Non-Ottoman and non-Turkish gaudiness

Non-Ottoman and non-Turkish gaudiness

When I saw the gaudy chairs German Chancellor Angela Merkel was seated in during her visit to Turkey, I took a look at the photos of Sultan Abdülaziz and Sultan Abdul Hamid; no, they did not have such gaudy armchairs. 

It is not tasteful splendor, it is only gaudiness. The correct word for these armchairs and for the presidential palace in Ankara is “gaudy.”

While such ornaments are used to create some grandness, some highness, it is also for show, for magnificence… Architect Ahmet Serbestoğlu, who renovated the chairs, said, “I also find these armchairs too pompous.”   

These chairs were brought from France during the time of Sultan Abdülaziz. Apparently the French built these “oriental” style chairs for the “Oriental Palace” they imagined.

Orientalism was the image of the East in the mind of the West. 

Including Dolmabahçe Palace, there were no such gaudy, throne-like chairs in Ottoman palaces. It must have been that the Ottomans did not like them either because they did not use them. They were found in depots years later in a poor state and they have been restored. 

Art historian Nurhan Atasoy said, “Armchairs have entered our houses, our palaces with westernization. The armchairs of the Ottoman palaces were made at Pera [Beyoğlu], Istanbul, or they were ordered from Europe. These chairs were designed by the French based on what they imagined the Ottoman taste would be; for this reason, indeed they are orientalist. They envisioned them as thrones and added a crescent on top.” 

Atasoy said the gold color applications were very bright because they were new and they were too eye-catching for historical décor. She added she did not like them either. 

So, these armchairs are not “Ottoman;” they are not modern; they are “orientalist.”

In our cultural history, the concepts of tradition, modernization, westernization and what Şerif Mardin called “extreme westernization” are intertwined; they are a complicated mixture.

Interestingly, the “extreme westernization” and “orientalist” tastes are intermingled. Several novels in our literature are examples of this. 

“Tanzimat,” the political reforms made in the Ottoman state starting in 1839 onward, is indeed one of the most significant factors that moved us to an independent state in the 20th century. As historian Yılmaz Öztuna has said, if the Ottoman reforms had not taken place, most probably the Turkish Empire would have disintegrated toward the end of the 19th century and perished. 

However, there is another side of the medallion: 

“In sharp contrast to the Japanese, who took over Western production methods while retaining their traditional consumption pattern, the Middle Eastern upper and middle classes rushed to adopt European ways of dress and built European-style houses, while failing to learn European methods of production. (Charles Issawi, An Economic History of Middle East and North Africa, p.156)

Monumental buildings and all art masterpieces built by sultans and kings in history are among humankind’s cultural heritage.

However, in our times, major buildings are built with economic functions and urban values in mind. Monumental structures such as cultural palaces are built for public purposes.

Turkey did not need Beştepe Palace. No national or international person had ever found Çankaya Mansion inadequate. The palace on the other hand, with its thousand rooms of luxury, was all over the world’s press. 

The restoration of Ottoman masterpieces is of course a cultural activity to be applauded. However, I think it would have been better if Merkel was hosted in one of the halls regarded as “magnificent” in Yıldız or even Dolmabahçe Palace instead of too brightly colored, golden, throne-like armchairs.