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Ottoman aesthetıcs

Jale Erzen

Besides being a historic curiosity, there are several reasons why the understanding of another culture - distant in time or space - is of actual interest.  First of all,  in the PostModernist age the case of 'pluralism' cannot be objectively understood unless it is compared with historic cases and genetically analyzed.  One of the ways we can somehow transgress the egocentrism of our day is through the hermeneutics of historical analysis of other cultures.  Many present-day authors and artists, including architects who are concerned with rendering meaning to form or redeeming life into the contemporary landscape, emphasize the importance of understanding the history, or the life processes of the earth. The physical forms of our world are results of long processes of production and transformation, and even if they seem meaningless within the hectic and plastic dynamics of present day consumerist existence, they all have meanings to be discovered and maybe, hopefully, to be redeemed or rendered back.

Contemporary culture, in most of its manifestations is the product of the West, even if, naturally the whole world has helped in its formation through many diverse interactions.  Therefore, contemporary cultural phenomena and products of the non-western sometimes seem 'undeveloped' to the uniinitiated. Needless to say, both architecture, literature and other forms of creativity suffer from comparisons made with common criteria. There are however, other ways of evaluating and interpreting forms, depending on a clear understanding of diverse cultural perceptual norms and habits.  This does not always put works of art on equal basis, when it comes to evaluating form and content, but it does render them much more legible. It makes them acquire a stance of identity, which creates depth and meanings to be discovered.

Some modern day architects try to understand architectural forms of their culture  in going back in history to the mechanics and structures of their heritage. In Italy Etruscan and Roman life has been studied from many aspects.  It seems logical  to do the same with the Ottomans. Just as the Roman past is still alive and instrumental in Italy, the Ottoman past is still instrumental in Turkey.

One of the obvious reasons for historical analysis of forms and expressions is that, besides the pleasures of intellectual exercise, it affords us the tools to understand our own immediate environment, and our own subjectivity. Of course, hermeneutics, or understanding  'the other' as Hans George Gadamer defines it (Gadamer, Aesthetic and Religious Experience, Cambridge, p.141- Relevance of the Beautiful, ed. Robert Bernasconi), can also result in erroneous judgements. The sources used for analysis here are works of art and literature on cultures in similar time and conditions.

In approaching Ottoman aesthetics, for which very few teoretical literature exist, a general literary framework from Mediterranean culture and from Medieval times can be of use.  Even when cultures as distant as Far Eastern and Roman or Byzantine are the issue, one can look for similarities amongst them according to certain basic social principles that have been used by Marxist theoreticians.  Accordingly some of the basic common influences on cultural forms derive from means and types of production and consumption.  It is presumed that  pre-industrial or pre-capitalist cultures seem to exhibit similar ways of relating to the environment, to the 'other' and to space. Ottoman culture being both Mediterranean and Medieval may have had some similarities with medieval European culture of the Mediterranean.

Just like Roman culture, and also because of its having a historical background that was more hybrid, Ottoman culture was a synthesis of many diverse cultures.  This was due to Ottomans having been an Imperial power for about 600 years, and for having had their central seat in Anatolia, which has been a bridge for many cultural transactions and many migrations.  The heritage of Ottoman culture is Mediterranean, and hence, Roman, Greek and Byzantine; but it is also Oriental, hence Asian, Buddhist, nomadic.  It is Islamic, and as a culture that did not become secular or industrialized till the beginning of the 20th century, it remained basically Medieval in many approaches and notions. Although religion plays an important role in social structure and in the perception of the world, many metaphysical theories which have influenced aesthetic thought in Islam have common sources with those of Medieval Christian thought. As Umberto Eco has also stated, the similarities between Medieval and Oriental aesthetics  can also be seen as a source of affinity between Ottoman and Medieval aesthetics: 'It (Medieval aesthetics) can display unsuspected affinities with Oriental thought of the same period.' (Eco,p.119)

 As a medieval culture its aesthetic sensitivities  reveal a dilemma between an ascetic and a sensuous approach; a dilemma between the appreciation of inner and external beauty. As an example one can cite the story of the architect of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Mehmet Aga's life, related by Cafer Aga, where he talks of how sorry the Aga was because he had been involved with music a large part of his life, till he became employed by the Sultan as architect. (Risale-i Mimarriyye - An Early 17th Century Ottoman Treatise on Architecture,  Trans. Howard Crane, Muqarnas, 1987)

Because of the complexity of a rich heritage and cultural references, and because of the fact that it had inherited a very practical governmental system from the Byzantine and had adapted it to its distant Asian background, it is difficult to make generalizations about Ottoman culture, just as it would be for any culture at large even with lesser complexity.  On the one hand Ottomans were practical and orderly. To cite an example, exact record taking was habitual in all kinds of buildings and transactions and commercial enterprizes. (Ömer Lutfi Barkan, Süleymaniye Bookkeeping -Süleymaniye Tahrir Defterleri). Although this could have led to an objective historical overview, it did not. Till the 17th Century the Ottoman empire was self-referential; it was a closed culture, and often its interest in other cultures was only from the viewpoint of power. This made it difficult for it to view things objectively and comparatively, and to be self-critical.  As Foucault explains in 'The Order of Things' the modern age began with the catering in of the 'double' of the self. This gave the western  man the capacity to look at himself, as well as at the world, from the outside. Ottoman culture, at large, remained self-centered, and only after the realization of its losing power did it make the effort of self-criticism.

The Ottomans were extremely practical at the same time that they had their aesthetic preferences. If their miniatures reveal anything about their aesthetic and practical sense, we see that it was important for them to give as much information as possible on subjects they focused on.  One important subject was architecture, and in its rendering they uses all types of perspectives, and techniques of graphic representation.  The representation of the living, with three dimensionality and shadows, is said to have been forbidden because God would ask the painter to also give life to the subject. This is given as the explanation for lack of three dimensional rendering. However cultural habits of representation also play a role. For the Ottoman artist  realism and spatial depth meant different graphic appearance. He certainly did not look at all object with the same importance. Everything had a meaning and this meaning differed in importance. Three dimensionality was rendered not by linear perspective but rather through arabesques and the spiraling of forms around each other, by interpenetration and overlapping. There was a high naturalism in rendering nature, but it could also be highly stylized. The paintings of flowers and foliage on ceramics are full of individualistic details without becoming fully realistic.

We can say that the aesthetic sensitivities of Ottoman culture show qualities that are peculiar to oral cultures, judging from poetic nature of its literature at large. It was basically the court and the higher classes who were literate. It  was through metaphors, representations and references that meaning was constructed. We can consider the differences peculiar to Ottoman culture from the point of view of Ottoman society  for the most part  being an oral one.  Of course, there was a class of sophisticated literati of poets and historians . Yet, the aesthetic sensibility of Ottoman society on the whole showed qualities peculiar to oral cultures; In this sense it was not conceptual, but sensory. Rather than through abstractions and generalizaitons, ideas were transmitted through narration.  It made use of metaphors and poetic references. In this sense we never have direct criticism but inter-textual references and metaphoric allusions. As Eric A. Havelock elaborates in his book 'Preface to Plato' (New York, 1967)in oral cultures the experience that is related  is not generalized and remains truly subjective; it is related is through poetry and metaphor.  The treatise on The Sultan Ahmet Mosque of Mehmet Aga, as well as the treatises of Architect Sinan abound with metaphors, and generally these metaphors allude to nature in symbolizing any kind of quality, be it beauty or goodness. As is  the case in Medieval thought,  beauty is seen in relation to the 'good'.

There is a sense that everything is offered to us with some meaning; that the world abounds with meaning. In a pre-industrialized world, where production is still from the human hand, all objects stand for a meaning. Therefore, when the author of Sultan Ahmet's architect Cafer Aga talks about measures and numbers or words, he feels responsible to search for the meanings of the words, the letters, and even of all the numbers.  In the meadieval world all gesture, all form is meaningful, because it is the representation,  and the incarnation of a living  thing.  Nothing appears if there is not a spirit behind it.  This is most important to understand and belongs commonly to all pre-industrialized societies. This ceases to be true only when people begin to produce with the machine; then one begins to suspect if there is any 'spirit' or meaning behind these machine-produced objects.

As in Medieval culture, also in Ottoman aesthetics,  nature and culture opposition does not exist.  Or, one can briefly say that this is not a dialectical world; as it has  also been stated by Umberto Eco for Medieval culture, Ottoman aesthetics 'expressed an optimum synthesis'. (Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages,Yale University Press, 1986, p.118)

As an Eastern or Asian culture Ottoman culture did not emphasize  oppositions. Contrasts melted in unity; the nature/culture opposition was never an issue. In fact nature was the source of culture for the Ottoman. (Re: Jale Erzen - Humanism Through Nature, Natura e Sentimenti, Bologna, 2000)) With calligraphy this conception becomes clear:  the fact that the word is handed down by God and that the Koran was thought to be dictated to Mohammed makes one think that writing was also given to man by God. Culture was in this sense part of the god-created world.

This unity of subject and object makes it impossible for a conceptual order and attitude to develop. The fact that the world is not separated into categories makes an analytical view almost impossible; the way an oriental culture views the world is synaesthetic: poetic, whole.

One tries to deciper appearances but not what is behind them; because the reason behind what we cannot see is God's intention and we cannot question that. The approach to the world is full of apprehension and respect, believing that the infinity of existence could not be encompassed by the human mind. Since the creation fo god had to be perfect, there could be no need for change. The conviction that man cannot question god and his creation may be one of the reasons behind the lack of  theoretical writing.

Till the 17th century, the Ottoman state manifests itself as one of the most powerful states of the world, posessing the foremost technologies (of power). Till the 17th Century the Ottoman empire was a closed culture, and often its interest in other cultures was only from the viewpoint of power.This began to change when it realized its technological backwardness as a result of continuous military defeats, and looked to the west trying to reform its institutions. However, well into the 19th century, its relation to the world, its perception of its own position in the world will remain almost medieval.

Up to the late 16th and 17th centuries the relation to history remains one that views events in the world in the light of religion and often relies on superstitions in projecting the future.  Although there are many historic documents and chronicles related to state affairs, the sense of time is similar to the sense of space; it is not linear, but as in music, it is radial.  Time is conceptually idealized and life is simply a span between an ideal time and the afterworld. What constituted real history were the idealized life histories of the Sultans who were considered to be the shadows of God on earth. The miniatures that illustrated these stories give us an idea of what the good and beneficial life is. A sense of linear time in which events progressed may have been perceived in a quotidian way, on the idealized plane, history was the unfolding of important events in the appearance of the spiritual in the quotidian.

The imperial status of  Ottoman culture, its sense of pride, made etiquette, high order, protocol, ceremony, and staging important in everyday life, especially in the court and upper classes. The official architecture show a kind of ceremonial order and sobriety, as do the mosque interiors. This is also reflected in the art of painting. Especially in the 17th century Ottoman miniatures become more distinct  from the Iranian miniatures where nature is shown more freely, where colors are more expressive and the poetry more visible. The Ottoman miniatures are more strict and formal. The miniatures of the famous painter Levni representing a ceremony held for the circumcision of the Sultan's son, show a severe, almost military order in the spacing, arrangement of figures and in the composition. One point to be stressed is the special kind of space representation which resembles the child's, where the narrator's point of view is within the things he looks at.  In other words, the artists draws the world with himself in  the middle. He is not viewing what he is relating from a point outside.  This refers us again to the lack of the 'double' of the self, which Foucault points to as the emergence of Modern man.

In trying to understand how various aspects of diversity of the Ottoman background, is reflected in the forms of Ottoman culture, we have to also look at Mediterranean influences. These can be seen in the edifices of the 16th century religious architecture. They can be cited as being opennes to the outside, the clear legibility, the use of pure and geometric forms. What would relate Ottoman architecture to its Roman heritage is the importance given to structure; the emphasis on structure is evident in the form. The fact that the whole form of the building cannot be separated from its structural intentions creates an architecture which can be understood in how it relates to gravity, and how it relates to its environment.

The architectural heritage of the Turks since the time they moved into Anatolia in 1071 with the victory in Manzikert, show that their structural intentions had been clarity, opennes and purity. This is evident in almost all Seljukid and later principalities' architecture.  However, the adoption of the half dome from Byzantine architecture facilitated the culmination of this intention in a perfect ordering of form and structure, that we see in the mosques of Sinan. In these, the half dome makes a homogeneous interior space possible, where space expansions beyond the area covered by the central dome can have similar dimensions as the central space because the width of the half dome that covers them is the same as the radius of the dome.  This adoption of a Byzantine element used towards the intentions of Ottoman architecture shows how clearly defined these intentions had been. Even if Hagia Sophia which was a structure admired by the Ottomans had been their great inspiration and model, their own structures were clearly more in the light of Roman architecture in their clarity and purity and structural legibility than Hagia Sophia, which inspite of its glory belonged to a Greek, in fact Eastern culture.

The Islamic heritage may be forming the basis of the symbolic aspect of the structure which is also reflected in the decoration. This is the relationship of the basic geometries, the circle and the square; the former representing the heavens and spirituality or what is infinite and boundless, the square representing the earthly and the physical.  One can say that if this is an Islamic principle it has been best reflected in Ottoman architecture. This because the who structural dynamics of Ottoman art and architecture derives from the movement of the square within the circle, and in specifically architectural terms, the whole dynamics of the Classical Ottoman mosque is the problem solving of how to adapt the dome to the prismatic body of the building.
As mentioned in Keith Critchlow's book 'Islamic Patterns' (London 1976) which focuses on the decorative patterms that were derived from the relationship of the square to the circle, and which were extensively used in all the arts, this symbolism goes back to Platonic theory. Although, for this reason, its being a purely Islamic element can be contested. On the other hand, even when such far historic influences cannot be denied, in its openness to the exterior, its structural legibility, the luminosity of its interiors,  the Ottoman mosque is a far cry from other Islamic religious architecture.

One can say with conviction that the synthesis of all these various cultural relationships the Ottomans benefited from through history or geography, created a symbiosis which led to distinct expressions in architecture, painting and the other arts. This analyses shows that today's paradigm of pluralism is not something related to contemporary flux and that even in the most etnic or individualistic identities lie myriad influences; also that, especially in cultural studies, generalizations and essentialism are  bound to fail.  It also shows that political conditions could create autonomous cultural compositions.  The Ottomans are no longer around, but if we look well, there may be many other cultures who are actually sharing those particularities once belonging to other cultures and identities.


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