The Ottoman Empire: a faraway friend

The Ottoman Empire: a faraway friend
Review: Looking past Orientalist perceptions about the Ottoman Empire, an exhibition in Brussels gives us an insight into how East and West lived side-by-side.
3 min read
13 April, 2015
The Ottoman Empire is still a source of pride for some in Turkey [AFP]

Where do East and West meet? To answer this, and to highlight the continuous interaction between the north and south of the Mediterranean, the Brussels-based Bozar Expo is hosting The Sultan's World: The Ottoman Orient in Renaissance Art.

Friend and enemy

The exhibition, which will continue until the end of May, is a multi-layered display of artworks that break the stereotypes of the Orient.

It also imparts visitors with information to discuss the nature of East-West relations over the centuries.

Despite Europe's tradition in viewing the Ottoman sultanate as the "other", or even a long time foe, the Ottomans and the European nations were never "inherent enemies".

In fact, when the sultans ruled the Ottoman Empire, there was a steady and continuous exchange of thoughts, goods, and people.

Merchants, pilgrims, travellers, diplomats, soldiers and prisoners of war all travelled between the two "abodes".

Some of them would return to their countries with different stories about the "other", which were usually a construction of real events and their imagination. This added to the European perception of the "Turks".

When the European Renaissance began, works of art by writers and artists contributed to a deeper and better understanding of the "other".  

To understand the dialogue between East and the West today, or rather a lack of one, then we must hold on to stories from the past, and remember their social, political and psychological impact.

Here lies the importance of the exhibition, where visitors from East and West help retrieve the stories and reconsider the "other" as well as our views.

The size and diversity of the items that are on display - including weapons, art and maps from 1420 to 1620 - reflect the complicated relations between Europe and the Ottomans.

     Merchants, pilgrims, travellers, diplomats, soldiers and prisoners of war all travelled between the two 'abodes'.

Cultural exchange

There have been many cultural projects launched about Euro-Ottoman relations, but most of these focused only on one aspect - the rulers and the religious elite.

However, this exhibition shows the work of artists and craftsmen from different cultural fields and spaces, including Poland and Hungary.

It also reflects Europe's curiosity and interest in the Ottomans, despite the clichés and preconceived notions.

On the other hand, the official historiography of Turkey's Ottoman period still focuses on wars and victories.

It completely ignores the individuals and citizens, except in a few rare cases that speak of the sultan, his entourage and harem.

The Sultan's World meanwhile aims at shedding light on the daily lives of ordinary people.

It looks at highlighting how different peoples lived despite the social and political changes the Ottoman Empire experienced.

The one downside is that the exhibition's organisers did not take into consideration that the Ottoman Empire comprised of multiple ethnicities, languages and religions.

Instead, curators focused exclusively on the relations between the Muslim East and Christian Europe, and overlooked the ethnic and religious minorities from the Mediterranean basin.

These communities were an integral part of the history of both sides, with a significant role in the evolution of Euro-Ottoman relations. The organisers also ignored the voice of Mediterranean women.

When digging up stories from the past, we must expose the silence of the official historiography, and we must fill in the gaps by searching for the voices of the voiceless.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.