Istanbul exhibition showcases Ottoman manuscripts
ISTANBUL – Anadolu Agency
An Istanbul exhibition on Ottoman manuscripts is attempting to explore the multifaceted life and culture of the period.
The exhibition, Memories of Humankind: Stories From the Ottoman Manuscripts is curated by K. Mehmet Kentel.
The Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation has displayed its collection at the exhibition – which is open for public until July 25 – at the Istanbul Research Institute.
“This collection itself is based on mostly Şevket Rado’s private collection,” the curator said, referring to the influential intellectual who lived between 1913-1988.
According to Kentel, Rado was “interested in collecting intellectually stimulating works that reflected different aspects of Ottoman social and cultural life”.
In 2007, the Istanbul-based foundation purchased the collection, which later arrived at the Istanbul Research Institute.
“Since then it has been open to our readers, our users of the library. They were digitized for those who are interested,” Kentel said.
A catalog on the manuscripts was published in 2014 and was widely used by academics, but the larger public was mostly unaware of it.
“So with this exhibition, what we have in mind is to make this collection known to a larger audience, but also make the public, cultural enthusiasts in Istanbul interested in Ottoman history,” he added.
The exhibition was organized with the help of advisors, Baha M. Tanman, Aslıhan Gürbüzel, Selim S. Kuru, Akif Ercihan Yerlioğlu, and Aslı Niyazioğlu, and is designed by PATTU Architecture.
67 copies were selected
“Manuscripts surviving from the Ottoman era still have many stories to tell, even after 90 years have passed since the adoption of the Latin script [in Turkey], 100 years since the collapse of the empire, and almost 200 years since the spread of the printing press,” reads a leaflet about the exhibition.
There are 626 volumes of manuscripts at the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation, each usually containing more than one work. The entire collection comprises 1,311 works.
A total of 67 copies were selected for the exhibition. “We selected these using different parameters, sometimes we picked the most beautiful, or the most extraordinary – and sometimes the most typical,” Kentel added.
One of the selected works for the display is a divan, an anthology of poems by the 16-century Ottoman poet Baki.
The book contains a note by its copyist saying it was seen by Baki himself and approved by him.
“So, Baki really looked at this manuscript and verified that these are his poems, and this is a very good selection, a complete collection of his poetry,” Kentel explained.
The Ottoman manuscripts at the exhibition are in Persian, Arabic as well as Ottoman Turkish and “they very much reflect the Ottoman social and cultural life especially in the early modern period,” Kentel said.
Complex, interesting Ottoman history
According to Kentel, Ottoman history is multi-layered, multilingual and not straightforward. “[Ottoman] history has a lot of very interesting, sometimes very controversial stories.”
“It’s not only a linear history of the rises and falls of the states or wars and agreements and their reasons and their results,” he said.
“So this exhibition really tries to use this collection in order to delve into these different interesting grounds of Ottoman history,” he added.
Kentel gave details of the exhibition which is divided into six thematic sections plus an introduction. “The exhibition first gets a larger view of the manuscripts of culture. So who produces these manuscripts? Who copied them? Who read them? Who left notes in the margin area?”
For Kentel, highlighting the role of non-human actors on manuscripts is one of the most attractive parts of the display.
“We know about the authors, we know about the readers, we know about the copyists or "müstensih," who copied these different works throughout time, but there were also non-human actors involved,” he said.
“These would include all different environmental elements that make up a single paper or a binding. Or similarly, all these different environmental elements that makeup ink that people used to write on these books, but also animals, insects,” he added.
“They inhabited these single individual manuscripts where we can find their different traces, bites on the paper,” according to Kentel.
The manuscripts also include, as Kentel said, the other-worldly, such as "kebikeç," a talisman used to protect manuscripts from bookworms as well as evil spirits.
Kentel explained the first thematic section of the exhibition, which is called "Multilingualism in Ottoman Manuscripts," which traces how multiple languages were used in manuscripts by the authors and readers.
“There are Ottoman Turkish, Arabic and Persian manuscripts here and there are translations,” he said.
“Translations of famous Persian Rumi, Divan or Alexander romance, İskendername,” he said referring to the works of 13th-century Muslim mystic poet Mevlana Jalaluddin al-Rumi and 14th-century Anatolian poet Ahmedi, respectively.
“This is the first Turkish edition of the famous tale of Alexander which brings together real-life events that happened in Alexander’s lifetime with mythological, and religious figures, all in this single work and this was a very famous very popular work that was read by many, many Ottomans throughout centuries,” Kentel said, adding the book was originally written in Persian and was translated to Ottoman Turkish with some important changes.
“So those stories were told in Persian, in Turkish, in Greek, in Arabic, in Armenian in many different languages throughout the larger Mediterranean world,” he added.
The second thematic section is titled the History of Extra/Ordinary Life, which delves into the daily lives of the Ottomans and the things they did in order to break the ordinary, he added.
“For example, music, we have lavishly illustrated song collections [mecmua] from the late 18th century,” he added.
The selection also contains an 18-century cookbook, which includes recipes that are used to this day.
“On the verge of the ordinary and extraordinary, we have this variety of selection of manuscripts that highlight different aspects of the Ottoman cultural and social history,” Kentel concluded.
The other thematic sections of the exhibition are Healing Manuscripts, Love and Sexuality in the Ottoman Literature, In Pursuit of the Unknown, and Istanbul in Writing.