Website Review

Topkapi Museum

Bilkent University

Few websites offer an archive of visual images of Islamic art—this site is an exception. It provides images of pieces in a collection that once belonged to the powerful Ottoman dynasty. At the height of its power in the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire stretched from North Africa to Iran, the Balkans to the Arabian Peninsula. The Ottomans were considered, and considered themselves, leaders of the Islamic world in the modern era. For this reason, they took pains to acquire the masterpieces of Islamic art from before their time and to foster those arts in their own time. The result was a vast collection of treasures that this site helps users to access and appreciate.

Islamic art is a large category, including what in the West would be considered both “art” as well as “craft.” The media of Islamic art range from paper and canvas to textiles, metals, ceramics, and architecture. Art that is considered Islamic subscribes to a certain aesthetic—it is neither exclusively religious nor produced only by Muslims. And although figural representation is not allowed on some forms of religious art (for fear of idolatry), secular as well as some art forms with religious themes do in fact depict human figures, as is clear from these images. Because the website is sponsored by Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey—a university with a strength in Ottoman history and resources—the accompanying essays (ranging from approximately 1,000 to 2,500 words) are scholarly and quite useful.

The main page provides an introductory essay with images of Topkapi palace and navigation links. There are four museum information links and 12 links to the main collections at Topkapi. Museum information links include an essay on the historical background of the Topkapi palace (which was both a center of administration and residence for the Ottoman dynasty) and an extensive bibliography of about 90 works on Topkapi (many in English), indicating the importance of the palace itself. Another essay addresses the layout of the palace with images of five paintings and eight views of the complex.

The main collections include: harem; palace attire; imperial treasury; books; maps and calligraphy; miniatures; portraits of the sultans; clocks; sacred relics; porcelains; guns and armory; and rooms or various sections of the palace. Most of these images are photographs and almost all can be enlarged for closer viewing (this is important as much of the art is very detailed, and this allows viewers to appreciate the art fully).

“Harem” leads to an essay on the women’s quarters of the palace and provides images of some of the rooms. Using these images in a classroom exercise can help to dispel some myths about the oppressive nature of the harem and its function, which was residential. “Palace Attire” provides an archive of 10 images of the imperial robes of the Ottoman sultans. This can be useful in discussing the sophisticated nature of textile production in the Islamic world and the interesting range of designs that indicate the Asian origins of Turkic peoples and dynasties like the Ottomans.

“Imperial Treasury” leads to an essay and 32 images of some of the more spectacular holdings of the Ottoman dynasty, including famous jewels, paintings, and swords. These images clearly indicate the wealth and power of the Ottoman Empire. “Books, Maps and Calligraphy” links to a general essay on the manuscripts at Topkapi and to two examples from it: the Topkapi scroll and the Koran collection. The Topkapi scroll is a 16th-century manual of architecture with detailed illustrations demonstrating many aspects and intricacies of embellishment in Islamic architecture: 20 images are provided here. “Koran” introduces the more than 2,000 Korans in the palace collections, from the extremely old (8th century) to more spectacularly illuminated later manuscripts. The images of the Korans, the Topkapi scroll, and maps such as that of Piri Reis (arguably the oldest world map created before the age of European discovery and exploration), can provide students with evidence of the seriousness of Ottoman claims to leadership of the Islamic world, as well as the extent of scientific and secular learning patronized by the dynasty.

“Miniatures” links to an extensive collection of manuscript illustrations from the earliest periods of Islamic history (ca. 8th and 9th centuries) to the 16th century, and from the central Middle East to Iran and Central Asia. The 68 images are subdivided into periods and regions and are accompanied by useful introductory essays. More importantly, the miniatures represent a variety of subjects, human and otherwise, that illustrate both secular and religious texts and help to dispel the notion that there was no tradition of figural representation in Islamic art. Closer examination also allows students to appreciate the difficult and detailed techniques involved in Islamic miniature painting, as well as the different styles (some more “Asian” than others).

“Portraits of the Sultans” links to seven official portraits, in the European style, of the Ottoman Sultans. Compared to the miniature paintings, these portraits remind us that the Ottomans were as much a European empire as an Islamic one, and thus the sultans sought to immortalize themselves in the same manner as their other European counterparts. “Sacred Relics” and “Porcelains” provide a nice contrast: the former links to 14 images of relics thought to come from the Prophet Muhammad, encased in ornate gold and precious jewels, again reflecting Ottoman claims to leadership of the Islamic world. The latter links to 31 images of very rare Chinese and Japanese ceramics (the largest collection outside of East Asia), which again reflects the Ottoman connection to Asia.

“Links to Related Sites” provides a few more opportunities to learn about the treasures collected by the Ottoman dynasty. Among the 10 links provided here, the “Spoonmaker’s Diamond” leads to an essay on one of the world’s most impressive diamonds; the “Golden Cradle and Nadir Shah’s Throne” links to images of the throne of Suleiman the Magnificent (d. 1566) and a later Iranian Shah, and the “Siyer-I-Nebi” links to an illustrated essay on a famous 14th-century biography of the Prophet Muhammad. Such images of Islamic art from the Topkapi museum can not only bring to life periods of Ottoman history, but also the variety and brilliance of Islamic art, both of which are useful to the teaching of world history.

Reviewed by Sumaiya Hamdani, George Mason University

How to Cite This Source

"Topkapi Museum ," in in World History Commons, [accessed December 3, 2021]
The portrait of Selim III 1789-1807, showing Selim dressed in red robes sitting against some pillows
“Such images of Islamic art from the Topkapi museum can not only bring to life periods of Ottoman history, but also the variety and brilliance of Islamic art, both of which are useful to the teaching of world history.”