The Ottoman Turkish tents which have survived to the present day in many European museum collections as well as in the Military Museum and Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul are magnificent works of art, richly decorated with embroidery and appliéd work. Equally fascinating is the structure of the different types of tent, the different functions they served, and their roles in Ottoman life. Tents were widely used for military campaigns, ceremonies and celebrations, and country excursions by the sultans and their subjects. With respect to their military use in the campaigns conducted by the Ottomans since the empire was founded in 1299, we find that tent culture was of crucial importance in the achievements of the army. When conquering new lands for the expanding empire, enabling a large army to travel the long distances involved was a challenge that demanded highly efficient organisation. In this respect the experience and traditions of ancient Turkish nomadic culture proved invaluable, and the extremely widespread use of tents in Ottoman Turkey shows that this legacy of the past was kept alive in many other aspects of Turkish life.

Foreign observers of the Ottoman army were impressed particularly by its discipline and organisation. Campaigns were the outcome of highly detailed advance preparation within a well established system. As well as the provisions and equipment which the soldiers would need, repairs and maintenance of equipment were thought of, so that even cobblers accompanied the army to repair shoes and boots. It is therefore no surprise to find that the military encampments themselves were extremely well organised for maximum convenience, from the palace-like tent complex of the sultan himself, down to the tents of the lowest ranking soldiers.

Two sets of imperial tents were taken on campaign, which meant that while the sultan was occupying one complex, the tent pitchers could march on ahead and have the second erected ready for his arrival at the next halting place. This 'walled' tent palace was as much a symbol of his power and splendour as the stone palace in the capital, and so large that according to Antoine Galland writing in 1673 the sultan's tents were carried on six hundred camels.

Miniatures illustrating the festivities held for the circumcision of the sons of Sultan Ahmed III in 1720 include a detailed picture of the imperial tent complex, and in earlier miniatures illustrating campaigns during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century we see how the screen wall around the complex was crenellated like a battlement, underscoring the architectural relationship between the tent and stone palaces. This relationship can also be seen in the decoration of the tent walls, which usually consisted of rows of rectangular panels worked in a design of columns linked by arches, thus creating the effect of arcades around the walls. Some of the tents were enormous, consisting of 24 such panels. Depending on the size, the tent roofs were supported by one or more posts. The exquisite ornamentation both inside and out of the tents used by the Ottoman sultans made them imposing dwellings fit for a ruler. On ceremonial occasions tents served to create a splendid theatrical setting, as we see vividly portrayed in miniature paintings depicting banquets, audiences and celebrations which took place in the imperial tent complex over the centuries. The imperial tents were richly decorated as if they were pavilions, and often had designs resembling tiled panels, usually in floral patterns, either in appliés work using cloth of different colours, or embroidered in various stitches using silk and metal thread.

Reference: Professor Nurhan Atasoy / Skylife

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