signed or, in some instances, to hand over the final version of a treaty as happened with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774.

At other times, it might be to present congratulations to someone who had newly ascended a throne as in the case of Yirmisekiz Mehmet Çelebi’s embassy to Moscow in 1731 although he is far better known for his report on his time as ambassador to the French court (1720-21).

In the Küçük Kaynarca instance, it was specified within the treaty that the ambassadors of the two countries should be treated equally. A senior member of the Ottoman bureaucracy, Abdülkerim Paşa, and Prince Nikolai Vasilevich Repnin, Russian Queen Catherine II’s envoy represented their respective countries and kept accounts of their trips that are still available today. Previous accounts written by Ambassadors Nisli Mehmed Aga (1722), Mehmet Emin Paşa (1742), Derviş Mehmet Efendi (1755) and Şehdi Osman Efendi (1757-58) recount their trips to Moscow and are still extant today. It may be that the Abdulkerim Paşa account is preferred because it has actually been printed. It has also been translated into English as has its companion report by Prince Repnin.

What is known is that the two ambassadors took gifts of equal value and there are copies of the list of gifts taken by Abdulkerim Paşa to Catherine II. These gifts meant for the Russian sovereign included a diamond and emerald aigrette, a horse harness decorated with diamonds, rubies and a large sapphire, a gold sword with jade handle with diamonds and other precious stones, many different types of equipment for horses from stirrups to tethers all decorated with precious and semiprecious stones and silk, brocade and satin cloth from India, Aleppo, Bursa and Istanbul.

One assumes that Prince Repnin brought with him gifts of equal value such as furs if one judges by the kinds of gifts he is supposed to have dispensed to people on the journey who offered him hospitality and on his arrival in Istanbul. The Ottomans who welcomed him in the city in turn presented with enough horses to mount his entire entourage as well as items covered in diamonds and rich brocades, fruit and flowers.

Nor were the women with him ignored, they too were given gifts: It is clear that the Ottomans were less than happy with the treaty since it concerned the empire’s defeat and Repnin was quite carefully but noticeably snubbed by the highest officials at the court.

The exchanges of emissaries between the Russians and Ottomans continued and the result for today’s world are very elegant works of art.

“Russia in the Ottoman Palace” can be viewed until July 26.

Hurriyet Daily News
17 April, 2010

Official Exhibition Web Site;

Russia in the Ottoman Palace at the Topkapi, Istanbul