Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Treasures Revealed Fort Lauderdale Museum Offers Unparalleled Look into the Opulent History of the Byzantine Empire

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Treasures Revealed Fort Lauderdale Museum Offers Unparalleled Look into the Opulent History of the Byzantine Empire

Article excerpt

FORT LAUDERDALE -- Fifty years before Columbus sailed to the New World, the Conqueror Mehmed II, besieged and took Constantinople, capitol of the Byzantine Empire, once the grandest and most impregnable city in the world. He began planning the assault at the age of 19 and was 21 when he rode through the streets of what was to become the seat of the Ottoman empire.

From that day until their empire's fall in the 1920s, the Ottoman sultans amassed land and riches, the best the world had to offer. Their palace was Topkapi, the sublime port on the shores of the Bosphorus. Although not immune from natural disasters -- Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey, is on a fault line -- Topkapi, unlike similar palaces Versailles or the Hermitage, has never been looted or occupied for long by foreign or revolutionary invaders. From Mehmed's time until the present, it has been a repository of the world's wealth and culture, be it art, architecture, literature, religious artifacts, precious metals and gems or fine textiles.

"Palace of Gold & Light, Treasures from the Topkapi, Istanbul," on display through Feb. 28 at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, is an unparalleled look into the luxurious and intricate life of the Ottoman sultans and the people who served them. No visitor to Topkapi itself will ever see such a comprehensive collection. Many items here, the exhibit's third and last stop (Washington and San Diego preceded Fort Lauderdale), are never shown. Those that are, including the famous emerald and diamond Topkapi dagger of movie fame, are displayed and lighted better than they might be at home.

The dazzle factor exceeds anyone's imagination. Rubies, emeralds and diamonds the size of pigeon and chicken eggs adorn ceremonial daggers, swords and pins. Boxes to hold precious relics or pens and ink are dotted with more precious gems than a dalmatian has spots. Intricate embroidery and threads of gold and silver enhance even mundane items such as children's underwear, hand towels, barber's aprons and the cloth bundles that royal robes were wrapped in for storage. Nothing is exempt from superior design and workmanship: gate keys, book bindings, administrative seals, lists of craftsmen and their salaries, deeds, wooden cabinet doors.

More important and lasting, however, is the new knowledge of a mysterious and little-known culture. The exhibit, which fills the museum's second floor, is organized in five parts: Sultan Mehmed II -- The Conqueror; Mysteries of Kingship; the Sultan as Head of State; The Hidden Palace; and Ottoman Artists. Together they show life in Topkapi as never before. Consequently, centuries of stereotypes fall away like layers of the stylized tulips, carnations and artichokes found in the patterns of Ottoman design.

The first display case encountered contains the utilitarian "killing" sword wielded by Mehmed II when he took Constantinople. Next to it is his fur-lined robe. Nearby, in another display case, is a translation of Avicenna's 15th century Canones ("Book on Medicine"), gloriously bound in red Italian velvet. It, too, belonged to Mehmed II. So much for the Western stereotype of the sultan as a ruthless, scimitar-wielding, blood-thirsty barbarian.

The first sultan was no Attila the Hun. Mehmed II was learned, an avid reader in several languages, an appreciator of art and beauty, a collector of books, a brilliant military strategist, remarkably tolerant of other religions and cultures and an insightful administrator. Six centuries of heirs continued this paradox of pragmatic, empire-building and sometimes cruel military strategist vs. lover of art, beauty and literature.

Topkapi was not merely the residence of the Sultan and his family. It was a city within a city, a series of ceremonial pavilions, living quarters, government offices and service buildings arranged around open courtyards set in a large park surrounded by protective walls.

Take the White House, Capitol, Supreme Court, CIA and FBI, Treasury, Mint, the military industrial complex, then throw in the financial, fashion, restaurant and jewelry districts of New York and you have an idea of what it must have been like. …

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