This article invites the reader to enter and enjoy wealthy urban homes in Turkey, Egypt and Iran between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. This was a period of flourishing traditional culture and also of change. Decoration and furnishing of the home was increasingly influenced by ideas imported from Europe. This led to a lively fusion of styles, but the Middle Eastern household itself, the extended family and its dependants, remained essentially unchanged, with the traditional relationships, daily routines and domestic celebrations continuing.
Family life took place in a domestic environment of material comfort secluded behind discreet facades. The distinctive features of an affluent domestic interior were textiles which provided household furnishing and clothing, functioned as symbols of power and social status and played a vital economic role in industry and trade. Delight in brilliant colour and an imaginative treatment of surface and texture are striking aspects of Middle Eastern textiles. These distinctive features also influenced architectural decoration, manuscript illumination and the ornament of ceramics, metalwork, leather and wood.
This rich interior life is strikingly demonstrated by the Middle Eastern collections of the National Museums of Scotland. This valuable resource includes many objects illustrating the arts of ceramics and glass, metalwork. painting and lacquer, textiles, dress and jewelry, from the ninth to the twentieth century. The collections began modestly in 1858 with the acquisition of dress and jewelry from Egypt and developed rapidly during the Directorship of Major General Sir Robert Murdoch Smith KCMG (1885-1900) who came to the Museum after a career as Director of the Persian Telegraph Service (1865- 1888) and as pioneer scholar of Iranian art. Through his expert knowledge and contacts the Museum acquired a fine collection of Iranian art, notably of the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Since his day the geographical range of the collections has expanded to include Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, Syria, Turkey, Central Asia and India.
The objects are displayed in a permanent exhibition, ‘Within the Middle East’, in the Koyal Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh. They are presented through an imaginative interpretation of furnishing, clothing and ornament in a Middle Eastern household. These themes are further traced and explored in this book, which focuses 011 three major cities of the Middle East, looking at domestic and social patterns of life and the material culture that expressed them. Certain patterns are also traced through the closely related cultures of India, where the rituals of birth, growing up and adulthood are joyfully celebrated in painting.
Cups filled with sherbet of every hue
Shone as rifts in a cloud where the sun gleams through.
There were goblets of purest crystal filled
With wine and sweet odours with art distilled.
The golden cloth blazed like the sunlight; a whole
Cluster of stars was each silver bowl.
These tantalizing verses are from one of the most famous and poignant epics of classical Iranian literature, Yusuf and Zulaikha. Written by the poet Jami in 1483, this epic poem has a theme common to Jewish, Christian and Islamic moral and literary culture. The Hebrew slave Joseph and the wife of the Egyptian official Potiphar, whose story is first told in the Old Testament book of Genesis, reappear in the Qur’an as Yusuf and Zulaikha. The poets of the Middle East developed this Qur’anic version into a tragic love story which combined both earthly passion and spiritual redemption. The poet’s sumptuous images locate the characters of Yusuf and Zulaikha in an environment of considerable material comfort. Even in a rather stilted Victorian English translation the lines quoted above evoke a social life where luxurious interior decoration, crystal and silver were as important as food and drink. They occur in the most frequently interpreted episode where Zulaikha introduces Yusuf at a party she has given to her women friends in an attempt to justify her obsession. Their reactions to his beauty are dramatic and varied. Some faint, while others cut their hands instead of the oranges provided for their refreshment.
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Illustrations of this story are revealing documents of material culture, furnishings, clothes, accessories and ornaments,worked in the delicate art of painted papier mache favoured for accessories such as pen, mirror and comb cases, and jewel and trinket boxes in middle-class and upper-class Iranian households. The scene is a well-tended garden lined with cypress trees where flowering plants cluster around an ornamental pool. Zulaikha is seated on a carpet under an open kiosk draped with a textile awning. She and her friends are elegantly dressed in layers of closely-fitting garments in fabrics patterned with stripes and small repeated flowers, which were the urban fashions of late seventeenth-century Iran. Hair trained in tendrils is covered with fur-trimmed hats, diadems and shawls.
During the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, the period surveyed in this study, the Middle East was relatively tranquil. Most of its cities came under the continuous administration of the Ottoman Turkish Empire (1299-1924), which at its most powerful reached from Central Europe through Turkey and Iraq to the Arabian Gulf, penetrating the Crimea and the coasts of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa en route. Iran, apart from an interval of civil and military chaos in the mid-eighteenth century, was under the rulers of the Safavid (1501-1722) and Qajar (1786-1924) dynasties at this time.
There are great geographical variations in the Middle East, from the mountains of central Turkey and Iran to the lush greenery of Iran’s Caspian shore. The Mediterranean coastal strip from Turkey to the North African coast is agricultural land; much of the Arabian peninsula is desert. Cities grew up where there was access to food, water, transport and communication. Once established, these cities developed a rich social and cultural environment.
Istanbul has been occupied since its foundation in the seventh century BC as the modest Greek trading colony of Byzantium. The site commands rhe traditional trade routes between Europe. North Africa, the Black Sea. India and China and is of incomparable strategic importance. It grew rich from the trade in silks, spices and precious stones, and fed its citizens from the food-supplies which poured in from the fertile hinterland of Southern Europe. Cairo is equally remarkable for its continuity of occupation which can be traced from the Pharaonic settlements of Memphis and Giza through successive Greek, Roman, medieval, Ottoman and contemporary developments. Like Istanbul, it is located strategically on a great waterway, the river Nile, through which it controls access to Upper Egypt and the Sudan: its food supplies are from the fertile regions of the Nile Delta.
Iran’s urban settlement pattern is more diffuse than that of Turkey or Egypt as, apart from the enclosed area of the Caspian Sea in the north and the Gulf in the south, the country is arid and lacks a source of water for use as a means of transport. Consequently Iran’s major cities were generally situated on overland routes. Isfahan has a record of occupation since the late seventh century. It is located in a wide and fertile valley on the Zayandehrud River. In this it is fortunate, as the supply of water has always been a problem in Iran, and here depended mainly on access to underground sources tapped through an ingenious system of irrigation channels. Water and food were equally important considerations in the transfer of the capital to the northern city of Tehran in 1786, which long enjoyed a reputation for the quality of its fruit and vegetable gardens and had access to water from the springs and channels of Mount Demavend.
Perhaps the most dynamic resource of the great cities was their populations, formed ofboth long-established and immigrant communities. A cosmopolitan society evolved. The advance of Islam as the dominant religion of the Middle East from the seventh century onwards imposed .1 shared cultural identity to which significant Jewish and Christian cultures contributed professional and commercial skills. Arabic, the liturgical language of Islam, functioned as a lingua franca also among communities whose native tongues were of Persian, Turkish, Armenian. Slav and Berber origin.
One of the continuing problems of cities concerned the accommodation of their inhabitants. Public requirements demanded administrative and religious buildings, communication networks, commercial areas, water and bathing facilities, while there was a need for private housing at all levels. Although the cities were notable for their cosmopolitan populations. Islamic law influenced attitudes towards private property. Islam emphasizes an individual’s position both within the community of Muslim believers and within the family as the basic unit of social life. The Qitr’oii gives precise instructions on family relationships and obligations, and property and inheritance rights. By implication, especially in an urban context, every family has a right to live enclosed within its own house. This leads to a clear separation between public and private space. Public life takes place in the streets, the service and commercial sectors, while private life looks inwards to courtyards and rooms within walls. The two areas are articulated but not necessarily integrated.
This division in the functions of space varies, depending on the topographical and historical circumstances of individual cities. Streets and buildings hail to follow the contours of the land available. Very rarely was it possible to plan and construct anew. The Ottoman Turks inherited the remains of Byzantine Constantinople which were in a ruinous state. There were desolate open spaces, neglected houses and gardens, and the walled jumble of randomly assembled pavilions, reception halls, chapels and private apartments of the former imperial palace at the south-east end of the city. Muslim dynasties which followed the Arab conquest of Egypt had to manage the ever-increasing layers of their predecessors’ building programmes. In Iran, conversion of the provincial town of Tehran into a capital city required constant repairs and extensions to existing structures as well as new building projects. Eventually, ambitious programmes of the 1850S-70S, which introduced European-influenced elements of planning and architecture, resulted in a blend of conservatism and innovation in building in all three capitals. Many of the old maze-like traditional quarters were swept away while others survived to be renovated in appearance rather than function.
Yet it is possible to identify the development of the main zones which serviced the basic needs of the city. The structures built for defence and protection formed a distinctive physical boundary. Traditionally, fortified citadels and massive walls were built which either sealed off sections of the city or encircled it. Istanbul’s strategic position was strengthened by the series of walls of late Roman and Byzantine origin which linked the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmora to protect the city on the landward side. Another chain of walls extended round the extreme south-eastern point containing the first of the city’s seven hills, the site of the old Byzantine imperial palace and the complex of Topkapi Saray, the Ottoman seat of government, court and royal household. Various attempts were made to provide Cairo with an effective defence system. The most spectacular and effective was the scheme which Sultan Salah-al-Din (Saladin) planned and completed between 1171 and 1182. It included the two main settlements of the city within a walled enclosure commanded by the citadel on the high ground between the Nile and the Muqattam Hills. Successive plans of Tehran show how the city developed radially from an irregular polygonal shape within a retaining moat and wall complete with watch- towers and six gates constructed during the sixteenth century. By the reign of Fath All Shah Qajar (1797-1834) these structures had been repaired many times and the gatehouses were embellished with hero Rustam locked in combat with the White Div, a speckled grotesque creature.
Closely linked to defence systems were complexes devoted to the household of the ruler, his family and entourage, and the offices of the state administration. These were comparable to small cities. Such a mingling of private and public functions resulted in an often haphazard architectural programme as buildings were added and adapted. Often complexes were built on existing foundations, as it was reasonable to continue using an ideal site. The most splendid example of this is the Topkapi Saray in Istanbul built 011 Byzantine foundations south of the great cathedral of Saint Sophia. According to the Greek chronicler Kritovoulos, Sultan Mehmet II gave orders in 1459 for the erection of a palace on the point of old Byzantium which stretches out into the sea – a palace that should outshine all and be more marvellous than preceding palaces in looks, size, cost and gracefulness. The Sultan’s creation eventually covered an enormous area within a high wall, planned as a series of four linked courts, two devoted to public and administrative functions and two to private audiences and domestic life, concealed by fortified gates and entrances, to which access was progressively limited. His successors added to this structure. Eventually the four courts supported a rambling assortment of administrative buildings, kitchen and stable quarters, schools, libraries, mosques, pavilions and private apartments set in agreeable gardens.
Again, in Tehran also the administrative centre and the royal residence were enclosed within a single walled area popularly known as the Arg. Here, however, development was more random and diffuse than in Istanbul. The Arg shared its northern wall with that of the city’s ramparts while the buildings within which formed the Gules tan Palace, consisted mainly of independent units such as open sided audience chambers, courtyards and pavilions among luxuriant gardens watered b ornamental pools and channels. These amenities were the work of Fath Ali Shah who saw the palace as both a suitable framework for his own magnificence and an inviting refuge from the heat and dust of the outside world. Cairo’s citadel more resembled military stronghold. Within its extensive enclosure were housed a defence tower and the barracks of his royal guard as well as the palaces of the Sultan,his household and officials Between and around most city walls and royal complexes were the quarters where the needs of a city’s everyday life were served. Although their streets gave a superficially crowded and chaotic impression they did, in fact, operate to a logical modular plan Networks of main streets both provided routes for communication and divided the city into service and residential quarters. Streets within each quarter were often cramped and narrow, dirty and muddy in winter and dusty in summer. The basic requirements were housing for residents, which varied according to their status and wealth, a local mosque, synagogue or church in Jewish and Christian sections, shops and market and a public bath.
Definition was given to a city by the great religious and commercial complexes. These were built at strategic locations near the ruler’s palace, at the intersections of main roads and on high points such as the seven hills of Istanbul. The patrons of these public works were the rulers, their families and wealthy private citizens. Provision, construction and maintenance were financed through the Islamic form of charitable bequest known as waqf. that is, revenue-generating property – rentable land, houses or shops – donated or bequeathed in perpetuity for the support of pious works which could range in scope from a mosque to a local drinking fountain. This aspect of Islam which combined religious and commercial enterprise was expressed in the proximity of mosque and bazaar. Istanbul and Tehran are particularly distinctive examples of the interdependence of such buildings.
Istanbul’s topography, dominated by the domes and minarets of the great imperial mosque complexes, illustrates waqf bequests on a grand scale. The mosques of Sultan Mehmet II (1451-81), Sultan Selim I 1512-20), Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1520- 66) and his daughter Mihrimah command the fourth, fifth, third and sixth hills respectively. Such mosques were complemented by equally impressive buildings dedicated to religious, educational and charitable functions. Equal importance was given to the needs of commerce. Istanbul was notable for the range of services which it could offer to both residents and travellers. The main business district, located in the heart of the old city, consisted of a network of intersecting streets flanked by open markets. Hans or caravanserais offered accommodation for travelling merchants, storage for their goods, offices for the transaction of business and workshop space. The enclosed bedesten specialized 111 the sale of luxuries and the shops of the (carsi sold an enormous range of house-hold goods. Outside the covered areas the open markets or bazaars dealt mainly in food. The close relationship between religious and commercial functions was emphasized as income from each han and bedesteni contributed to the maintenance of mosques.
Other important features of Istanbul’s infrastructure concerned water, transport and manufacture. The Ottoman Turks upgraded and extended the old Byzantine water system soon after their conquest of 1453. Water from the Belgrad Forest came to the city via a system of dams, reservoirs and aqueducts to be stored in water towers and enormous underground cisterns for distribution throughout the city. Although water was free, only the Topkapi Saray, important buildings and wealthy households had their own supplies, so donations of the beautiful public fountains around the city were noteworthy acts of charity. The main streets, which were paved, were used to transport goods and people but water transport was more effective. Merchant ships and passenger ferries regularly sailed along the shores of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. While Istanbul’s unrivalled geographical and political position commanded all essential resources, the city was also a manufacturing centre in its own right. Specialist ateliers produced goods exclusively for the Topkapi Saray and other imperial establishments; state factories made arms and uniforms for the army and navy; clusters of workshops made wares for sale in the covered markets. The outlying suburbs furnished space for the less salubrious trades, such as the tanning and working of leather which dominated tin- quarter of Yedikule near the old Byzantine walls.
The integration of homes into this impressive infrastructure reflected social status. Broadly speaking social stratification was Vertical, with the rich living on the upper slopes of the city and the poor crowded in shabby wooden houses below. The shores of the upper Bosphorus were also lined with spacious wealthy homes within gardens. Individual character was often given to a residential quarter through the presence of some outstanding feature. The quarter of ‘Eyup at the bead of the Golden Horn is centred around the tomb of Eyiip Ensari, the standard bearer of the Prophet Muhammad who died during the first Arab siege of Constantinople in 674. Eyiip developed as a centre of pilgrimage, as a burial place for pious Muslims and as a wealthy residential area. Istanbul’s non-Muslim communities lived in segregated quarters. The most colourful and lively was Pera across the Golden Horn, where local Greeks lived together with the European diplomatic and commercial missions.
Tehran is more compact, located at the base of the foothills of the Elburz mountains dominated by the peak of Mount Demavend. which gives the city a vertical alignment both physically and socially. The administrative quarters of the Arg and neighbouring religious and commercial institutions were in the south of the city while the summer residences of the Shahs and their court occupied the north, extending beyond the city wall into the surrounding hills.
Unlike the Ottoman Sultans who resided permanently in Topkapi Saray. the Qajar Shahs migrated annually between the winter residence of the Gulestan Palace within the Arg and several summer establishments which varied from seasonal hunting lodges to formally planned buildings. Although the distances travelled were small by modern standards the migrations were cumbersome journeys involving the transportation of the Shah’s household and officials with all their luggage in an assortment of carriages and carts, file Qajars continued to migrate even after Tehran was rebuilt in the 1860s, maintaining a sentimental link with their nomadic tribal past and a practical desire to escape to the comforts of the cool northern hills in the heat of summer.
Tehran’s main religious building, located close to the south wall of the Arg, was the large mosque built in the time of Fath Ali Shah between 1808 and 1813. Extensions into neighbouring buildings through common walls and passages created a close relationship with the bazaar booths clustered around the mosque. Both Fath Ali Shah and Nasiruddin Shah (1848-96) extended the bazaar area, roofed its streets and alleys and constructed new shops and caravanserais. They also made efforts to improve the water supply which depended 011 an intricate system of water channels which were tilled from wells and underground sources in the mountains north of the city. Adjacent to the bazaar were the small workshops of metalsmiths and potters, while spreading further south and out with the limits of the city walls were extensive brick kilns which supplied the city’s main building material. Networks of streets radiated out from the complex of Arg, mosque and bazaar dividing the city into residential units intersected by narrow alleys. As in Istanbul the poorer inhabitants lived in crowded conditions while the wealthier citizens’ homes were situated to the north and cast.
Cities are never static. All three capitals had to cope with a constant stream of immigrants who would either join communities already established in the city or camp in squatter settlements on the outskirts. This brought severe pressures on services and housing. Buildings were frequently at risk of lire and flood; they fell into decay or simply were no longer suited to their original purpose. There was continual building and rebuilding. Until the nineteenth century this constant change had proceeded at a measured pace, gradually modifying the shape of cities but retaining their traditional orientation. During the 1850-70S, however, ambitious construction programmes in all three capitals broke this traditional pattern through clearance of old quarters and relocation of each city’s working centre. Various factors contributed towards these programmes of modernization. By the late eighteenth century the Ottoman Sultans were actively seeking contacts with Europe and were recruiting technical, architectural and military expertise to develop and re-define the traditional institutions of the Empire.
The functions of the Topkapi Saray had gradually diminished as the administration moved out to ministries in the city. The royal residence was abandoned as it was considered old-fashioned and inconvenient. Parts had already been destroyed in fires which had regularly swept through the city from the sixteenth century onwards. Sultan Mahmut II (1808-39) moved, in 1826. to a new palace at Besiktas on the Pera side of the Golden Horn, thus shifting the focus of the city to the north. These changes coincided with his destruction of the Janissery corps and the dissolution of their headquarters. He replaced them with regiments trained along modern lines and housed them in barracks located outside the land walls ofthe city, at Pera and at Haydarpa$a on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. His successors continued Ins policy of isolating the old city and separating the administration from the imperial household by building more palaces, such as the splendid Dolmabahve Palace, commissioned by Sultan Abdul Medjit I (1839- 61), completed in 1853, whose Italianate facade and terrace now dominate the shore at Beskitas. All these moves affected the residential pattern of the city. Wealthy citizens had always maintained summer houses (yalis) on the shores of the Bosphorus. By the late 1850s they had moved permanently to these homes, following the Ottoman court northwards.
While these changes 111 Istanbul were inevitable they were encouraged through direct Ottoman contacts with Paris which had been transformed during the iXsos-6os into a city of grand boulevards linked by gardens and squares, under the direction ol Baron Haussmann. The Universal Exhibition held in 1867 enabled delegations from Turkey, Egypt and Iran to display both their industrial products and handicrafts, and to see Haussmann’s achievements for themselves. The Ottoman Sultan Abdul Aziz (1861- 76) the Khedive Ismail (1863-79) of Egypt and some Iranian officials visited the Exhibition and were guided around Pans. These experiences hastened plans for municipal improvement in their homelands. In Istanbul the Pera quarter was subject to the most ambitious experiments in town planning and administration. By the late iX6os the old walls surrounding the quarter were pulled down and the Galata Bridge was built to link Pera to the old city. Broad streets and squares were constructed and lined with smart shops and apartments. In Cairo, the Khedive Ismail, who had already considered ideas for modernizing parts of the city, completely changed them after his visit to Paris. He decided to build the spacious extensions of Ismailiyeh and Ezbekiyeh to the north and west of the old town and to move the business anil administrative sectors there.
It was Tehran which perhaps saw the most extreme and rapid transformation. The city, still confined within the much repaired sixteenth-century walls, was no longer able to function effectively. The population had increased to such an extent that settlement had sprawled beyond the city walls creating problems of security. A network of roads was needed to improve communication and transport, and the water supply system needed to be upgraded as the city was often flooded. Nasiruddin Shah’s decision to reconstruct Tehran was taken in December 1K67, a few months after the Paris Exhibition. He began by demolishing the old walls and by bringing the northern suburbs within the city to enlarge it to four times its original size. He enclosed tins area within a new set of octagonal walls complete with towers. .1 moat and twelve tile-decorated gates. In these architectural details lie favoured tradition.
The immediate result of this expansion was to locate the administrative and business quarters firmly in the south of the city. The Arg continued to function as both winter residence and administrative centre, but the Gulestan Palace was transformed by Nasiruddin Shah through demolition of his predecessors’ buildings and construction of new reception and domestic units during the years 1867-92. He maintained the Qajar tradition of migrating to summer residences and commissioned several palaces in the northern hills. The square to the south of the Arg which gave access to the bazaar area was enlarged and improved. The most significant result of Nasiruddin Shah’s building programme was the development of north Tehran into spacious and fashionable suburbs. A network of broad streets leading from a magnificent new square linked the city to routes to the settlements outside the walls. Between these streets residential accommodation evolved dominated by the elegant houses and gardens of the rich.