FEAR AND hatred of all things Islamic and Middle Eastern is nothing new. Within a relatively short period of time from the 7th century, Islam spread across the Middle East, North Africa and finally into Europe itself, through Spain. Christendom was threatened and outraged. The Eastern Roman Empire faced a new foe — a new “barbarian at the gates”.
European theology, literature and visual culture is full of references to, and images of, the cruel and tyrannical, lazy and corrupt, dishonest and lustful, Turk. The Royal Academy of Art exhibition, Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600-1600 in central London is a good antidote to this racist stereotype, which is still alive and well.
The exhibition highlights the central place of calligraphy and bookbinding, the pen and the book in Turkish culture. There are beautifully illustrated Korans, hand-written books of poetry and scientific treatises, leather bindings of amazing intricacy, mother-of-pearl inlaid book rests, ceramic and silver pen boxes.
The exhibition provides endless proof of refinements of beauty in textiles and architecture, woodwork and metalwork, ceramics and miniature painting. It starts at a time when a bewildering variety of Turkic, Mongolian and Chinese peoples lived in the ethnic, religious and cultural melting pot of Central Asia around the year 600. Turks look like Buddhist monks on wall paintings, and drawing styles are hard to differentiate from what we know today as typical Chinese or Japanese styles.
Over time, as waves of migrations carry the ancestors of today’s Turks towards Asia Minor, the art forms, materials, patterns and shapes more easily recognisable as Turkish begin to emerge.
Anyone who has visited the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul will be familiar with some of these. Other collections, from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg to small provincial Turkish museums, have contributed to the exhibition, giving it an impressive historical and cultural sweep over 11 galleries.
The one weakness of the exhibition is the glaring omission of the ordinary Turk. There is nothing here of how the Turks lived their daily lives. Practically everything exhibited is from the palace.
We see what the ruling class owned and enjoyed, but nothing of the street and the commoner’s home. I happen to know, and you can guess, that there was beauty, warmth and humanity there too. Still, the exhibition sheds light on the glory of Islamic culture, and that is no small thing in the present climate of rampant Islamophobia.
Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600-1600 is at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, central London (nearest tube Green Park) until 12 April. Price £11/£9 and £7 concessions website: www.turks.org.uk