Islamic Art varies substantially from Western Art due primarily to restrictions in the Koran on depicting the human form. Rather than being representational of the profane world, the perfection of Ottoman art lies in the pure balance of colour, line and rhythm in geometric patterns and designs.

Of the Ottoman arts, Calligraphy was the most important. Such mundane items as tax reports, property deeds and imperial edicts became exquisite works of art. This aptly reflects the bureaucratic nature of the empire, with its stress on writing and registering. Turkish calligraphers contributed to the development of new and more ornate styles of calligraphy. Each of the sultans had their own monogram in stylized script, called a tugra. Sultan Ahmet III and Sultan Bayezit II were skilled calligraphers. In 1928 Ataturk introduced the Latin alphabet, sounding the deathknell of the art of Arabic calligraphy in Turkey. Many of the greatest works were preserved in the extensive Ottoman archives and can be seen at Topkapi Palace, Ibrahim Pasha Museum and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.


Marbled paper or ebru is an art form that was developed in Turkey in the fifteenth century. Mineral and vegetable dyes are sprinkled on water mixed with gum and the gall fluid of cattle, over which a sheet of paper is laid, creating unique and unrepeatable patterns. Traditionally, this paper was used for borders on Ottoman panels and miniatures, and for the inside covers and flyleaves of books. Today mass-produced marbled paper is used for such purposes, though the art of marbling continues.

Meerschaum is a mineral substance found only in Turkey, from which pipes and ornaments have been hand-carved since the 1700’s. As few Turks smoke pipes, they are made mostly for export.

Under the Byzantines Constantinople nearly bankrupted itself obtaining huge amounts of silk from China via the silk route, needed for the production of vast quantities of religious vestments and decorations. In the sixth century, a number
of the closely guarded silkworm eggs were stolen by two Russian monks and brought to Constantinople. Silkmaking quickly became a huge industry, centered in Bursa, and was inherited by the Ottomans when they replaced the Byzantines. Today, Bursa is still an important textile center, famous for its salt-dye techniques.

The art of embroidery most likely traveled west with the Turkic nomads from their Central Asian homelands. It was widely used; the military equipment of the Selcuk and Ottoman soldiers included tents, pavilions, banners, saddles and holsters richly embroidered with motifs and battlescenes, many of which are preserved in the Military Museum in Harbiye, Istanbul. Religious hangings for mosques, prayer carpets and Koranic cases were covered in graceful floral patterns in delicate colours offset with silver and gold. Many of the items of daily life, such as towels, bed coverings and veils were similarly adorned. For the Ottoman Court, silk brocades and velvets were elaborately for ceremonial purposes, often using gold or silver threads on purple velvet. Embroidery designs were based on the geometric and floral patterns used in ceramics and woven silks, though motifs and styles varied from village to village. Some embroidery was commercially produced in workshops where men and some Christian women worked, but the quality and originality of this work was slightly inferior. The women of the harems produced magnificent work for their
ceyiz or trousseaux and to grace their bridal chambers on their wedding nights. This art form reached its creative peak in the 16th century and then was revived again around 100 years ago with the establishment of Girls Technical Schools where it is still commonly taught. Many excellent examples can be seen in the Topkapi Museum and the Sadberk Hanim Museum in Sariyer, or bought in the Grand Bazaar.

Like traditional crafts everywhere, embroidery is being killed by cheap technology. However, most grandmothers still pass their time ornamenting bed coverings and clothes for their grandchildren. The Black Sea resort of Sile specializes in the production of embroidered cotton clothing, towels and tablecloths.

Turkish painting in the western sense only began in the 19th century, with the founding by Osman Hamdi Bey, himself an accomplished painter, of the Academy of Fine Arts. Turkish painters were sent to France and Italy by the Sultan, and foreign painters, mostly Italian, were brought from Europe to transfer their skills. Today this academy is known as Mimar Sinan University. The most famous of the early Ottoman painters are Osman Hamdi Bey, Seker Ahmet Pasha, Hoca Ali Riza, Sevket Dag , Ahmet Ziya and Halil Pasha. In 1919 the Ottoman Society of Painters held their first exhibition in Galatasaray.


Ottoman Art consisted mainly of the traditional forms outlined above, with the exception of Turkish Miniatures. The Sultans and elite who patronized this often representational art, kept their paintings for private viewing, fearful of the religious zeal of the public. Miniature painters were divided into two categories; those who painted decorative murals and flowers, and the smaller number, many of whom were non-Muslims, who painted portraits, sieges and battle-scenes. Turkish miniatures are not as famous as Persian ones, although they are often more moving and powerful, due to the stronger shades used and to a greater attention to detail.

It was only in the 19th century that a Turkish painting movement in the Western sense occurred, with the founding by Osman Hamdi Bey of the Academy of Fine Arts (now the Mimar Sinan University School of Fine Arts). The Sultans began to bring foreign painters, mostly Italian or French, to live as court painters, and Turkish painters were sent abroad to learn from European masters. Among the best known of the early Ottoman painters are Osman Hamdi Bey, Seker Ahmet Pasha, Hoca Ali Riza, Sevket Dag , Ahmet Ziya and Halil Pasha. They were primarily landscape painters, with few portraits. In 1919 the Ottoman Society of Painters held their first exhibition in Galatasaray. Following the war, impressionism was a major influence on Turkish painters. The most successful impressionist painter was Halil Pasha. Painting continued to develop through the thirties and forties, with increased emphasis on design and subject matter. The abstract and cubist movements were popular in Turkey, the best known painters in this genre are Sabri Berkel, Halil Dikmen, Cemal Bingol and Semsettin Arel. Today’s Turkish artists are no longer bound in subject or design by their past, and a wide range of techniques and approaches are being used by the many artists at work today. There is an ever-increasing number of art galleries showcasing these young talents, with regular exhibitions of new work.

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