Images from the Ottoman past: Just how realistic are they?

Mevlana as depicted in miniature form

July 18, 2012, Wednesday/ 18:23:00

When the portrait of Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s wife, Sitti Hatun, emerged sometime last week, people began wondering about how much images of certain historical figures really resemble those figures in real life.

For example, how much did Mevlana really look like the images we know of him today?

Or what about someone like Yavuz Sultan Selim? Does the image that comes to mind when we hear his name really resemble him in real life?

We asked some historians, and examined some miniatures. We learned in the process that most of these historical images were actually drawn post 1950, for special editions of newspapers and encyclopedias.

Serhat Rızaev, a painter, notes, “A Mevlana who came from India [sic] to Anatolia on horseback could not have possibly been an overweight man with a belly.” Rızaev is soon set to embark on a project of making portraits of scientists who contributed to the scholarly world during the Selçuk and Ottoman times, though right now he is involved in gathering information and documents for the project, assisted by Professor Salim Aydüz in these efforts.

A short time after Rızaev’s comments about the existing images of Mevlana, there was an image published in the Zaman daily of a woman said to be Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s wife, Sitti Hatun. The image, which picked up much attention in the media, and was said to have been produced by a Greek artist, emerged when the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) was preparing to make a new documentary about Fatih Sultan Mehmet. At the same time, though, historian Erhan Afyoncu insisted that this was not in fact the first time that this image had seen the light of day, and that historians have known about it for the past 60 years, since it has been in The Marciana Library’s Greek mythology section in Venice.

Osman Gazi, drawn not as tribal leader but as statesman

All this news brought these questions to some minds: How realistic are the images that we often see of historic figures from the past? When were most of those images drawn, and by whom? A partial answer to those question is that most of the above-mentioned images you come across were actually drawn up around the 1950s for newspapers and encyclopedias by artists of the time. In fact, most portraits of the Ottoman sultans that we know of were done after the 16th century. “The drawings were guided by the mentality of the time. For example, Osman Gazi was shown not as a tribal leader but as a man of state,” says Afyoncu. Most of the portraits we see these days of the sultans of the past were inspired by originals done by European artists, or by images seen on coins.

Of all the Ottoman sultans, the first one to order a portrait of himself was in fact Fatih Sultan Mehmet. The portrait, done by Italian artist Bellini, can be seen on display at London’s National Gallery. Yavus Selim Karakışla, a professor of history at Boğaziçi University, notes that after Fatih Sultan Mehmet, until the time of the Tanzimat (from the early to the late mid-19th century), Ottoman sultans remained distanced from portraits, though they were tolerant of their images being re-created through a Westernized perspective. It was this that allowed European painter Fausto Zonaro to do an oil painting portrait of Abdülhamid II. And thanks to Abdülhamid II’s interest in photography, for the first time ever, photographs were taken of a sultan and his wives and children. On the other hand, there are miniatures that were done of most of the sultans, and of these, some were done at the time they were in power, and others afterwards.

Professor Karakışla laments the relative lack of images of Ottoman leaders from the past, noting: “It is our misfortune that in Europe, while they made images of everything -- of their leaders, the leaders’ wives, historical contracts and the people of the nation -- with us, it is much more limited. There is no continuity in the work done by miniaturists of the time. There were certain eras, for example during the Tulip Era, when historical figures of the time were recorded by artists. There are also miniatures from that era of poets, learned scholars, and some men of state. But in fact, most of these that we know now were not actually even done at the time, but later.” In other words, it is debatable just how realistic the images are when it comes to the subjects they are showing.

Afyoncu insists that the miniatures we have of the poet Baki are quite possibly very realistic, and he notes that there are also miniatures of Sheik Edebali, and newly discovered miniatures of Mimar Sinan. In the miniatures discovered by Selçuk Mülayim the image shows a grave for Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (Kanuni Sultan Süleyman) being prepared, while Mimar Sinan stands by the side watching.

As for other historical figures, such as Yunus Emre, Alparslan or Dede Korkut, Afyoncu notes that these are mostly just artists’ representations done for older publications, adding, “They are from the imaginations of the artists, and they do not reflect reality.”

Yavuz Selim or Shah Ismail?

Professor Karakışla says that the famous portrait of a man wearing a pearl earring, known as an image of Yavuz Sultan Selim, is in fact more likely to be a portrait of Shah Ismail. Everyone is drawn as weightier than in real life, not just Mevlana. Historians say the images we know of Ali ibn Abu Talib (Hz. Ali) come from eras well after he lived. Here is what Karakışla has to say about images we know of Mevlana and Hz. Ali: “It is possible to say that the images of Hz. Ali actually go quite far back, as from the very beginning Alevis did not put some bans into place. No matter where you go in the world, the images of Hz. Ali all resemble one another, in that he is always shown to be helmeted, with a plume and a thick moustache. In fact, every image we see of him, throughout Iran, Anatolia, Syria, even Egypt, they all look like each other. It is said that images we have of Mevlana were done after he was alive, but the fact is, there was always a tradition of imagery in Anatolian Alevism. It is quite clear that Mevlana was influenced by this.” It is, however, interesting to note that 16th century miniature images of Mevlana always depicted him as a heavy man, and that in fact figures depicted in all miniatures of the time are always heavy. Academics tie this not to reality but rather to the dominant aesthetic of the time when these miniatures were first done.

Most of the images we have of historic figures are made up

Professor Karakışla: It is widely believed that most of the images we have of historic figures were in fact created later, after they were alive. Painters such as Münif Fehim and Salih Erimez, who worked in the earlier years of the republic, signed off on many historic images. Reşat Ekrem Koçu, who turned out the famous İstanbul Encyclopedia on his own in the 1960s, worked with artist Saliha Bozcalı in order to be able to turn into images many of the items contained in his encyclopedia. When these images were being prepared, many of them were greatly influenced by some of the etchings done from the imaginations of Western artists of the era. It makes one sad to say this, but the truth is that most of the portraits said to be of Ottoman sultans that we know of these days do not in fact take us back much before the start of the 1900s. The images ordered done by famous postcard publisher Max Früchterman for his Ottoman sultan series of cards were really just imagined images, which today are accepted by many as realistic portraits of Sultan Osman and Sultan Orhan. You can find many of these sorts of images published in the pages of old history magazines from many decades ago.