A stunning coffee-table book curated by the İstanbul Chamber of Commerce (İTO), “İstanbul’s Colorful Treasures from Byzantine Mosaics to Ottoman Tiles,” takes readers on a journey through the tumultuous history of İstanbul, touching on the rise and fall of two great empires and civilizations in a visually fluid exploration of the ancient art forms of tiles and mosaics.
İTO director Dr. Murat Yalçıntaş writes in the book’s foreword that mosaics and tiles, as two of İstanbul’s richest aesthetic assets, are as old as history itself.
A mammoth 340-pages long and perfect entertainment fodder for the wintery holiday, “İstanbul’s Colorful Treasures” details the foundations of a city that over the centuries has served as a thriving hub of cultural enrichment from arts and philosophy to language and architecture. Founded as Byzantium in the seventh century B.C., present-day İstanbul was renamed Constantinople in the year A.D. 330 when the Roman Emperor Constantine I moved his capital there from Rome.
Europe’s largest and wealthiest urban center throughout the Middle Ages, Constantinople – which remained the capital of the eastern, Greek-speaking empire for over a thousand years – was conquered in 1453 by 21-year-old Fatih Sultan Mehmet, marking the beginning of 470 years of prosperous Ottoman rule. A city characterized by its cosmopolitan population, İstanbul flourished as a potent cultural, economic, religious and administrative center until the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey on Oct. 29, 1923, and the selection of the Anatolian city of Ankara as the new state’s capital.
Yet today, in the 21st century, the legacy and heritage from two of history’s most dominant empires are omnipresent in the aesthetic of a city that continues to enchant locals and visitors with its romanticism and splendor.
Yalçıntaş notes in the foreword that İstanbul, as one of the richest cultural centers in the world, is a city of discovery: “At every corner there is a novelty to unearth and every passing day presents something new.” Yet “İstanbul’s Colorful Treasures” does not just take a browse through the history archives. A celebration of shared heritage and vibrant cosmopolitanism, the project succeeds not only in shining a light on the significance of mosaics and tiles as manifestations of the diversity of İstanbul’s past but also in presenting them side by side.
In the book’s introduction, Arda Sayıl comments, “for an aesthetic that was given so much importance both during Byzantine and Ottoman times, what a shame that it is not possible to see the fruits of this shared artistic heritage presented together more often.” Sayıl goes on to add that he hopes “İstanbul’s Colorful Treasures” will shine a light on the historical and cultural significance of mosaics and tiles.
Despite the inclusion of relics from familiar İstanbul touristic hotspots such as the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace and the culinary haven of Pandeli Restaurant, many readers will find themselves more intrigued by the more unassuming treasures on show: forgotten corners of gatehouses overshadowed by glamorous neighbors, the intricate embellishments on an 18th century well in Eyüp, an obscure chamber of a sultan’s dwelling or the elaborate detail adorning İstanbul’s ferry terminals in Kadıköy, Bostancı and Beşiktaş, all easily overlooked in the disorderly hubbub of everyday life.
The exploration of Ottoman ceramics and tiles is expansive and spans İstanbul locations from the exquisite religious tiling in mosques across the city to the treasure trove that is Topkapı Palace, as well as tombstones and civil architecture, including recent additions such as those in the Taksim metro station or government offices. Initially characterized by traditional cobalt-blue-and-white designs, the motifs of the early Ottoman ceramics were progressively supplemented by the introduction of turquoise, stunning shades of green and finally the famous coral red of the mid-16th century.
Yalçıntaş writes in his foreword that in their intricacy and delicacy, Ottoman tiles hold elements of beauty from many civilizations, evoking the mystery of Egypt, the opulence of Mesopotamia, the flair of Iran and the cultural richness of Crete.
The section devoted to Byzantine mosaics in the book delves into their characteristically abstract and overt symbolism which, true to the pious and domineering nature of Byzantine society, predominantly focused on religious and imperial figures. Amongst the featured works are a spread of İstanbul’s premier mosaic collections: the surviving Byzantine mosaics of the Hagia Sophia, including the ancient 12th century melancholic image of Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist; relics from the Studios Monastery, the oldest church and monastic complex in Constantinople; and also from the Aya İrini church. Focus is also placed on the mosaics and well-preserved frescos adorning the Chora Museum, formerly a Byzantine church.
Despite the fact that “İstanbul’s Colorful Treasures” is currently only available in Turkish, the predominantly picture-based content of this collection of spell-binding beauty means it will also make for an interesting browse for those who don’t speak Turkish. “İstanbul’un Renkli Hazineleri Bizans Mozaiklerinden Osmanlı Çinilerine” is available for purchase at the İstanbul Chamber of Commerce located in the historical Eminönü quarter of the city.