Tents were the oldest type of dwellings used by the Turks, and for centuries they played a special role in their lives. In order to fully understand Turkish cultural and political history, it is necessary to understand the tents which shaped their lives.
Tents served as palaces for Turkish rulers and homes for ordinary people, and encampments of hundreds or even thousands of tents formed tent towns and cities.
The tents used by the Turkish tribes which migrated into Anatolia from Central Asia were domed, a tent form still occasionally found in use today by pastoral nomads. Although basically identical in structure, such tents were referred to by different names in different places, such as yurd, topak ev, ak ev, and keçe çadır. The tents used by different Turkish clans differed only in minor details.
As the Turks made the transition from a nomadic lifestyle to tent cities, and later to a settled lifestyle in permanent cities with monumental works of architecture, the ancient tent tradition was never completely abandoned in Anatolia. The Ottomans founded a major empire and successfully adapted aspects of ancient nomadic culture to their own age. Tent culture and the experience gained from nomadic life played a major part in the dynamism and extraordinary organisational abilities of the Ottoman army, contributing to its achievements and conquests.
During military campaigns the Ottomans established nomadic tent cities, just as the Turks had done in much earlier times. In these cities the tents of the janissaries took the place of dwellings of the common people, and larger, grander tent complexes the place of the palaces and mansions of the ruling classes. Central to these nomadic cities was the otağ-ı hümayun or imperial tent complex of the sultan, surrounded by a zokak – a screen wall made of fabric known as seraperde. This ‘walled’ tent palace was as much a symbol of his power and splendour as the stone palace in the capital.
Until the end of the sixteenth century, tents of the domed yurd or keçe type were used, but subsequently were gradually superseded by tents with a different structure. Surviving examples are all of the latter columned type. These consisted of single columned tents with conical roofs, and tents with two or more columns and pitched roofs, which became widespread from the sixteenth century onwards.
The tent roof was known as the tepe, the walls as the çadır eteği, and the wall panels as hazine. The number of roof sections was equal to the number of wall panels and these were aligned when the tent was pitched. The roof and walls were fastened together by means of toggles made of boxwood, which passed through loops made of heavy thread. The toggles and loops were concealed beneath a two layered valance along the lower edge of the roof covering. The apertures for the columns which supported the tent roof in the centre and at the corners were reinforced by leather or wooden discs. When the tent had been erected decorative emblems known as alem were fitted to the top of the columns where they emerged through the tent roof.
Almost all the tents, with the exception of some simple ones, consisted of a double shell. The inner shell was usually made of tent cloth or satin, often red in colour. The focal point of the interior decoration was this inner shell. The outer shell was mostly made of heavy tent canvas dyed verdigris green, the colour of oxidised copper, and onto this were sewn slanting woven bands (kolan) which lent the strength required for the tent wall to withstand the force exerted when it was pulled taut. These bands form the structural framework of the tent. Similar bands were also sewn along the seams and beneath the toggles and the rings to which the tent ropes were attached; in short to every part of the tent which would be subjected to maximum strain.
The relationship between fabric tents and actual buildings is underscored by the decoration typical of the early tents in particular, consisting of arcades of columns and arches on the tent walls and decoration reminiscent of wall tiles executed in the appliqué technique. In the late period, embroidery and other needlework techniques were used alongside the traditional applique work. Tents and marquees dating from the 19th and early 20th century made for the sultan generally feature heavy embroidery in gold and silver thread, and European influence is increasingly visible in the designs.
Marquees (sayeban) were canopy tents open along one or sometimes more sides, and occur in various different types. The most common type consisted of a slanting rear wall, closed sides with dust panels, and a high canopy stretching over the open front and supported by four poles.
In a miniature painting depicting the tent city erected at Okmeydanı for the festivities celebrating the circumcision of the sons of Ahmed III in 1720 we see diverse types of tents and marquees. When we compare this miniature, which presents a view as if seen from the air of the tent city, in the centre of which is the otağ-ı hümayun, with a modern aerial photograph of Topkapı Palace, the similarity between the otağ-ı hümayun and the architecture of the palace is quite astounding. This confirms that the complex may indeed be described as a ‘portable palace’.
The otağ-ı hümayun was designed to leave the same impression of power and magnificence on the observer as Topkapı Palace. As at the palace, different structures served different functions. There was a tent for sessions of the Divan (Council of State), a treasury tent, a tent for the sacred relics, a bath tent, a lavatory tent referred to as çeşme, larder tents, kitchen tents, and so on. In addition there was the Kasr-ı Adalet, literally Pavilion of Justice, which stood in for the Tower of Justice at Topkapı Palace. All these tents was surrounded by a high cloth wall, the zokak. Nearby was a stable tent for the sultan’s favourite horses.
A corps of imperial tent pitchers and tentmakers known as mehters was responsible not only for producing tens for the sultan and his officers; but also their maintenance, repair and storage; and when in use, for transporting, pitching and dismantling them. The mehters also made cushions, mattresses, pillows and curtains for the imperial palaces and barges. Both this organisation and the band of palace musicians were known as mehter, the former distinguished by the latter the mehterhane-i hayme.
The part of Ibrahim Paşa Palace facing Firuzağa Mosque in Sultanahmet Square housed the tentmakers in the 16th century, and in the nineteenth century the organisation occupied the entire building.
The mehterhane building did not consist only of store rooms for palace tents, and workshops for their manufacture and repair, but also the barracks of the corps, which was divided into four chambers: the otak-ı geran-ı hassa or imperial tentmakers, the nakşduzan or needleworkers, the haymeduzan tent tailors, and the perdeciyan or curtain makers. In the fifteenth century the coprs consisted of just 38 men, but this increased to 871 during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century. There were 833 members of the corps during the reign of Murad III, 835 at the turn of the seventeenth century 835, 2000 in the mid-seventeenth century, 875 and 861 in 1757 and 1776 respectively, and 800 at the end of the eighteenth century.
Perusal of the palace records shows that just as numerous new pavilions and palaces were built, new tents were frequently made for the sultans to use at diverse outdoor entertainments and functions, even though there were already many magnificent tents in the stores. For example, the list of materials purchased in 1740 includes 7476 dirhem of silver thread from the Imperial Mint used to embroider a tent of the aba type, but a new tent of similar type was made in 1792, although the earlier one must have still been extant.
Palace officials and statement were presented with tents, and historical records provide abundant information about tents given not only to grand vezirs, vezirs and other high-ranking officials, but also to the khans of the Crimea and members of their family. Since envoys sent by foreign rulers were regarded as coming under the protection of the sultan the moment they set foot on Ottoman soil, their principal needs were provided by the state. The furnishings for their residences or tents as required were supplied from the mehterhane stores. A document dated 1682 from the reign of Mehmet IV lists repairs to sets of tents belonging to the sultan, princes and princesses, and harem officials.
The important place occupied by the tent in Ottoman life increased demand to such an extent that the imperial tentmakers could not always keep up, and from time to time tents were ordered from centres of tent production like Aleppo and Skopje. In the case of orders from Aleppo we know that precious materials such as gold and silver leaf were sent from Istanbul. Transportation of the finished tents from Aleppo was apparently not easy, as documents referring to problems which arose show.
Transportation of the tents by camel during military campaigns or for other functions; selecting appropriate sites; and pitching the tents were all the responsibility of the mehter corps. In his memoirs Antoine Galland records that in 1673 the sultan’s tents were carried on nearly six hundred camels. From the account of the 1634 Revan campaign by the Ottoman historian Ibrahim Efendi (1574-1649), known as Peçevi, we learn that Sultan Murad IV had a double set of tents, so that one group of tent pitchers could go on ahead and erect the imperial tent complex at the next halting place in readiness for the sultan’s arrival, while another group remained behind to dismantle the complex at the previous stop: ‘They set out ahead and sought a suitable site for the army camp and the tent complex for his majesty the sultan. The following day the army made their way to the selected spot and pitched their tents. Then the sultan followed them in procession and entered his tent’.
Although paintings of audiences given by the sultans or their commanders in chief when the sultan did not participate in the campaign show their tents open at the front, they do not reveal in any detail how the interiors were furnished. A carpet was spread in front of the tent, and on this was placed a throne or a raised seat. In the tents where the sultan sat to watch entertainments, he sat either on a throne or on a cushion with a pillow. Foreign envoys were always provided with a chair to sit in European fashion. When the tents were opened at the front, a beautiful curtain was always drawn across the opening in front of the column to conceal the interior, and this also functioned as a background for the scene. The decoration visible on the inner shell of the front wall which was lifted to form a canopy, on the curtain across the opening and on the marquees around the royal tent created a splendid setting for innumerable ceremonies held our of doors.
One such ceremony was the accession of Selim II, which took place in Belgrade following the death of Süleyman the Magnificent during campaign in 1566. Instead of holding the ceremony in one of the large buildings in that city, it took place in the imperial tent complex of the camp amidst its richly decorated tents and marquees.
This setting can have been no less impressive than those of other earlier accession ceremonies. The miniature painter has vividly depicted the splendour of the scene created by the royal tents. The ranks of officials in attendance dressed in ceremonial costumes made of precious fabrics heighten the impact of the scene, in which the artist has used his imagination in creating beautiful designs on the tents and marquees which do not correspond to those seen on actual tents.
One miniature painting shows a banquet taking place in a tent. This banquet was given by commander-in-chief Lala Mustafa Paşa to the janissary officers before setting out on the Iran campaign in 1587. The miniature, which illustrates Gelibolulu Âli’s Nusretname, shows how magnificent a banquet given in tents could be.
Among the ordinary people tents were also used until late Ottoman times, particularly for the country excursions and holidays. Meadows outside Istanbul, such as those at Kağıthane on the Golden Horn, were popular places for picnics and outings. In the summer months people would come here and camp for days and sometimes even months, enjoying the scenery and diverse entertainments. To meet the needs of this temporary community, which could number thousands of tents, hundreds of shops were set up. The same custom was seen in other towns and cities.
Latrine tents were in use long before lavatories had become a standard feature of many palaces in Europe, and even janissary officers had their own bathing tents, showing that the continued use of tents by the Ottomans cannot be looked upon as a relic of earlier nomadic Turkish culture. Instead the Ottomans developed this culture, transforming it into a sophisticated phenomenon appropriate to a great empire.
Source: Nurhan Atasoy, Otağ-ı Hümayun: The Ottoman Imperial Tent Complex, Aygaz (Koç Yayınları), İstanbul, 2000.