ARTICLE-PHOTO-ARCHIVE: Prof. Dr. METIN AND
Simurgs And Hoopoes
The Flutter Of Wings In Ottoman Miniatures
Besides offering a visual feast, the bird stories found in Ottoman illuminated manuscripts also attest to the Turks’ great love for the feathered species.
Birds are reminiscent of angels, enchanting men with their lovely feathers and beautiful songs. When our chests constrict with pain, we want to fly away like a bird; when our hearts burst with excitement they flutter like bird’s wings. Birds are the symbol of man’s love of freedom, and their wings beat on the flags and coats of arms of many a country and kingdom. Love of animals occupies an important place in the world’s cultures and religions. And love of birds an even more special place. Birds, which are regarded as sacred in numerous mythologies and belief systems, are accorded a particular respect. The Hoopoe, for instance, confidant and courier of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; the Bird of Paradise, who turned whoever came under the shadow of his wing into a sultan or grand vezir; and the Simurg or Phoenix, that omnipresent bird of legend, epic and fairy tale.
King Solomon, who could understand the speech of all the animals, was able to communicate with the birds as well. So well in fact that he even had a dervish lodge built for them. The birds assembled once a year at this lodge, known as the ‘Tekke-i Mürgân’, for a week of revelry and prayers for their benefactor. Besides such legendary birds as the Hoopoe, the Phoenix and the Bird of Paradise, the more common birds we see around us also had their honored place. At the head of them all was the stork, the ‘sheikh’ of birds. Dubbed the ‘hadji’ (one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca), it was therefore regarded as sacred. One of the sheikhs of the Mevlevi Lodge at Yenikapı in Istanbul was known as ‘Leylek Dede’ or ‘the Stork Sheikh’ for his great height. The Mevlevis also made countless images of storks, most of them in the form of calligraphic representations. They usually wrote the ‘besmele’, for example, in the shape of a stork. The rooster, the white rooster especially, had a special place as well among the dervish orders. Regarded as sacred, the white rooster was thought to bring good fortune wherever he went. Hacı Bektaş Velî was believed to have mounted a white rooster to perform a miracle. Nor should the pigeon, crane and nightingale be forgotten among the highly esteemed birds who were depicted calligraphically countless times in the time of the mystical orders.
SPECIAL HOUSES FOR BIRDS
The Ottomans in general accorded birds a special importance, both in their everyday life and in their mythological tales. This Ottoman love of birds is attested by two important pieces of evidence. First of all, the bird houses built for species such as sparrows, swallows, finches and pigeons. Attached to the facades of mosques, medreses, mausoleums, fountains, caravanserais and even private dwellings, these ‘model homes’ were of one, two, even three stories. They not only added distinction to the buildings they adorned, they also possessed a certain monumental beauty of their own. Among them were even some reminiscent of a chateau or palace. The bird catchers that roamed the streets were the second indicator of the Ottomans’ love of birds. Catching birds by a variety of different methods, they trained some of them, imparting to them a host of skills. People who bought these birds and then set them free believed they were doing a good deed that would earn them points in heaven. It was a sin, for example, to touch the birds known as kites, so meat was always left for them in open places. A water color painting dating from the 16th century and found in the Vienna State Library shows a bird catcher, his customers and a bird that has been set free in the sky. Two miniatures from the magnificent work known as the ‘Surname-i Hümayun’, painted by the master miniaturist Nakkaş Osman to depict the circumcision ceremony for Murat III’s son Crown Prince Mehmed in 1582, shows several bird catchers at the Hippodrome with a variety of birds, some of which they are holding in their hands while others are in cages. Ottoman miniature paintings are particularly rich in bird illustrations. Some of these are depictions of individual birds such as, for example, a woodpecker, a magpie, a woodcock, and a bird holding a grasshopper in its beak. Apart from these, stories involving birds were also accorded an important place in Ottoman illuminated manuscripts of traditional tales such as ‘Kalila and Dimna’. Some of these include the story of the crows who waged war against the owls when one of their number was chosen king of the birds; the dispute between the rooster and the falcon; the tale of the rooster and the fox; and the story of the two ducks who came to the aid of a tortoise who was stranded in a drought.
BIRDS IN THREE DIMENSIONS
A miniature in a work entitled ‘Wonders of Nature and Art’ found in the British Museum shows parched birds in a season of drought slaking their thirst by drinking water collected in the beak of a pelican. Meanwhile in a story from Ferîdü’d-din Attar’s renowned verse narrative, ‘Mantıkü’t Tayr (The Speech of Fowls), the birds decide to choose a king for themselves. This king is none other than the Simurg, who lives on a mythical mountain in the Caucasus known as Kaf Dagh. The Hoopoe offers to guide the birds to him and the story continues with an account of their journey told through various symbols. This work, a 16th century illuminated manuscript of which is housed in the Topkapı Palace Library, was adapted for the stage by Peter Brook, one of today’s leading men of theater, to great acclaim in the world of art. Meanwhile, a miniature in a manuscript in the University of Istanbul Library depicts four cats gazing with great appetite on two birds, and two large parrots in separate cages with other birds hovering overhead. This miniature illustrates a story from the famous work known as the ‘Mesnevî’ by Mevlâna Jelaladdin Rumî. According to the story, the caged birds symbolize believers who are eager to be liberated from these mortal coils as soon as possible. The Ottomans also produced three-dimensional birds made of sugar, or of cloth. In the circumcision festivities of 1582, for example, the towelmakers guild fashioned enormous three-dimensional hollow birds out of Turkish towels. And the people who carried them in the procession made them perform bird-like movements by operating a mechanism concealed inside. Similarly, a giant kite in the form of the Simurg was devised that could be made to fly in any direction.
The bird catchers have vanished today. And giant birds are no longer created out of Turkish towels. But the birds and their houses are with us still... in every corner of Turkey.