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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 January 2005, 12:44 GMT
Telling a thousand-year story
By Robert Greenall
BBC News

With all eyes on Turkey's efforts to join the European Union, now would seem an ideal time for London's Royal Academy of Arts to stage what is probably the world's greatest ever exhibition of Turkish art and culture. The exhibition opens on Saturday 22 January.

And with the Islamic religion so much in the headlines, it is hard to ignore the fact that this is the academy's first exhibition of mostly Islamic art for over 70 years.

Woman views exhibit
The exhibition presents artistic diversity from little-known civilisations
Yet the show - entitled Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600-1600 - is so far-reaching that these factors barely feature on the radar of the organisers.

It spans four dynasties, from the little-known nomadic Uighurs of western China to the Ottoman Empire, which at its height reached the gates of Vienna and from whose ashes rose the modern Turkish state.

It provides a series of snapshots of a civilisation which is hard to pin down, living in a series of empires won over in what one chronicler described as a "storm on horseback".

I like the idea that once people come to visit the exhibition they will be thrown into a panic because they'll realise how little they know
David Roxburgh
Harvard professor of Islamic art
The Turks absorbed Persian and Arab cultures along the way. Chinese influences also appear throughout this exhibition.

Yet the role of the Turks remains little understood, and few people are aware of their artistic diversity.

"I like the idea that once people come to visit the exhibition, they will be thrown into a panic, because they'll realise how little they know," says Harvard Professor David Roxburgh, co-curator of the exhibition.

"That realisation is a very powerful realisation for all of us."

Toothy grimaces

The show, which took just a year to organise, is the academy's collaboration with Professor Roxburgh and the directors of the two main contributing museums, both in Istanbul. It is partly funded by the Turkish government.

We did the exhibition because we're trying to tell a story - we are trying to do it through wonderful objects
Norman Rosenthal
RA exhibitions officer
It presents more than 350 works from 11 countries - an extraordinary array of textiles, carpets, manuscripts, calligraphy, woodwork, metalwork and ceramics.

It begins in Central Asia, with artefacts representing the mix of cultural and religious influences along the Silk Road. Many date from the rule of the Uighurs, who ruled the region in the 8th and 9th Centuries.

It jumps to the 11th Century, when the Great Seljuk dynasty oversaw a flourishing of the arts and a large-scale conversion to Islam.

Perhaps one of the highlights of the exhibition is a 14th Century collection of bold, expressive paintings of nomads, devils and dervishes by Muhammad of the Black Pen.

These enigmatic works, with their toothy grimaces and wild expressions, are among the most valued possessions of Istanbul's Topkapi Palace museum and many have never before been seen in public, even in Turkey.

Dance, by Mohamed of the Black Pen [Istanbul Topkapi Saray museum]

After Seljuk rule disintegrated, new dynasties arose - including the Timurids who, under Timur or Tamerlane, based their rule on the aggressive empire-building style of the Mongol Genghis Khan.

These rulers were anxious to impress their new subjects in regions such as Persia and modern-day Afghanistan, experimenting with architecture, ceramics and inlaid metal.

It is only in the last three galleries that the exhibition turns to the Ottoman Empire, which finally brought the culture of the Turks into close contact with that of the Europeans.

Under Suleyman the Magnificent, who subdued the Balkans, the empire was at its military and cultural highpoint, with new advances in ceramics and calligraphy.

Scripts and imperial symbols were developed, such as the sultan's signature, the Tughra. And the calligraphy gave rise to a new genre of drawing called saz, intricate patterns of blossom and leaves.

Islamic capital

But the strange relationship of the Turks to Europe is rarely seen. European influence was strongest under one of the earlier Ottoman sultans, Mehmed II, who ironically was responsible for the capture of Constantinople.

Tughra, or signature, of Suleyman the Magnificent [Istanbul Topkapi Saray museum]
The Ottomans made new advances in calligraphy
Europe was simply not a factor that the curators saw fit to emphasise.

"If it had been an exhibition that was oriented to showing Turkey's relationship to Europe, why would we begin in western China?" Professor Roxburgh said.

So what is the glue that holds this exhibition together?

Academy exhibitions officer Norman Rosenthal acknowledged that the role of Islam in the exhibition was "enormous" and the Ottoman Empire became in many respects the capital of Islamic culture, with Mecca politically controlled by Istanbul for many centuries.

But there are other significant strands which run through the show.

"It's largely Islamic, substantially Islamic, but that's not the reason we did it," Mr Rosenthal told the BBC News website.

"We did the exhibition because we're trying to tell a story... We are trying to do it through wonderful objects."

Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years runs from 22 January until 12 April at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Turkey's long journey to Europe
17 Dec 04 |  Europe
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08 Jan 02 |  Europe
Royal Academy plans Turkish show
03 Sep 04 |  Entertainment
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20 Aug 04 |  Entertainment

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