Fabrics constituted an indispensable element of Ottoman ceremonial: in the form of costumes, banners, wall hangings, curtains and ground coverings they lent visual magnificence to processions and receptions, and as ‘robe of honor’ (hil’at) bestowed on court servants and foreign diplomats, they were unmistakable signifiers of the sultan’s power and generosity (Fig. 1). Even after death, the clothes of the sultans and some of the members of the imperial family were treated with reverence, placed in their tombs or stored in the palace carefully wrapped and labeled for posterity. The ceremonial kaftans and other garments in the collection of the Topkapı Palace Museum, many of which have been kept there since the deaths of their owners, testify to the dazzling impression that textiles undoubtedly made at state functions. Despite the existence of plentiful accounts by native subjects and foreign observers, and of miniature paintings that illustrate dynastic histories, documentary coverage of Ottoman court ceremonial is sporadic and, while it often provides a sense of overall effect, is not always reliable in detail. However, it is clear that velvet (kadife) (Fig. 2-6) and multicolored textiles brocaded with threads of precious metal (kemha) (Fig. 7-15) were largely worn by the loyal family and imperial slave household, and that the principal cloth used by sultans for grand public occasions was cloth of gold and silver (seraser) (Fig. 16-18). It was brightly colored and elaborately patterned textiles that were used to impress on observers the wealth and power of the Ottoman Empire. It is possible to describe the function of cloth and costume in just a few of the many ceremonies that punctuated Ottoman court life and marked the key events in the career of each sultan.

The accession of sultans

For the successor to the Ottoman throne, the events of the funeral of his predecessor (in most instances, his father) and his own accession were commingled. It was vital that he takes possession of the throne without delay, to avoid any confusion or uncertainty, and therefore both ceremonies took place on the same day. Textiles served to proclaim the status of the sultan and members of his family even in death. Most of the deceased’s garments would customarily be placed in cloth wrappers and marked with identifying tags, ready for storage. Some of his clothes would be reserved and placed at the site of his tomb. After death a sultan’s clothing was cut away in order not to disturb the body of the deceased. The turban and one of his kaftans would be placed on top of the sarcophagus (sanduka). It was also an Ottoman tradition, probably of an old Turkic origin, to add to these mementos his belt and dagger. A miniature painting of the funeral of Murad III. and a 16th century watercolor in the “Freshfield Album” showing the interior of the tomb of Selim II and five of his sons show coffins and sandukas of sultans and princes with kaftans draped over them. All garments preserved in the Topkapı collections that are labeled as having been worn by sultans for the funerals of their predecessors and their own accessions are made of satin fabric (atlas) or mohair (sof). It is thought that plain garments in black, purple and deep blue were usually worn at funerals. Funeral headgear was also somber, often consisting of a dark colored woolen shawl (şemle), as seen in a painting in the Nüzhet el- Esrar el Ehbar der sefer-i Sigetvâr (Account of the siege of Szigetvár).
Regarding the accession ceremony of the Ottoman sultans, miniature paintings, which remained constant over the centuries apart from the occasional introduction of minor changes, clearly show that it was staged impressively and with theatrical complexity, despite being conducted at a fast pace. Written sources give few details of the clothes worn on this important occasion: they often note that the new sovereign’s turban was decorated with an aigrette but fail to describe his robe. It is quite possible that the clothes worn on the accession ceremony of the Ottoman sultans were made of an appropriately dark and unornamented fabric. (Fig. 19)
A few days after his accession, the new sultan was girt with the imperial sword. It is believed that the tradition of holding the ceremony for subsequent Ottoman sultans at this spot, near the Golden Horn harbor in the suburb of Eyüp, was based on this event. At the ceremony, which was accompanied by an imperial procession between the Topkapı Palace and Eyüp and attended by dignitaries in ceremonial attire, the new sultan appeared for the first time before his subjects. The textiles were used as ground covering at royal parades. White appears to have been the preferred color of the sultan’s garments on this occasion.

Parades and receptions

It was the custom for the sultan to attend the Friday noonday prayer service, the most important of the five daily prayers on the Muslim Sabbath, at a mosque outside the royal residence. It is recorded that Turkish sultan wore a fur lined robe of seraser and ornamented his turban decorated with jewels. Sultans sometimes permitted the foreign envoy to view the procession for the purpose of impressing on him the greatness of the Turkish Sultan and the brilliance of the Ottoman ceremony. Ottoman sultans also spent vast sums on textiles to adorn those participating in private court events. The occasion of a prince’s circumcision was also marked by lavish displays and gifts of textiles. The great majority of the presents offered to the prince were fabrics, often of the highest quality. The sultan also awarded hil’at robes and other textile gifts to higher ranking participants in the celebrations, including the surgeon who had circumcised the prince, members of the Chancery, lieutenant company commanders, infantry officers and Janissary captains. These garments had been made beforehand and stored in the Imperial Treasury in readiness for presentation.

The Sultan dressed for war

There was little to distinguish the military attire of the sultan from his civilian wardrobe, apart from plate or mail armors that was concealed by or integrated with the garments. With a few exceptions, the chroniclers’ accounts of military costume refer to the sleeveless, fur-lined, full collared ceremonial garment known as a kapaniçe. The fur lining is likely to have been sable, the most highly valued of the era, or lynx, and this visible cloth was also of the highest quality. In addition to armored kaftans, armored shirts were also worn. Mail kaftans and shirts were worn with full trousers (şalvar).

Cloth as a ground covering

Spreading fabrics over the ground on which a sultan or prince was to walk or ride was not confined to military occasions, but was one of the commonest ways in which respect and loyalty were expressed. The use of silk textiles as ground covering or payendaz (for the feet to step on) followed the well established tradition of other Islamic courts and recalled the ancient customs of the nomadic Turkic peoples, in whose encampments fabrics made by tribal women were the primary signifiers of wealth, power and social status. Upon the new sultan’s return to the Topkapı Palace after the ceremony for girding him with the imperial sword, şal fabric was used to cover the ground from the Curtain Gate (Perde Kapısı), one of the Harem entrances, to the Imperial Chancery over which he rode his horse. (Fig. 20)

Robes of honor: Hil’at

The most important symbolic role played by woven silks in Ottoman court culture was embedded in the elaborate system of protocol that surrounded the awarding of garments. This means of expressing favor, which may be regarded as a counterpart to the presentation of medals by Western rulers, had existed in a number of Islamic cultures prior to the Ottomans. In the 9th -12th centuries, badges or inscriptions bands (tiraz) bearing the ruler’s name were ordinarily placed on the sleeves of such robes, which were made of different colors and different grades of fabric according to the status of the recipient or the degree of honor that was being conferred. The presence of the donor’s name on a robe implied the weaver’s acceptance of his authority and protection. The Ottomans continued the tradition of awarding garments, and to describe it adopted the Arabic word for a ‘robe of honor’, khil’at, their robes carried no woven or printed inscriptions. Instead the significance of the robes was expressed by the quality of the fabrics from which they were made, fabrics which in themselves varied in value. The clothes were bestowed by the sultan himself or by a high ranking official authorized to make the gift in his name, and the protocols established at the sultans court set the precedent for provincial governors and other lower officials. High Ottoman officials kissed the hem of the sultan’s garment and spoke of ‘wearing the robe of continuance of office’, while the sultan himself was said to don ‘the mantle of authority’. Hil’at permeated every aspect of Ottoman court life: they might be used to mark any number of occasions, both secular and religious, and could be awarded to any rank, Turks or foreigner. Robes of honor for the Grand Vizier were ordinarily given in pairs: one fur lined the other without fur. The fur was typically sable and the outer face çuha or serâser. The same kinds of robes were given to the Chief Judge, but not always in pairs.
Large stocks of Hil’at robes were kept on hand to deal with the many occasions on which they were involved. To meet the demand for Hil’at, a special group from among the court tailors (hayyatîn-i hassa) was designated to make them, and were known as hayyatîn-i hil’at. This group, first documented in 1478, had an atelier outside the palace walls, opposite the Reviewing Pavilion near the Iron Gate.

Reference: Nurhan ATASOY, Walter B. DENNY, Louise W. MACKIE, Hülya TEZCAN, Ipek, Imperial Ottoman Silks and Velvets, London  2001.

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