Decorating the Divine

Decorating the Divine: An Adventure in Topkapi Palace

by Rosie Boyd

“I could never do anything like that!” Those were my words when my dear friend Füsun suggested I go with her to a course in traditional Islamic manuscript illumination. As a little girl, I never dreamed of being an artist. Even today, surrounded by my paintings and with a long list of exhibits to my credit, it is difficult to think of myself that way. All through school, I did very badly in any drawing and painting assignments. Now, as I look back, I see that what my teachers wanted from me just wasn’t my style of art. I still have no real feeling for the type of artistic endeavors that were taught and encouraged in my childhood.

Hich, a Farsi word meaning "nothing," decorated in tezhib style. Calligrapher: Mehmet Memis. 15" X 22". Photos: Connie Morgan.

I had been living in the incredible city of Istanbul for two years. By this time, late summer of 1991, I had a fair command of the Turkish language and could hold my own in most situations. Granted, I did a lot more listening than talking! I knew my way around the city and the culture. I was pursuing other aspects of Turkish book arts, calligraphy and paper marbling. Recently, I had decided to concentrate on strengthening my language skills and had just taken a placement test for the Turkish program at Bogaziçi University. The courses were going to be very demanding and I was both determined and excited about the work ahead.

Now, suddenly, I found I could think of nothing but Füsun’s idea that we take this art course together. She and her husband, Hikmet Barutcugil, have a small hotel in the historic part of Istanbul, overlooking the walls of Topkapi Palace and the Sea of Marmara. The hotel is decorated with beautiful marbled papers (ebru), made by one of the finest marblers in the world today, Hikmet himself. I lived on the other side of the city, across the Bosphorus Strait, about 1 1/2 hours away. Sitting on the ferryboat, my mind was reeling with possibilities and options. Arriving at home, I did what I always do when I want to relax and let things settle — I made a cup of coffee and stared at the garden. I recognized the feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was that “this sounds crazy, but I know if I don’t do it, I will regret it” feeling. (You know, the one that is always right!) With that abrupt change of plans, the path of my life would fork and take a new direction.

From the beginning, it became clear that this was a very serious undertaking. In Turkey today, there are many small associations which foster interests in traditional arts. The instructors give students photocopies of famous artwork, which the students copy and learn to paint. They acquire a grasp of techniques and a familiarity with fine art, but there is no training in composition. There are only a few universities and institutions which thoroughly train people in various traditional book arts. Leading the way is the Turkish Traditional Decorative Arts Academy, housed in Topkapi Palace Museum. The Academy offers only two courses of study, Islamic calligraphy (using the Arabic language and script) and manuscript illumination. The program is under the direction of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and has attracted some of the most highly regarded artists to donate their time as teachers. (I would later spend an additional year studying with two of them, Ms. Mamure Öz and Mr. Semih Irtes, at their Sema Design Studio.)

When Füsun and I went to the office to enroll in the course, we found that it wasn’t that simple. There was a three-hour practical entrance exam scheduled. My heart stopped momentarily, then I signed up. Füsun had assured me that the instructors would teach us everything we needed to know — right from the beginning. How was I going to get through this exam? Well, during the next week, she coached me. I drew, I painted. It all looked awful. The big day arrived.

There were about seventy people of all ages, mostly women. We were given a paper with a 5″ diameter circle and three floral motifs on it. The instructions were to create a design in the circle using two of the motifs, the third to be worked into a border around it. We would demonstrate our brush skills (ha!) on a small portion of the piece. I was relieved to notice that others seemed just as intimidated by it. That morning was also our first taste of what it must have been like to work in legendary Topkapi Palace in centuries past. The light was poor, the tables wobbly. Months later we would find out how cold it could be in that old stone building!

"The Beautiful Names," (Arabic), a list of the qualities and attributes of the Divine. 15" X 22". Calligrapher: Erol Donmez.

When it was finally over, and papers collected, a lunch break was announced, to be followed by individual interviews in the office of the museum director. What! No one expected this! The nerves went on edge again. We gathered in a small group with our new friends from our table. We were among the last to be called. I felt like a little child walking into this large office with the director behind his desk and the six teachers seated around the room. My Turkish was fine for chatting with shopkeepers, but (to me) woefully inadequate in this room. Someone commented that I was Füsun’s friend, and she would be able to help me. I took that as encouraging. She must have been accepted. At least I could go out and tell Füsun that her chances looked good.

It was two weeks before the list was posted. I couldn’t believe I really saw my name there. Classes began the next week. We took a table with some of the women we had met during the exam. The opening lecture reinforced the serious attitude of the Academy. In the first few weeks we were so loaded down with assignments, that we began to think they were trying to discourage the ones who weren’t willing to work hard. True, we did lose two of the 35 students at that time. We began to realize that this was standard operating procedure. Over the next two years, we were sure our teachers were trying to make us crazy, trying to kill us. Füsun wondered if I blamed her for getting me into this!

The course schedule was divided into six-week sessions. Each session concentrated on a specific style of art. The first was hatayi, stylized floral designs. We drew dozens of traditional motifs, then began to learn the rules of composition which apply to hatayi. Here is where my strong background in technical drawing proved invaluable. I was already well-accustomed to paying strict attention to precision and detail. At the end, a comprehensive practical exam was given. The exams were so difficult and the atmosphere so stressful that some people were driven to tears. It seemed that each one was worse than the last. The week after the exam came to be the time I dreaded most — when the test results were read aloud to the class.

“Grueling” was the word I most often use to describe those two years. However, our teachers were as wonderful as the work was difficult. The student-teacher ratio was about ten to one. They watched over us very carefully, always making corrections and giving encouragement. There were times when I sat there thinking that my Turkish just wasn’t good enough to understand a concept that was being presented. Then I would hear someone else sigh or make a remark to their neighbor, and I would realize I wasn’t alone.

Throughout history artists have used whatever materials were available to them. Paints used in decorating manuscripts were usually water-based and made from pigments found in nature. Blue from lapis lazuli, red and yellow from iron oxides, green from malachite, white lead and lamp black. Now we have convenient tubes of guache at our fingertips. We did, however, learn certain traditional processes for which there are no modern equivalents.

Once our drawing and painting skills reached a level where we were able to work on “real” projects, it was necessary to have properly prepared paper. No doubt you have noticed how paper yellows with age. Well, if you travel in the Middle East, do not be fooled into thinking that some piece of calligraphy in the bazaar is the work of a long-dead master. It has always been common practice to dye paper with tea, giving it a soft, creamy color. White paper is considered too harsh on the senses and a strain on the eyes of the artist. After the paper has dried, it is coated with an egg-white mixture and left to cure for at least six months. When burnished, the surface appears hard, but softens slightly with the application of paint or ink. In those few seconds before it accepts the paint, corrections can be easily made.

"Do you remember," an esoteric poem in old Ottoman Turkish. Calligraphy: Rosie Boyd. 9½" X 9½". Suleymaniye Library.

Towards the end of our first year, we began working with gold leaf. Until now, we used a metallic gold guache. It is the use of gold, shining and reflecting light, which gives us the term “illumination” (tezhib). Turning gold into paint is a long process. The gold has first been pounded and pressed into small paper-thin sheets, about 3″ square. These are purchased in little booklets of 25 sheets, each separated from the next by a layer of tissue paper. The “leaves” are very fragile, easily torn and rumpled by the slightest breath. A small amount of gum arabic is mixed with a few drops of water to form the medium for preparing the paint on a plain porcelain dish. One by one, the leaves are added to the mixture, carefully pulverizing and working each one until a smooth paste is made. Each sheet takes several minutes and a lot of hard rubbing with your finger, frequently adding water as the paste dries out. A few hours into this, one begins to understand why masters had apprentices. It takes about four hours to complete the preparation. It seemed endless the first time I did it. It looked nice and smooth to me, but the second-year student guiding me through this easily pointed out how the mixture still seemed grainy. Inadequately mixed gold can later cause serious problems when applying and burnishing it.

The most distinguishing characteristic of Islamic manuscript art is the complexity of its designs. In any piece using both water-based color and gold leaf, all of the gold work is done first. This is because the gold will have a mat finish unless it is burnished, and burnishing would scratch and mar other painted surfaces. Sometimes, when a solid gold background is desired, it may be left unpolished, especially to give contrast to other shiny areas. Burnishing is done with an agate (usually carnelian) attached to a comfortable handle.

We finished our first year of studies with a special gilding technique called halkari. This is used for large floral designs and has a very soft, delicate look. Flower petals and leaves are painted with very watered-down gold. Then details and outlining are done in fine solid gold lines. The result is at once subtle and striking.

Attending art school in Topkapi Palace Museum was an experience and opportunity that was unmatchable for its inspiration. We were surrounded by countless treasures. Beautiful works of art in every media — intricately decorated Qur’ans, swords carried by famous sultans, bejeweled coffee sets, richly embroidered kaftans and scarves, lush wool carpets, walls covered with tiles. Our lunch break might be spent scrutinizing the workmanship of a particular museum piece or appreciating the beauty of the gardens, while relaxing over tea. Like the rest of the city, the museum grounds have their resident cats and kittens. Since our classroom shared a building with the employees’ dining room, the cats were always nearby, providing company and entertainment.

Occasionally we went as a class to certain exhibits in the museum. One day was very special — a trip to the harem. It started out much as the regular tour a visitor would take with a museum guide. The tile work in the harem is exquisite, one of the most breathtaking areas of the palace. Two of our instructors were along, directing our attention to numerous rare and unusual types of decoration on the walls and furnishings. Then, we were led into an area that is off limits to visitors. We were in a part of the harem that is unrestored and unsafe. We were cautioned about stairs and railings and told to watch our step. Much of what we saw here was not lavishly decorated. The rooms were sectioned off, sometimes into tiny cubicles. Things were plain, even somewhat austere. These were the quarters of those women and girls who had not caught the eye of the sultan. This was how the other half lived, in dimly lit rooms along dark, narrow passageways. We didn’t stay long. There were few works of art here, but it left a lasting impression nonetheless.

"Hu Allah," He is God (Arabic). 9" X 9". Calligrapher: Mehmet Memis.

At the beginning of our second year, class size had diminished to only 22 of the original 35 students. Our friend, Seniha, arrived early the first day to claim a table for us nearest the heater and directly under a light. The routine was much the same, but we were now working on larger, more complex projects. We spent weeks developing designs. It was not unusual to redo a drawing four to six times before it was accepted and the painting could begin.

The winter of 1992-93 was terribly cold. Thick black ice covered the shady areas of streets and sidewalks. In our classroom was a single kerosene heater. My friends and I would joke about how many layers of clothing we were wearing. I remember sitting there holding my feet up off the floor, because the cold would seep up through my heavy boots and 3 pairs of socks!

With the coming of spring, we began our final projects. I chose to decorate an “Esma’i Husna” (“The Beautiful Names” – a listing of the qualities and attributes of the Divine). The piece has different sections to it, which could utilize a variety of design elements. In a large rectangular area containing the title, there are tiny flowers woven among golden clouds over a deep blue. A series of chain patterns separate the sections, with a wide outer border of halkari work on a green background. The design work, gilding and painting took 200 hours. I only completed about one third of it before the course was over. As I recall, there was just one student who finished the final assignment on time.

Each autumn, the graduating class holds an exhibit in the Topkapi Palace Museum Gallery. Diplomas are given at the opening ceremony and the exhibit serves as an inspiration for the new students. I doubt any of them realize what awaits them. For me, it was the rarest and most valuable opportunity of my life. Unforgettable.

Since her return to the U.S. in July, 1994, Rosie Boyd has participated in exhibits around the country. She enjoys combining shows with lecture/demonstrations and has presented programs at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Irvine campuses. Her goal is to promote understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture through art.

Rosie signs her work “Nurgul” (nur=light, gul=rose), a name bestowed upon her by the ebru master, Hikmet Barutcugil. She markets her work through her company, Crescent Designs.

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