The decorative wooden objects found in excavations in Central Asia show that the Turkish art of woodcarving dates back to the distant past. As in other branches of art, animal motifs with legendary and religious significance were frequently used in the decoration of wooden objects. This tradition known as the "animal style", was gradually abandoned and replaced by vegetal and geometric motifs after the Turks adopted Islam.
Extant everyday objects used over the lengthy time segment encompassing both the Seljuk and Ottoman periods are so few as to be practically non-existent. In contrast, architectural accessories of religious structures dating from the Seljuk period, as well as objects used in these buildings, are sufficient in number to give a good idea of Turkish woodcarving. Doors and window shutters, pulpits of mosques, sarcophagi in mausoleums, Koran stands and lecterns display highly advanced woodcarving. Although rare, carvings of animal figures on such objects are interesting as an illustration of the continuity of this tradition.
Architectural elements in certain mosques in Anatolia provide considerable information on woodcarving in principalities during the post-Seljuk period. The columns and capitals as well as beams of these mosques, most of which date from the 13th century, exhibit distinct woodcarving. Pulpits of mosques in particular tended to be almost exclusively constructed out of wood.
It is a fact that woodcarving developed following the migration of the Turks to Anatolia, a phenomenon in which the influence of geography and the cultural milleu cannot be denied. Syria and Egypt in particular demonstrated development in this art parallel to that in Anatolia in terms of the techniques employed. In this connection, it is important to remember that at the time Anatolia was very rich.
The bulk of extant wooden objects from the Seljuk and Ottoman periods are housed in the Ankara Ethnographical Museum and the Istanbul Museum of Turkish and Islamic Antiquities. They consist primarily of such architectural elements as mihrabs (prayer niches), mosque and cabinet doors and display a truly superior level of workmanship. The signatures of the craftsmen even appear on some of the objects.
The wealth of decoration seen on the woodcarving used in Seljuk architecture developed parallel to the architecture of that period. In this regard, it is necessary to remember the highly ornamental facades of mosques, especially during that period. A similar development cannot be traced to the Ottoman period, which is an interesting fact in itself. Apart from a few exceptions, a new simplicity gradually came to predominate wooden architectural elements during the reign of the Ottomans. Although certain new techniques, such as mother-of-pearl inlay, did emerge in the meantime, they did not actually contradict the new trend towards simplification both because they only indirectly represented woodcarving and because they did not produce the same effect for the viewer. In fact, wooden architectural elements in the Ottoman period, with their more stark and simple appearance, took on a more basic and functional air, and more specifically aesthetic elements thereby replaced the exaggerated ornamentation of the Seljuks.
Wooden houses constitute a little known aspect of Turkish architecture. The facades, eaves and ceiling decorations of traditional Turkish wooden houses constitute fascinating examples of carving and the false inlay technique and exhibit a variety of styles from period to period.
A new approach that gradually gained acceptance in the Ottoman period was painting on wood. From the 15th century onwards, decorations began to be painted on architectural elements as well as on smaller wooden objects. Interesting examples date to the 18th and 19th centuries in the secular architecture of Topkapı Palace and of such urban centers as Edirne and Bursa. Among these examples, the large cabinets, corner cupboards and niches were influenced by the forms of their counterparts made of marble in the great palaces. Edirne was an important center of woodcarving, and the technique of painting on wood known as Edirnekari spread to İstanbul and other regions throughout the Empire. Using this painting technique, in which green was predominant as a background color, various articles of everyday use such as drawers, boxes and chairs were produced, some of which were lacquered.
Among the wooden transport vehicles used by the Palace and the upper classes there are examples of woodcarving that may be regarded as masterpieces in their genre. The caiques and carriages produced in İstanbul fall into separate categories of large-scale wooden objects. The imperial caiques and carriages preserved at present in various museums have special value since they constitute examples of carving and painting techniques. The same can be said of the thrones in Topkapı Palace, which, with their decorations in gold, silver and precious stones, also represent the jeweler's art.
Another genre of Ottoman woodcarving was the simultaneous use of metal applique and metal plaques. The wood used for objects of this genre was not highly decorative in itself, the emphasis being rather on the metal accessories. Metal put on doors, window shutters and cabinet doors had existed since the Seljuk period. Plaques of various metals, mainly silver, displaying motifs worked in the repousse technique were mounted on everyday wooden objects such as chests, clogs and dustpans from the 16th century on. This technique was widespread.
Close relations existed between the masters who crafted the wooden elements used in architecture (neccar) and the architects, which was especially evident in the Ottoman period when many architects were former carpenters and masters of intarsia. Mehmet Agha, for example, the architect of Sultanahmet Mosque, was a master of mother-of-pearl inlay.
These craftsmen who worked in inlay were experts at applying substances like mother-of-pearl and tortoise shell on wood. Doors and window shutters, cabinets, drawers, stools and Koran stands were often decorated in this way. The inlay work of Damascus differed from that of İstanbul. Of all the sultans, Abdülhamid II (1842-1918) probably appreciated woodcarving the most. During his reign, he worked in his own carpentry shop and a distinctive Palace style began to take shape.
Local woodcarving survives today in some parts of southeastern Anatolia. Diyarbakır, for example, has long been known for its damascene canes and Kahramanmaraş for its elaborately carved furniture.
Vegetal motifs and geometric designs were frequently used in combination on wooden doors and window shutters.
The diversity of motifs employed varied with the period, the region and the technique used. A parallelism is observable, for example, between the rich architectural decorations of the Seljuk period and the ornamentation seen on metal objects during the same period. Be it the vegetal Rumi and Hatayi motifs or the inscriptions and the interlocking geometric patterns, they all bear a strong resemblance to each other. Geometric designs carved in interlocking patterns are stunning. Mother-of-pearl, which because of its hardness and dimensions was not suitable for three-dimensional work, was often used to create wood inlays with geometric motifs.
The materials most frequently used in decorative carving are walnut, apple, pear, cedar, ivory and rose. Anatolia was always self-sufficient when it came to wood and even exported this raw material to Syria and Egypt who were less well-endowed in this respect.
"Kündekari" or tongue-and-groove joining, is the name given to the technique of placing small pieces of wood side by side to form a design. This technique, was first seen in Islamic art in the 12th century. It was employed both by the Seljuks and Ottomans, who enriched it with innovative and more advanced methods. Special attention should be drawn here to the fact that the creation of interlocking patterns in wood is much more difficult than the application of similar patterns on books and metals because such woodcarving is an entirely plastic art.
Kündekari, which was employed more often on the backboards of pulpits and on doors, falls into two categories: genuine "kündekari" and imitation "kündekari". In geniune "kündekari" pieces of wood of various geometric shapes decorated with vegetal motifs are skillfully placed side by side. The joining of these pieces without any nails or glue requires a high degree of expertise. They are joined in such a way that even if the wood dries up and shrinks the pieces will not fall out.
On the other hand, in imitation "kündekari", a variety of techniques utilizing relief carving in combination with glue and nails, or sometimes using relief alone, were employed to create the appearance of "kündekari" with only a single piece, or very few pieces of wood.
The Ottomans used plain pieces of wood in place of geometric shapes. The mid-sections of double doors, which were traditionally divided into three sections, were often decorated with tiny mirrors surmounted by an inscription in the topmost section.
This technique was widely used to decorate doors, window shutters, chests and other objects used in everyday life. Some of the varieties employed include deep incising of flat and curved surfaces, and carving in two planes. In the case of the latter, an inscription would be added in a second plane over another carved surface decorated with vegetal motifs.
This is a technique of combining pieces of wood to create a lattice. Sometimes polygonal or star-shaped metal plaques were added as fillings between the cross-pieces. An ajour or openwork effect could also be created by carving out motifs here and there on the surface of the wood.
First observed in the 14th and 15th centuries, this technique became very widespread among the Ottomans. It consisted of applying in thin plates substances such as mother-of-pearl, ivory or tortoise shell on wood. The edges of the plates were decorated with narrow, raised bands. Such plates can also be applied by first carving out the surface of the wood and then gluing the pieces in place like a mosaic, as in intarsia. The Turks rank first among the various Islamic peoples in their expertise in applying this technique.
Widely used until this century on such furniture as chairs, stools and mirror frames, this art is still practiced today.
Painting, which first came into use as a decorative architectural element among the Seljuks, underwent extensive development under the Ottomans in the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time, triangular, polygonal and star-shaped plaques painted with vegetal motifs were used on doors and pulpits to give the appearance of "kündekari". After the 18th century, painted fruit and floral designs of European origin were frequently employed as decorative elements in secular architecture.
Three-dimensional carving is observable in Ottoman woodcarving. This style of carving, which was generally used to decorate the ceilings of libraries, is as valuable aesthetically as it is technically, and an attempt is being made to keep it alive today.