The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts has the unique distinction of being both the last museum to be opened in the era of the Ottoman Empire and also the first Turkish museum to bring together Turkish and Islamic works.
It was opened up for visitors in 1914 in the Imaret building (Alms house) inside the Sulemaniye Mosque Complex, one of the finest buildings of architect Mimar Sinan, and was called the ‘Evkâf-ı İslâmiye’ (Museum of Islamic Foundations). The greatest factor in the establishment of the museum was the theft of works from the buildings of pious foundations such as mosques, masjids, monasteries and lodges. Due to this problem, letters signed by Grand Vizier Hüseyin Hilmi Pasha were sent out to customs posts, calling for vigilance to prevent the works being smuggled out to European Museums.
However, the thefts continued despite all the precautions, and works including rugs, kilims, manuscripts, wooden containers, book stands (rehal), lamps, mihrabs and ceramics were taken. Increasing theft put the imperative need to gather the items together in one safe place back onto the agenda. Works were gathered from the plundered buildings of religious foundations such as mosques, masjids and tombs, and the ‘Evkâf-ı İslâmiye’ (Museum of Islamic Foundations) was founded by a commission under the leadership of Osman Hamdi Bey, manager of the Imperial Museum.
After the declaration of the Turkish Republic, the museum was renamed as ‘The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts’, and in 1983 it was moved from the Sulemaniye Alms house to its current location in the Ibrahim Pasha Palace. The palace is one of the most important buildings of 16th century Ottoman civil architecture. It is situated in Istanbul’s famous historical site, the Hippodrome, rising up over its old tiers. Ibrahim Pasha Palace was renovated by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1520 and bestowed on his son-in-law and vizier, Ibrahim Pasha. As well as being the palace of the vizier, in certain periods it also functioned as a ‘Spectator Palace’. In 1530, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent watched the circumcision festivities of princes Mustafa, Mehmed and Selim from the oriel of Ibrahim Pasha Palace.
The collections of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts are extremely diverse, hosting a vast selection of works from the earliest period of Islamic art up to the 20th century, including items from the Umayyad, Abbasid, North African (Moorish), Andalusian, Fatimid, Seljuk, Ayyubid, Ilkhanid, Mamluk, Timurid and Safavid dynasties, the beylik and Ottoman periods and from various countries of the Caucasus. In addition to this, the records kept by religious foundations, stating where most of the works came from, make this collection an invaluable historical testimonial.
Many sections of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts are rich enough to constitute a museum all on their own. These are the carpet, manuscript, wood, glass-metal-ceramic and ethnography sections. The museum’s manuscript collection is so unique that hardly any other collection can be compared to it. As well as spanning a long period from the early Islamic era up to the 20th century, and the wide geographical area of the Islamic countries, the collection is made all the more distinguished through the inclusion of works produced by the most sophisticated artists and calligraphers of the day. These were commissioned by Ottoman sultans for the libraries of holy foundations built in their name or presented to them as gifts. The museum also contains decrees, charters, deeds and other unique documents, making up a total collection of 18,298 works, which has earned the deserved recognition of the world of knowledge.
Containing 1,700 pieces, the museum’s carpet collection is the most important in the world. Its richness and diversity led to it being described in foreign publications for many years as a ‘Carpet Museum’. Together with significant examples from the Seljuk era, all groupings of Ottoman carpets are represented here in the utmost diversity: 15th century prayer rugs and carpets with animal figures; carpets made in Anatolia from the 15th to 17th centuries in a style referred to in the West as Holbein and Lotto, and the renowned Uşak (Ushak) carpets, with their characteristic medallions and stars, which were made in Uşak and the surrounding areas. Iran and the Caucasus also have a sumptuous carpet tradition and huge carpets from across these areas make up another important part of this collection.
The metal-glass-ceramic works in the collection are particularly important from the aspect of Medieval metal arts. Thanks to these works, it is possible to see the incremental changes in science, technology, tools, implements and everyday items between the 12/13th century and the end of the Ottoman era.
Other valuable assets of the museum are ceramics and gypsum plaster reliefs from Seljuk and Ottoman buildings that are mostly no longer in existence, wall paintings rescued from palaces in the famous Abbasid-era capital city of Samarra and stoneware from Raqqa. The same is the case for other groupings among the museum’s collections, especially the woodwork. Many of the door and window shutters, sarcophagi and book lecterns are rare surviving examples of the legacy of this exceptional artistic era. Additionally, this rich collection contains other fascinating pieces from the Ottoman era, including woodwork inlaid with pearl, ivory and tortoise-shell, peerless examples of the art of inlay, Quran ajiza cases, book lecterns and drawers.
Stonework from the early Islamic, Seljuk and Ottoman periods make up another important collection at the museum. Within the collection are column capitals from the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, architectural construction features, milestones and inscriptions, as well as the renowned Seljuk-era figure compositions sculpted from stone.
The Ethnography section of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts houses collections containing different aspects of Ottoman social life from more recent history, from the 18/19th century to the first half of the 20th century. A substantial textile collection, together with comprehensive collections related to important institutions of social life, such as the hammam, coffee and Karagöz shadow plays, have been collated through field research. The ‘Istanbul Women’s Clothing’ collection and various items reflecting the life of the Turkish populace make this a fascinating section. Due to renovation work in the museum’s Ethnography display room, it is currently closed. The section is scheduled to re-open to the public on the first half of 2019.