Topkapı Palace gold

Besides its symbolic and decorative functions gold was also used for objects of everyday life, and the Treasuries of the Ottoman Sultans who used those objects have been preserved in Topkapı Palace for 400 years.

Gold is a mineral whose undying allure has not dimmed since ancient times. Subject of legends and tales of kings, sultans, pharaohs or simple adventurers, material of opulent jewelry, gold is a potentially fatal passion. One of the first minerals ever discovered by man, it has been a symbol of power and rule since time immemorial. A look at the history of the Turks reveals traces of this passion for gold beginning in Central Asia and continuing through the traditions of the Seljuks, Mamluks and Ottomans right up to our day. The most splendid artifacts of the Ottoman Empire are preserved in the Treasury of Topkapı Palace Museum. Among these objects, which are either made exclusively of gold or in which gold is the chief component, are cradles, candlesticks, flasks, basins, ewers, chandeliers, dessert sets, writing drawers, cup holders, water bowls, censers and rosewater flacons, water pipes, and candle scissors. To this list we can also add such items as mirrors, fans, seal pouches, and tobacco, snuff, scent and pill boxes, which were used either in everyday life or on ceremonial occasions such as coronations, weddings, religious holidays, births, deaths, and circumcisions. Not to mention the Ottomans’ famed Bayram Throne. Jewelry reflecting the empire’s power is among the priceless Treasury items that come to mind at the mere mention of Ottoman pomp and splendor. And some of these gold artifacts are enameled or set with precious stones such as diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls, turquoise, jade and rock crystal.

One of the first clues that the Ottomans used objects made of gold is encountered in the Chronicles of the House of Osman by Âşıkpaşazade, one of the earliest sources on the history of the dynasty. It is reported here that ten gold-filled trays of gold and silver, a gold ewer and basin, and silver and gold goblets were among the gifts presented by Akıncı Beyi Evrenos Gazi at the circumcision of Murad I’s (1362-1389) son Bayezid (1389-1402). This shows that gifts of gold-filled vessels made of gold or silver were a very old tradition among the Turks, at least on important ceremonial occasions.

In the 15th century in particular, the rich gold and silver mines captured following the conquest of the Balkans formed an important source for the production of jewelry, which underwent a major development in Istanbul, Trabzon, Diyarbakır, Prizren, Erzurum and many other cities of the empire. The use of jewelry and other valuable objects in the Ottoman Palace increased even further following the conquest of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror (1451-1481). One of the Conqueror’s chief merchants, Jacopo de Promontario, reports that the sultan’s head butler had in his care a large number of gold and silver basins, pitchers, bowls and candlesticks.

The use of luxury items, which continued to grow during the reign of Bayezid II (1481-1512), assumed even greater  proportions following Selim I’s (1512-1520) campaigns to Iran and Egypt. The following examples are encountered in records of gold artifacts that we find starting from the second half of the 16th century especially: a tray, carafe, and belts made of gold given by Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566) to Shah Tahmasp of Persia; Ahmed I’s gold dinnerware, much of it gold-plated but some of it made of solid gold; and a bejeweled gold tray and jade cup, given as a gift to the Voyvoda of Poznan by Mustafa II on the signing of the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699.  Similarly, the French traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who visited various parts of Anatolia on his trips to the Middle East in the 17th century, says in his work entitled ‘Life in Topkapı Palace’ that two people were needed to carry the sultans’ dinnerware and candlesticks because they were so heavy.

The creation of such wealth was due, without a doubt, to the empire’s unlimited resources and to the support given to art and artists by the sultans and palace circle. Jewelry was a branch of art to which much value was given, so much so that Selim I and Süleyman the Magnificent both learned the art of jewelry-making as princes. In the palace workshops and among the independent masters there were a large number of jewelers, inlay artists, and other artists skilled in the art of hammering gold, producing gold thread, and weaving and embroidering cloth with gold. Responsibility for inspecting the materials used in these workshops lay with the Chief of the Imperial Treasury, one of the white eunuchs.

Exhibiting Seljuk, Byzantine, Timurid, Mamluk and Safavid influences in the early period, Ottoman art created its own unique style from the mid-16th century onwards as gold and silver workmanship developed alongside the other branches of the arts. Later on we see that Ottoman jewelry-making, which was also inspired by the Indian and Mughal cultures, began to come under the influence of Western art in the 18th century. Although this influence was further enhanced from the mid-century onwards, a unique Ottoman taste once again asserted itself in late-period works.

The Ottoman Treasuries filled up on the one hand with riches received in the form of gifts, plunder and revenues derived from taxes and fees, mines and cultivated land, and customs taxes collected from the provinces even as they were emptying out on the other through expenditures made for various purposes. Starting from the second half of the 17th century in particular a number of gold objects were melted down by the State and used to mint coins in periods of economic straits. Some jewelry even was melted down in this way and made anew. But, as ancestral mementoes, very few items of high value as works of art were actually affected.

The Superintendent of the Treasury protected it by sealing the outer door with an agate seal that had belonged to Selim I, who bequeathed its use as follows: “Among those who come after [me] whoever fills with inferior copper coins the Treasury that I have filled with gold, let the Treasury be sealed with his seal, but whatever happens may it continue to be sealed with my seal!” And the Treasury was indeed sealed with his seal until Topkapı Palace was converted into a museum at Atatürk’s behest in 1924.