By Malgorzata de Latour-Abdalla*
Visitors to Spanish Granada can admire the 14th century splendid Lion Court of Alhambra palace erected by Muhammad Alhamer as a testimony to his greatness but also to his modesty. Building his residential palace he had an elaborately calligraphed saying “There is no Victor but Allah” inscribed among the famous arcades, which are one of the prime reasons that attract such flocks of tourists to the site today.
The inscription in Arabic goes back to the jubilant reception that he received on the return from his military expedition against Sevilla. When the crowd welcomed him with the parole “Al-Ghalib”- “The Victor”, he replied: “There is no Victor but Allah”. Who would expect to see the same Arabic saying and the same ornate arcades replicated five centuries later by a Polish patriot, Tytus Dzialynski in his newly renovated castle in a small town of Kornik, some thousands of kilometres east of the Spanish Alhambra.
As crowds of visitors pass through the Kornik castle today, few people, however, ask what made its prominent owner chose Islamic styles for his newly restored residence-cum-library. I decided to look into the connections between the medieval Muslim Alhambra in Spain and the 19th century Christian Kornik castle in Poland. After several centuries of prosperity, the largest state in Europe at the time — the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — ceased to exist as it was invaded in 1795 by its neighbours, the Austrian, Prussian and Russian empires. For 123 years Poland could not be found on the map of Europe. During that time there was no government or any official institutions to take care of the national heritage.
Thus, Polish and Lithuanian aristocratic families assumed the role of protectors of the national history and national memorabilia. Like the caring Emirati individuals trying to preserve from oblivion the ancient artefacts and the traditional way of life of their fore farers by creating private museums, so attempted the affluent Polish people to protect the national identity under the prolonged occupation.
In pursuit of the past grandeur of the Polish Republic during the time of its subjugation to the foreign powers, it became a patriotic duty to collect and display old manuscripts and ancestors’ memorabilia, such as valuable armours, tapestries, china, silver, etc. which were then assembled in the so called memory chambers of palaces and castles.
Count Tytus Dzialynski, too, tried to find a way of exposing his own collection in the possibly most glorious way. He decided to recreate the splendour of great national prosperity by reconstructing an ancient castle he inherited, in order to “secure in it a true repository of national heritage, a foundation devoted to the Nation” (excerpt from the letter of T. Dzialynski translated by the author).
Living under the Prussian occupation, the master of the Kornik estate searched for means of expressing his patriotic sentiments without irritating the occupant. At the same time, he strived to create a worthy framing for his artefacts. Prominent European architects were employed to restore the old edifice and enhance it in a modern style. As a result, mixtures of English neogothic with Arabic and Islamic elements were selected for the newly evolving architectural jewel.
In search of proper symbolism Dzialynski reached to the old Arabic architectural style. Here, Islamic culture as epitomised through the Moorish kingdom seemed to be the most suitable as a framework for his collection. For the sake of structural congruity, the oriental elements of the Kornik castle were based on three main Islamic archetypes: the Moorish Lion’s Court of the Alhambra Palace (for the Kornik’s hall hosting valuable manuscripts, armoury pieces and other collectibles of national importance), the mosque of Sultan Hassan in Cairo (for the portals in the entrance hall of Kornik) and the Taj Mahal Mausoleum in Agra, India (for the niche in the rear elevation of the Kornik Castle). Additionally, oriental carpets served as prototypes for sumptuously ornamented hard wood mosaic floors (the parquet) of the entire castle. Entrusting his highly sophisticated oriental projects to local Polish craftsmen, the erudite owner had given a testimony of their high craftsmanship.
Dzialynski’s reaching into the Orient for fulfilling his patriotic role came within the context of an increased interest in oriental culture in Europe in general. The reasons for this interest, which goes back several hundred years, are manifold. On one hand, the growing interest in oriental studies in Christian Europe had led to cultural openness. The oriental culture was not foreign to the Polish noblemen either, who in the 17th and 18th centuries were known to claim to descend from Sarmatians, an ancient tribe of Iranian origin. Having their origin in mind, they willingly adopted and imitated oriental (predominantly Persian and Turkish) traditions and aesthetic tastes despite their fear of the Ottoman Turks.
Wide contacts between Central Europe and the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 17th century further resulted in spreading of Turkish fashion in Poland, exemplified in national costume of the noblemen— long robes and coats, curved swards, and above all the sumptuous lifestyle. This created demand for oriental ornaments, pieces of armoury and garments so that Polish workshops started to imitate the Turkish products.
Additionally, it is worth mentioning that the 19th century Ottoman Turkey did not recognise the partition of Poland and always kept an empty seat for a Polish diplomat in Istanbul. Moreover, the Crimean War of the 1850s in which Turkey, supported by England, tried to challenge Russia, presented for the Polish people a historic chance of regaining the statehood. Many Polish missions left for Istanbul hoping to secure support for the liberation from Russian occupation and the son-in-law of count Dzialynski was one of them.
In Western Europe the fear of their southern neighbour, the Ottoman Empire, also gradually gave way to curiosity. It coincided with the increasing European interest in the riches of the Orient. Spies were sent to explore the mythical lands. The ethos of mysterious agent, a man of two faces, an alienated and tragic hero, who would put his life at risk for the sake of his “noble” mission started to excite the literary minds of the 19th century Polish poets. Those characters perfectly exemplified Romantic literary heroes showing national liberation aspirations.
On the other hand, the popular Romantic mythology of Moorish Granada had left a strong impression on the minds of educated Polish patriots. A thriving Arabic kingdom evoked the memories of the greatness of their own country before its neighbours invaded it. At the same time many architectural elements of oriental edifices, Alhambra palace including, were popularised in Western Europe by the way of pattern-books.
Thus, a model of the splendid Alhambra palace could be admired at the world exhibition in London in the year of 1851. Living within this historical context and cultural environment, it was natural for the master of the Kornik estate to embrace oriental styles during the restoration of his residency. Hence, a two-storey exhibition hall, called a Moresque Hall was created. Splendid stucco arches, such as those that can be seen in the Lion’s Court of the Alhambra palace, supported on slender columns and engraved with floral arabesque crown the interior of the exhibition chamber. They carry a library, which includes a selection of the most precious books. Dzialynski’s voluminous library reached 320.000 pieces, for which the owner had designed appropriate bookshelves, divided into categories: literature, history, geography etc.
Dzialynski amassed many rare manuscripts —the oldest one — a French manuscript from the 9th/10th century. Other precious example include a rare copy of a Bible from 13th century rendered in eight languages.
Perhaps the most unexpected jewels of the Kornik collection, however, are two manuscripts of the Holy Quran from the 15th and 17th century. The older one is an exceptionally splendid copy from the year 1470/71 (or 874 Hijri). “Fifteen by twelve centimetres in size written on fine off-white paper, it is written in “nashi” Arabic script. It is bound in leather engraved with medallions. Beautifully calligraphed in black ink, the text is triple framed in gold and blue. The first and last lines on each page are written with golden letters supplemented with black vocalisation (ar. Harakāt). The titles of the Quranic chapters —”Sūras” — are framed in golden ornamentation on the blue background. The colours seem to be well preserved.” (quoted after the archival description translated by the author).
In addition to the architectural elements, magnificently ornate floors, and an exceptional collection of manuscripts, connoisseurs of oriental arts will find in Dzialynski’s collection numerous paintings with oriental themes, among them a variety of Turkish and Persian miniatures. Postcard-sized oil paintings on wood present portraits of noble people of the Orient in their festive attires. An exceptional miniature of an oriental lady smoking shisha, or a water pipe, shows an emancipated oriental woman at a time when smoking was not accepted among European ladies.
The Kornik castle stands proudly as an extraordinary example of architectural sophistication and beauty combined with practical usage. Donated to the Polish Nation in the year 1924 in the form of Kornik Foundation, this collection of rare manuscripts, old prints, and rare books is one of the richest in Poland and is even accessible to the public.
* Malgorzata de Latour-Abdalla is a Freelance Journalist and Photographer. Originally this article was published in Gulf Today, Sharjah, UAE (Dar Al-Khaleej for Press, Printing & Publishing L.L.C.) Copy edited anew, in coordination with the author, with some newly added images and revised captions (the Chief Editor).