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About what lies East of the dividing line
Melchior at the Sublime Porte︎︎︎

ملكيور في
الباب العالي

at the Sublime Porte

For the scholarly and political elites of France, England and the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman invasion of Jerusalem in 1517 and the Sultanate’s siege of Vienna in 1529 gave ample reason to consider dar-al Islam with worry, if not awe. The rise of the Ottoman Empire and its wars for domination in the Mediterranean posed a genuine threat to Christendom, by then still weak and vulnerable. By the 1530s, the Western Mediterranean was terror-struck at the threat posed by the Ottoman fleets and the Barbary corsairs of the Maghreb. No wonder that, in contrast to the Muslims’ relative interest for the scientific and intellectual developments in northern lands, European powers were never indifferent towards their oriental Others. From admiration, their perceptions tended towards both fear and desire. In this process of 'othering,' the journey to the rare and obscure Orient became an obsession.

Indeed, from the 16th century onwards, multiple residencies were created in Istanbul to host the artists, scientists and humanists arriving on diplomatic missions. These new sites made the capital of the Ottoman Empire a key node of artistic and knowledge production. Complementing the art of calligraphy and manuscript illumination, the novel format of painting on canvas became fashionable amongst Istanbulite elites, both Muslim and Christian. Soon, the visual records of Istanbul and the Ottoman court could be found hanging not only on the walls of the Grand Porte’s numerous European embassies but most importantly, in the 'Turkish rooms' of Swedish manor houses, Austrian castles and French châteaus.
April 25, 1555

Melchior Lorck opens the windows of his small engraving studio in central Nuremberg and inhales the fresh air of an unusually early spring day. A letter with the emblem of Ferdinand I, heir to the Habsburg throne, rests on his table. It contains nothing less than Melchior’s appointment to join the entourage that will travel to the court of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople. Just twenty-eight years old, he brims with excitement at the idea of embarking on a trip to the lands of the Muslims.
October 15, 1555

Upon their much-awaited arrival in Istanbul, Melchior and the rest of his entourage are received by the Sultan guards. Unaware of the dramatic events unfolding, they are sent into confinement at a nearby caravanserai. Back in central Europe, the Habsburgs are fending off an Ottoman offensive. Due to the hostilities, Melchior will have to spend the first year of his sojourn in Istanbul under arrest. In his cell, Melchior dedicates time to drawing, taking as his subjects his companions as well as the unsatisfying view of the city he has long dreamt of exploring.

A year later, a precarious agreement is reached, and finally Melchior can fully devote himself to his artistic ambitions.

Melchior Lorck’s body of visual depictions of the Ottomans are but one piece of the broader corpus of travelogues, memories and visual representations in which European diplomats, scholars, humanists and pilgrims narrated the Orient. Emphasizing Ottoman ritualism and extravagance, as well as the meticulous codification of social status, this repertoire was clearly shaped by its diplomatic context of creation. With limited access to more domestic spheres of life and non-elite cultural production, these men of letters primarily portrayed the state-sanctioned ceremonial milieux to which they were invited.

Such access to the diplomatic circles and the cultured elite of Istanbul was in itself precious. In many instances, it required mediation. The men who were charged with providing these services were called the Dragomans, or tarjumāns. At once interpreters and translators, these men effectively acted as guides between Turkish, Arabic and Persian-speaking countries, on the one hand, and European embassies, consulates, vice-consulates and trading posts on the other. As had been the case for their Arab counterparts visiting the exotic lands of the far East centuries before, the artists and diplomats who arrived in Istanbul and throughout the lands of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century also developed an obsession for the marvelous and the unfamiliar, the gharib al-lugha. The Dragomans, far from disappointing their hosts' search for the exotic, actively promoted the quest for the Other through staged self-orientalizing. Indeed, the field of knowledge that ultimately became the discipline of Orientalism can be said to have emerged dialogically, over the course of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, within the diplomatic Istanbulite milieu. As Tagliaferri (2014) argues, 'we cannot talk about a European perspective on the Ottomans without considering how these perspectives emerged through sustained dialogue with these uniquely positioned Ottoman subjects.'
Although it is not certain that Melchior had access to such privilege, his residency in Istanbul was certainly fruitful and inspiring. Upon his return to Vienna three years later, he worked on the monumental Prospect of Constantinople, an image of the city as seen from across the Golden Horn at Galata. This drawing, 11 metres long and 45 centimetres high, drawn in great detail on 21 sheets, is considered to be one of the hallmarks of early Western topography. Aware of his important achievement, Melichor did not hesitate to draw his own portrait in one of its corners.

Melchior disappears from the historical records in 1583. At the time, he was working on a large stock of woodblocks, which he intended to fashion into a monumental work depicting Ottoman society. He would name this work the Turkish Publication. The magnificence of the Prospect of Constantinople and the Turkish Publication attests to the increasing appetite for all things ‘Ottoman,’ and for that matter ‘Oriental,’ within the nascent European bourgeoisie. The work of Melchior paved the path for what can be understood as one of the most complex attempts to fictionalise the Other, the so-called Orient:  the vast intellectual and artistic edifice that Edward Said would eventually call Orientalism.

As complex processes of fictionalisation and identification, Othering and self-Othering  oftentimes produce unexpected outcomes. Orientalist paintings are a case in point: while they continue to be seen by many as an extension of the colonial endeavour in Arab lands, they are nowadays becoming popular among the very people whom they supposedly caricature. As London-based Sotheby’s auction house director Claude Piening recently affirmed: in 2019, '75 percent of all Orientalist paintings are sold to collectors and museums in the wider Islamic world.'

For example, Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, sovereign ruler of Sharjah, the third-most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, has a major collection of Orientalist art, which was proudly exhibited at the Sharjah Art Museum in 2013. Other major institutions promoting the value of Orientalism are the Doha Orientalist Museum and the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia (IAMM).

Julia Tugwell, co-curator of the polemical British Museum show Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art, which was inaugurated in October 2019, states that many of these Middle Eastern and North African collectors of Orientalist paintings 'see these artworks as important visual records and interpretations of their heritage.' In the same line, Claude Piening also argues that Orientalism provides a pictorial history of a region that is otherwise lacking in visual self-representations: 'Until relatively recently, visual artists from the region were not painting in a figurative style. Islamic art was much more object-based, geometry-based, craft-based. Therefore, no visual record was being made by the people from the country. Furthermore, many of the subjects depicted, such as the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus or the souqs of Jaffa, have been victims of conflicts in the Middle East over the last century, making these visual records that much more poignant.' Interestingly, the same decade that saw Edward Said publish his influential critique of Orientalism — the 1970s — also saw  the Najd Collection emerge in Saudi Arabia as one of the most complete assemblages of Orientalist paintings. Sadly, the critique of the current Orientalist revival is a far cry from the sophisticated discourse developed by Said. For example, we read in Sumaya Kassim’s 2019 article on the British Museum exhibition that: 'White people are taught to be curious, to be fascinated' and 'Muslims are regarded through an Orientalist lens which insists that we are irredeemably primitive, submissive, reactive, languid, devoid of an interior life.' With its essentialist decolonial jargon, this statement worryingly simplifies a much more complex reality. As Said stated more than 30 years ago, 'Cultures are too mixed, their contents and histories are too interdependent and hybrid to subject them to surgical operations that isolate large-scale opposition, basically ideological, such as East and West' and for that matter ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Rather than proposing a thoughtful and transformative argument, Kassim does little more than exemplify the shaky foundations of radical criticism today.

Against this simplistic grain, Darat al Funun’s Dissertation Fellowship for Modern and Contemporary Arab Art can be seen as a testament to the broader push toward in-depth research on Arab visual cultures.

Reshaping Istanbul (2017) [Video, 3’56] Istanbul (Turkey): Catà, P.

Darat al Funun
The Khalid Shoman Foundation

In 2011, Darat al Funun announced the establishment of its Dissertation Fellowship for Modern and Contemporary Arab Art. Unique in its type, the fellowship provides financial support for PhD researchers working in the fields of the humanities and arts of the Arab world. One or two fellowships are granted each year. The duration of the fellowships ranges from four to six months. During their residency period, fellows are expected to pursue their own research, to give at least one public lecture, and to participate in Darat al Funun’s cultural and artistic activities. Since 2012, twelve PhD researchers have been selected to be part of the program. They have investigated topics such as modern and contemporary art in postcolonial Morocco, the role of exhibitions in the reception of modern and contemporary art from the Arab world since the late 1990s, artistic communities in the occupied Palestinian territories, Baghdad’s transitional modernism (1950–1965) or art and political parity in early 20th - century Palestine, to name just a few. Interestingly enough, these timely and original investigations are carried out by Arab and non-Arab researchers alike, many of whom are developing their projects from within prestigious Western institutions such as Cornell University, University College London, University of Oxford, Harvard University, the University of British Columbia and, as it is the case of the present project, the University of Edinburgh.
On the journey between the Same and the Other, simplistic meta-narratives should be avoided and debilitating, empirical counter-examples must be taken into account. Darat al Funun’ researcher-in-residence fellowship in Amman is a unique example of such efforts.